Since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no one has dared to use atomic bombs. The effect was too destructive, too devastating. Yet there has always been the desire of some strategists to use this powerful weapon – for a limited nuclear strike, as an option of a credible deterrent. Because the warheads are getting smaller, the carrier systems are becoming more precise and the geopolitical situation is getting worse, such ideas could well be heard. An overview of the development of nuclear weapons, their impact, the logic of the new nuclear armament and its risks.

How do nuclear weapons work?

The effect of nuclear weapons is not based on chemical reactions, but on nuclear fission or nuclear fusion of radioactive materials. It releases enormous energy in the form of heat, pressure and radiation. The atomic bomb is the most powerful and dangerous weapon ever developed.

The first atomic bombs were based on nuclear fission of plutonium and uranium and were used twice by the US in 1945 with devastating consequences – to date, they remain the only atomic bomb deployments. Hydrogen bombs have been around since 1953. They do not derive their energy from nuclear fission, but from nuclear fusion. During the Cold War, the superpowers bet on as many megatons of TNT equivalent as possible in the arms race: the uranium and plutonium bombs appear tiny compared to the hydrogen bombs up to 4,000 times more powerful. These mega-weapons have prevailed.

What are the implications of nuclear weapons?

Nuclear weapons are among the most destructive weapons of mankind. The explosion releases enormous amounts of energy. The extraordinary pressure and heat wave wipes out everything in the immediate vicinity – whether people, buildings or nature. The pressure causes lung and ear injuries as well as internal bleeding in people at a slightly greater distance, the intense heat severe burns.

In addition, there is a high level of radiation exposure: radioactive material is carried up and falls down again within a few minutes. This radioactive precipitation contaminates a large area around the explosion site. High doses of radiation kill cells, damage organs and lead to rapid death, lower doses damage cells, lead to genetic damage and increased risk of cancer (breast, bowel, thyroid and leukemia) and cardiovascular disease. However, the atmosphere is rather small in amounts of radioactive material, so that there is no such immense radiation of the area for decades as, for example, in an accident at a nuclear power plant in which large amounts of radioactive particles are released. The danger therefore lies in the immediate, extremely high radiation exposure, which damages unborn life and causes long-term damage to the people concerned and later generations.

Which countries still have how many nuclear weapons today?

Nine countries worldwide are considered nuclear powers:

  • United States
  • Russia
  • France
  • Great Britain
  • China
  • India
  • Pakistan
  • Israel
  • North Korea

The US, Russia, Britain, France and China have detonated a hydrogen bomb. These five “official” nuclear-weapon states are recognized by the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The other four “de facto” nuclear-weapon states are not members of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

While some countries are open about their nuclear arsenal, others do not know how many warheads they actually have. There are almost 13,400 nuclear weapons worldwide, more than 90 percent of which are owned by the two military superpowers, the United States and Russia, each with around 6,000 nuclear warheads. This large number of nuclear weapons is the result of decades of cold-war arms race.


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