In Depth

Which countries have nuclear weapons?

Total global tally of nukes has dropped from 70,000 to around 14,000 in past 55 years

The five permanent member states of the UN Security Council have pledged to work together to achieve “a world without nuclear weapons”. 

In what The Guardian described as a “rare joint pledge to reduce the risk of such a conflict ever starting”, China, Russia, Britain, the US and France agreed that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”. The statement of agreement echoed a commitment made by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev at a 1985 summit and was signed earlier this month “ahead of a review of a key nuclear treaty later this year”, said Al Jazeera.

“We also affirm that nuclear weapons – for as long as they continue to exist – should serve defensive purposes, deter aggression, and prevent war,” said the five nations.

‘Moment of truth’

The joint statement “comes as tensions between the world powers have risen to heights rarely seen in recent decades”, said CNN.

The “massing” of Russian troops on its border with Ukrainian has triggered “alarms in Washington, London and Paris”. And increased Chinese military activity around Taiwan “has spiked tensions between Beijing and Washington and its Pacific allies”, the broadcaster added.

Joe Biden is also facing a “moment of truth” over Iran’s nuclear programme, wrote Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies policy institute, and former Pentagon adviser Matthew Kroenig, in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal (WSJ). “A nuclear-armed Iran would cause further proliferation as regional powers like Saudi Arabia build their own bombs.”

Amid that looming threat, “mistrust between Tehran and Washington is deeper than ever”, said the Financial Times –  the “legacy” of Donald Trump’s decision to “unilaterally abandon” the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, during his tenure in the White House. 

Nuclear possessor states

“At the dawn of the nuclear age, the US hoped to maintain a monopoly on its new weapon,” according to the Arms Control Association (ACA). “But the secrets and the technology for building the atomic bomb soon spread.”

A total of at least 31 countries have “flirted with nuclear weapons at one time or another”, said The Economist

Nine nations are currently known to have nuclear arms.

Latest data from the Arms Control Association suggests that more than 90% of the world’s total nuclear warheads belong to Russia and the US. Putin is believed to be sitting on “the world’s biggest stockpile of nuclear warheads”, with an estimated total of 6,257, “followed closely” by the US, at 5,500, said CNN. 

China, France and the UK “round out the top five”, the broadcaster continued, with 350, 290 and 225 respectively. 

The UN Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which came into force in 1970, classifies these five countries as nuclear weapon states (NWS). The treaty committed the UN’s 191 member states to preventing the further spread of nuclear weapons, with a goal of achieving total disarmament.

The total number of nuclear weapons in the world has decreased from 70,000 in 1968 to around 14,000, according to the BBC

However, three states who did not sign the historic treaty are known to possess nuclear arsenals. The Arms Control Association estimates that Pakistan has 165 nuclear warheads and that India has 156, while Israel is thought to have 90.

North Korea is also believed to have between 40 and 50 warheads, “which it sees as insurance against a pre-emptive attack by the US”, wrote the BBC’s security correspondent Frank Gardner. The hermit state has conducted a series of nuclear tests since withdrawing from the NPT in 2003.

The country’s state media agency KCNA reported that a hypersonic missile had successfully been tested at the start of 2022, news that “will alarm its neighbours, notably Japan and South Korea”, Gardner continued. This type of weapon is “unpredictable” and “hard to intercept”, and “they also leave nations guessing whether they are carrying a conventional high explosive warhead or a nuclear one”.

Iran, Iraq and Libya have also breached the treaty’s terms by pursuing nuclear activities, “and Syria is suspected of having done the same”, said the Arms Control Association.

The Economist cautioned that while the nuclear ambitions of “geopolitical minnows” such as Libya and Syria may be quashed, “in the next decade the threat is likely to include economic and diplomatic heavyweights whose ambitions would be harder to restrain”. 

The Arms Control Assocation struck a more positive note, noting that “dire decades-old forecasts that the world would soon be home to dozens of nuclear-armed have not come to pass”.

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