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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Backgrounder: The Nuclear Club and its Potential New Members

Council on Foreign Relations

Author: Kathleen Sutcliffe
November 17, 2006


Seeking to forestall a global nuclear war, the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) formally divided the world into “nuclear weapon states” and “nonnuclear weapon states.” Resentment and suspicion between the nuclear “haves” and “have-nots” have lingered ever since. Today, in addition to the five official nuclear powers, three others – India, Pakistan, and now, North Korea – have sidestepped the NPT and publicly conducted nuclear weapon tests. And though it has never confirmed it, Israel is widely believed to have a nuclear weapons program outside the NPT. The NPT and other treaties have kept the number of nuclear states from rising to the doomsday level predicted by President John F. Kennedy. But a long list of nuclear aspirants remains and with North Korea’s recent nuclear test and Iran’s uranium enrichment activities, the treaty faces new stresses.

How large is the world’s nuclear arsenal?

The global nuclear arms race reached its peak in 1986 with the five nuclear powers accumulating more than 70,000 nuclear warheads. The number of intact nuclear warheads has since declined to about 27,000, according to a global Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists nuclear stockpile report prepared by Robert S. Norris of the Natural Resources Defense Council and Hans M. Kristensen, of the Federation of American Scientists. The vast majority of these warheads belong to the United States and Russia.

Who are the world’s nuclear powers?

The first five countries to develop and test nuclear weapons, the “Big Five,” wield United Nations Security Council veto power in addition to having nuclear arsenals.

  • United States is believed to have more than 10,000 nuclear warheads, down from its Cold War peak of 24,401.


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Copyright 2006 by the Council on Foreign Relations. This material is republished on GlobalSecurity.org with specific permission from the cfr.org. Reprint and republication queries for this article should be directed to cfr.org.

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