Updated Mar 10, 2018

How the world's inventory of nuclear weapons grew — then shrunk again

There are 85% fewer nuclear warheads in the world today than there were during the peak of the Cold War, but proliferation continues to be a threat with newer, younger powers like North Korea adding weapons to their arsenals.

A look at where things stand...

Data: Federation of American Scientists; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon / Axios
The facts
  • Today, there are approximately 15,000 nuclear warheads in military stockpiles around the world — and over 90% of them belong to the U.S. or Russia.
  • But the U.S. and Russia have shrunk their respective arsenals by a combined 55,000 nuclear warheads since the late 1980s. About 6,000 of those have been removed from military stockpiles but are still awaiting dismantlement.
  • Despite tense relations between the U.S. and Russia, the two countries have been successful in working together to reduce their stockpiles of warheads.
  • But while the number of warheads has gone down, both nations are actively modernizing their weapons, making them harder to detect and more lethal than ever before. "The Pentagon envisions a new age in which nuclear weapons are back in a big way ... Russia has accelerated a dangerous game that the United States must match, even if the price tag soars above $1.2 trillion," the New York Times reports.
  • The most recent nation to acquire nuclear weapons is the North Korean regime, which is estimated to have at least 15 warheads, though some experts say that figure could be as high as 80.
  • As western nations steadily shrunk their arsenals after the signing of the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968, Pakistan and India engaged in a nuclear arms race, adding over a hundred warheads to their respective arsenals over 20 years.
Behind the numbers
  • The 1968 treaty was a turning point in the Nuclear Age. Adopted by 190 states, the treaty is an agreement to stop the spread of nuclear weapons technology, while allowing the spread of nuclear power.
  • "The NPT is the most successful public policy push of the 20th century," Jim Walsh of MIT's Security Studies Program told reporters at an event at Harvard's Nieman Foundation. "It has survived, and only gotten stronger, over time."
  • But not every nation signed on. India, Pakistan and Israel opted out of the treaty, and recently, North Korea violated the terms of the treaty by developing nuclear warheads. Today, South Asia and North Korea are the two most unstable regions in terms of potential nuclear conflict.
  • The countries that do have nuclear weapons have stabilized through "deterrence theory," which is the idea that states will not attack one another because their mutual destruction through nuclear war is assured.
  • Israel has maintained its weapons to counter the potential of Iran and Saudi Arabia becoming nuclear states. Iran's nuclear weapons program has been temporarily halted by the Iran nuclear deal, which President Trump has threatened to pull the U.S. out of.

Go deeper

Trump brushes off North Korea "Christmas gift"

President Trump on Dec. 24. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

President Trump on Tuesday dismissed North Korea's threat of a "Christmas gift" for the U.S., saying the military would “deal with it very successfully," Reuters reports.

Why it matters: North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un said in October that the U.S. had until year’s end to propose new concessions in talks over his country’s nuclear arsenal and warned the U.S. to not ignore the deadline.

Go deeperArrowDec 24, 2019

Booker's departure leaves a nuclear energy gap in 2020 race

Cory Booker. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Sen. Cory Booker's exit from the 2020 White House race means the field is losing a nuclear advocate whose views clashed with some top contenders.

The big picture: The Washington Examiner's Abby Smith points out that Booker "didn’t hold back in his criticism of his Democratic counterparts skeptical of nuclear energy’s role in a low-carbon future."

Go deeperArrowJan 14, 2020

Kim Jong-un announces end to moratorium on nuclear weapon tests

Kim Jong Un giving his New Year's speech on Dec. 30, 2019. Photo: Jung Yeon-je/AFP via Getty Images

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said in a New Year's speech that his country would abandon a self-imposed moratorium on testing nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles, declaring that there "will never be denuclearization on the Korean peninsula" unless the U.S. drops its "hostile" policies, according to state media.

Why it matters: North Korea has not conducted a nuclear or long-range missile test in more than two years, hoping for a breakthrough in negotiations spurred by Kim's friendly personal relationship with President Trump, according to the New York Times. Trump has often touted this moratorium as a diplomatic achievement.

Go deeperArrowUpdated Jan 1, 2020