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Nuclear weapons are among the most destructive devices ever created by humanity and continue to represent a significant threat to human security. Nuclear weapons are also occasionally referred to as thermonuclear weapons or atomic weapons, although all function in approximately the same way. Fission weapons are based on the principle that a sufficient mass of appropriately treated uranium or plutonium will, once it has reached a critical mass, spontaneously explode. Consequently, two masses of the appropriate metal are, to trigger the detonation, forced together by some means. Fusion weapons aim to create conditions in which a thermonuclear fuel such as deuterium will be ignited, through using a fission-based triggering detonation, in a similar process to that which takes place in stars (these are known as hydrogen bombs).
The enormously powerful explosions produced by nuclear weapons mean that it is necessary to project the weapon some distance away to strike against an enemy without endangering the home territory and assets. This means that nuclear weapons are mostly designed to launch via missiles, with the warhead in which the subcritical masses are contained riding this vehicle and programmed to explode at a distance.
Airplanes, submarines, or satellites launch missiles, and these are usually strategic in nature, which means they have a large payload (explosive capacity) and are designed to launch over thousands of miles. The American Cruise Missiles are archetypical strategic nuclear missiles. In addition to strategic weapons, tactical nuclear weapons have been designed that are intended for battlefield usage against hardened or fortified targets with a comparatively low destructive level, although still far more destructive than nonnuclear or conventional weapons systems. As of 2006, the only nuclear weapons that had been exploded in warfare were the two atomic bombs dropped by the United States on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. These weapons killed many thousands, both through the effects of the blasts themselves, but also subsequently from cancers and similar diseases resulting from radioactive fallout. Since then, fear of nuclear weapons has resulted as much from the threat of horrible wasting diseases as the possibility of instant death.
There has been a considerable amount of secrecy concerning which nations possess nuclear weapons and which do not. In addition to the United States, Russia (formerly part of the Soviet Union), France, the United Kingdom, and China also have the ability to launch nuclear weapons. India and Pakistan were permitted by U.S.-led world opinion to obtain such devices at the beginning of the 21st century. It is widely believed that Israel and South Africa also possess weapons, but neither has formally acknowledged this. Some concern exists as to the possibility that North Korea or Iran will pursue a nuclear weapons program.
The International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA), part of the United Nations, manages regulation of nuclear energy and weapons programs around the world. In general terms, the IAEA permits states to pursue nuclear energy programs, but not nuclear weapons programs outside of exceptional circumstances.
The need to control the proliferation of nuclear weapons started during the Cuban missile crisis of
1962, in which the possibility that the Soviet Union would place nuclear weapons on the territory of its ally, very close to the continental United States, in response to American deployments of weapons close to Soviet territory, nearly brought about a nuclear war.
During the decades of the cold war, the prevailing ideology was that of mutually assured destruction (MAD), which was based on the understanding that, owing to the many thousands of
warheads that had been stockpiled over the years, any attack by one side would inevitably lead to the annihilation of everyone concerned. During the 1970s, a series of bipolar negotiations managed to ease tension and provided for the reduction of nuclear warheads in some categories. This included the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). In 1986, after the ending of the cold war by Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev and the dissolution of the Soviet system, the world has been moving toward a new ideology to minimize the likelihood of the use of nuclear weapons in an essentially unipolar world.
Much anxiety exists about the possibility of terrorists obtaining nuclear material that could be used as a weapon, which would be more likely to be left as a bomb to be exploded remotely rather than launched by missile. A missile would require a higher level of technology than it is imagined that terrorist organizations could deploy and it would provide more of a warning for potential targets. Nevertheless, there remain considerable concerns about the security of old and decommissioned weapons and the possible environmental impact of weapons new or old releasing radioactive material into the atmosphere.
- Fox and S. Orman, “Do We Still Live in a MAD World?” The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies (v.30/2, 2005);
- William Lambers, Nuclear Weapons (Lambers Publications, 2006).