Frequently Asked Questions about Nuclear Weapons

Nuclear weapons aren’t that bad! Right?

So, who exactly has nuclear weapons?

How many does the US have? How many do we really need?

How much does the US spend on nuclear weapons?

But isn’t the official U.S. stance to denuclearize?

Are nuclear weapons legal?

Being scared of nuclear war is kind of, like, an old person problem. The Cold War is over, right?

Where are they?!

What international agreements is the US currently in about nuclear weapons? How are they enforced?

Is disarmament realistic? How do we get there?

Doesn’t the US need its own nuclear weapons as a deterrent?

Who decides when to launch U.S. nuclear weapons?

Wouldn’t they have to get approval from Congress?

Isn’t that kinda messed up?

Well at least there are a lot of systems in place to keep a check on this power… right?

How close have we been to launching nuclear weapons?

How much do we know about the nuclear program? Surely this information is broadly available for the public!!

What’s your favorite metaphor to describe nuclear standoffs?

I’m depressed.

What can I do now?

Nuclear weapons aren’t that bad! Right?

Wrong! Nuclear weapons are very bad: the blast is hotter than the sun; they are indiscriminate, killing citizens and civilians alike; they are incredibly powerful; they have horrific effects on the environment; they are expensive; they are too much power for any person to be in charge of. This website will simulate the damage a nuke can do to your hometown (and nuclear weapons emit radiation and have the potential to cause, yikes, a thermonuclear fire).  

So, who exactly has nuclear weapons?

The United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea have nuclear weapons. The U.S. and Russia combined possess over 90% of the world’s nuclear arsenal.

How many does the US have? How many do we really need?

As of January 2018 the U.S. had 6,550 weapons: 2,550 retired and 4,000 active warheads. If you want to ask Beyond the Bomb, we need zero. No one needs a nuclear weapon.

How much does the US spend on nuclear weapons?

It’s hard to say exactly, but on average $50 billion a year. Yes, $50,000,000,000 U.S. dollars. And that’s just an estimate. The U.S. government isn’t exactly forthcoming with this information, but they also might not exactly know themselves. The money goes into research and development, but mostly maintaining and updating the existing stockpile. And the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review calls for additional nuclear weapons programs including the development of two new weapons.

But isn’t the official U.S. stance to denuclearize?

Politicians say a lot of things! The nuclear arsenal has certainly decreased since the Cold War, and a lot of leaders have vowed that the U.S. will be a leader in nuclear disarmament. Even the most recent Nuclear Posture Review, released in early 2018, says that the U.S. “remains committed to its efforts in support of the ultimate global elimination of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.” But actions speak louder than words, and the current administration’s words and actions have shown they’re not serious about reducing the number of nuclear weapons.

Are nuclear weapons legal?

Short answer: It’s complicated. There is no treaty or international law that bans the use of nuclear weapons.  In 1996, the International Court of Justice wrote an opinion that said “the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary” to the rules of law, but the Court “could not conclude definitively whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be lawful or unlawful in an extreme circumstance of self-defence.” The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, adopted by the United Nations in July 2017, explicitly bans nuclear weapons. Seventy countries have signed on and 19 have ratified. The treaty needs 50 countries to ratify for it to enter into force. None of the nuclear-armed countries have signed and, therefore, even if the treaty were to come into force, it wouldn’t preclude the use of nuclear weapons.

Being scared of nuclear war is kind of, like, an old person problem. The Cold War is over, right?

Yes, the Cold War is over. But as long as nuclear weapons exist in the world, the threat of nuclear war exists. We can turn to the Doomsday Clock, which has been a trusted indicator of how close the world is to nuclear war. The clock was first set to two minutes to midnight in 1953, after the US and Soviet Union began testing thermonuclear devices. In 2018, the clock was set once again to two minutes to midnight, because of the threat of both nuclear conflict and climate change (The furthest it’s been from midnight was 17 minutes, in 1991).

Where are they?!

They’re everywhere! Okay, not everywhere, but more places than you think. The US has weapons in eleven different states and five European countries.

What international agreements is the US currently in about nuclear weapons? How are they enforced?

The past two decades have seen a breakdown of some of the most important arms control treaties, including the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and, most recently, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. (For a rundown of some major nuclear treaties, check out this page). But three that are still in force that shape the state of nuclear diplomacy are:

  • The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT): Opened for signature in 1968, this treaty limits the spread of nuclear weapons to countries already possessing them at that time, and promotes cooperation on the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. (It’s worth noting, however, that three of the nine nuclear-armed states – India, Israel, and Pakistan — did not sign the NPT and North Korea withdrew in 2003 before conducting its first nuclear test three years later.)
  • The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT): The treaty was adopted in 1996, and bans nuclear weapons testing. The U.S. has signed but not ratified the CTBT.
  • The Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (whew! You can just say “New START”) – This treaty between the U.S. and Russia limits the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads each country can have to 1,550. The treaty, a bedrock of U.S.-Russia arms control, expires in 2021. The U.S. and Russia can extend it for another five years with a simple signed agreement from the two presidents.
  • The Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty was a treaty made in the age of shoulder pads and disco balls (1987), but is far less outdated. Or so we thought. The treaty reduced both Russia and the US’s nuclear arsenal and restricted the number of weapons in Europe. Unfortunately, this administration has chosen to pull out of it.

Is disarmament realistic? How do we get there?

Disarmament is realistic. We know this because of the determined leaders who have used diplomacy effectively to get rid of weapons. We also know this because countries have disarmed in the past: take South Africa, which ended its nuclear weapons program and dismantled its existing weapons in 1989. One great step forward toward disarmament is adopting No First Use legislation, and pressuring our leaders to set more ambitious disarmament goals for the future.

Doesn’t the US need its own nuclear weapons as a deterrent?

A hard truth: no one wins in a nuclear war. If a nuclear war were to happen, millions of innocent lives would be lost on all sides. Deterrence logic is like a game of chicken where, no matter who shoots first, destruction is guaranteed for everybody.

Who decides when to launch U.S. nuclear weapons?

The President and the President alone. Check this out for an in-depth look at the U.S. nuclear launch procedures.

Wouldn’t they have to get approval from Congress?

Nope. The decision is completely in the President’s hands. Everybody else involved in the decision-making process is only there to advise them. .

Isn’t that kinda messed up?

Sure is! In fact, some have argued that the President’s ability to launch a nuclear attack at any moment without Congress’s (or anybody else’s!) approval is itself unconstitutional.

Well at least there are a lot of systems in place to keep a check on this power… right?

Not really. Once the order is given, it has to be verified that the person giving in the order is indeed the President. Once that’s done, no one has the legal authority to reverse that decision, no matter how inappropriate it seems.

How close have we been to launching nuclear weapons?

Scary close. Because the nuclear launch process is designed to take place quickly and with limited information, it’s very easy for a false alarm to slip by unnoticed. This list will show you how many times in your lifetime the world has been brought to the brink of nuclear conflict.

How much do we know about the nuclear program? Surely this information is broadly available for the public!!

It should come as no surprise to anybody who’s read a Tom Clancy novel that many of the details of the U.S. nuclear weapons establishment are kept very, very secret. And although disarmament remains popular among those who feel that their lives are threatened by nuclear weapons (and remember, that’s everybody, including people in nuclear-armed countries!), this shroud of secrecy around the nuclear establishment helps keep nuclear decision-making in the hands of the so-called “nuclear priesthood.”

What’s your favorite metaphor to describe nuclear standoffs?

Carl Sagan has this good one: “The nuclear arms race is like two sworn enemies standing waist deep in gasoline, one with three matches, the other with five.”

I’m depressed.

We understand. Here’s 30 minutes of dogs to cheer you up. But here’s the good news: you can do something about this! Start a Beyond the Bomb hub, educate yourself, hold the people in power accountable! We can end this crisis in our lifetime.

What can I do now?

Great Q! The new Congress will be considering No First Use legislation. We have a lot of tools to help you get the word out and urge  your representative to make a difference. Call your representative! Take our pledge! Write a letter to the editor!