From Nuclear Threat Initiative
1776 Eye Street, NW
Washington, DC 20006
DESPITE PROGRESS, THE NUCLEAR THREAT IS MORE COMPLEX AND UNPREDICTABLE THAN EVER.
If a nuclear weapon exploded in a major city, the blast center would be hotter than the surface of the sun; tornado-strength winds would spread the flames; and a million or more people could die. Survivors would have no electricity, no transportation, no phones—and hospitals would be overwhelmed … if they were still standing.
Today, nine countries-China, India, Israel, France, North Korea, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States—hold nearly 16,000 nuclear weapons. That’s enough to destroy the planet hundreds of times over.
While it has been more than twenty years since the end of the Cold War, the existence of thousands of nuclear weapons continues to pose a serious global threat. The likelihood of a nuclear war between the United States and Russia has decreased, but the continued presence of large stockpiles makes the accidental or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons a persistent risk. Many of the countries with smaller nuclear arsenals, such as India and Pakistan, are actively engaged in regional conflicts, making the possibility of regional nuclear war a concern. North Korea illicitly acquired nuclear weapons, and other countries, including Syria, have violated their nuclear safeguards commitments and are suspected of covertly pursuing nuclear weapons capabilities.
Two countries—the United States and Russia—hold the vast majority of the world’s nuclear weapons. The former Cold War foes account for 93 percent of the total global stockpile. And more than two decades after the end of the Cold War, the two countries still keep nearly 2,000 nuclear weapons on high alert, ready for immediate launch against each other. That leaves both countries too vulnerable to nuclear launch by accident, miscalculation or even cyber attack.
My bottom line — we are in a race between cooperation and catastrophe. This is a race that mankind must win.
Former Senator Sam Nunn
We know that terrorists are seeking nuclear weapons. Today, there are more than 1,800 metric tons of weapons-usable nuclear materials-highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium—stored in hundreds of sites across 25 countries, some of them poorly secured. To build a bomb, terrorists won’t necessarily look to the biggest stockpiles; they’ll go where nuclear materials are the most vulnerable. That makes global nuclear security only as strong as the weakest link in the chain.
Command and control systems are not perfect. People make mistakes. Sabotage can happen. Technology has flaws and systems fail. The possibility of an unauthorized launch—or even an authorized launch without time for due consideration—is simply too high.
Leadership at the Nuclear Brink: Dr. William J. Perry
Nuclear technology and the know-how to build a bomb is no longer a monopoly controlled by states. The threat of cyber-terrorism looms large, and experts are working furiously to keep up with cyber vulnerabilities that could be exploited by hackers to initiate a catastrophe.
Bitter regional rivalries in the Middle East, Northeast Asia, South Asia and elsewhere pose clear and present nuclear dangers to global security. These rivalries raise the risk that a nuclear weapon might be used in a deliberate attack, and the consequences of a regional nuclear exchange would reverberate across the globe.
It’s not all bad news. Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan gave up the weapons they inherited in the breakup of the Soviet Union. South Africa voluntarily dismantled its nuclear weapons. The number of weapons in the United States and Russia has dropped significantly since the height of the Cold War—through diplomacy and cooperation. More than 50 countries have participated in head-of-state-level Nuclear Security Summits to prevent nuclear terrorism. Most recently, world powers reached an agreement with Iran to implement a stringent monitoring and verification regime to prevent Iran from building a bomb.
Despite progress, however, the nuclear threat—once represented by duck-and-cover drills—is more complex and more unpredictable today than ever.