Currently, as far as we know, there are nine countries with nuclear arsenals — the nine most dangerous nations on Earth: the US, Russia, China, the UK, Israel, India, Pakistan, France, and North Korea. Collectively, the axis of evil. And madness. And war. And ecocide. And abuse. And vacuity… You get the idea. The point is we’re not in safe hands, and the closer you look the more troubling it gets.
Here are 10 terrifying truths about nukes.
10. Nuclear-armed nations spend $156,000 per minute on their bombs
Ever wondered why so many people in wealthy nations languish in abject poverty? Look no further than military spending, in particular on nuclear weapons. In 2021, amid a global pandemic — not to mention a climate crisis — the nine stupidest countries “squandered” $82.4 billion on their arsenals, the equivalent of $156,000 per minute. Besides maintenance, management, disposal, and so on, this includes spending on lobbyists to lie to the public. As the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons pointed out, this extreme expenditure has so far yielded zero (some would say less than zero) improvements in global security.
The record gets worse. Between 1940 and 1996, the US alone spent an estimated $5.8 trillion on nuclear weapons and related programs. This figure — which is a conservative estimate, the minimum it could be — places nuclear weapons spending third overall in federal government spending, behind other Defense (in first place) and Social Security (in second, although a large part of Social Security spending is from recipients essentially paying for themselves, e.g. retirement funds). Meanwhile, nuclear weapons spending exceeds that on education, social services and employment, agriculture, the environment, science, community development (including disaster relief), law enforcement, and energy combined. Stacked in dollar bills, nuclear weapons spending would form a 459,000-mile-high tower of cash — reaching almost to the Moon and back.
9. Hiroshima and Nagasaki represent less than 0.1% of all detonations
Only twice have nuclear weapons been used for their intended purpose, the indiscriminate murder of hundreds of thousands of civilians. But Truman’s war crimes in Japan were only the beginning. Together, the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki represent less than 0.1% of all nukes ever detonated on Earth; there have been over 2,000 nuclear tests since.
Until the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, many took place in the atmosphere, spreading cancer-causing radioactive materials far and wide. Then tests largely moved underground — but continued to irradiate the atmosphere. Others have occurred at surface level, on land or at sea, far from the bombers’ backyards — usually in the homelands of indigenous people. The iconic test at the Bikini Atoll, for instance, left the island chain uninhabitable and, to this day, natives are unable to return. The UK’s nuclear testing, meanwhile, centered on Aboriginal land in the Australian outback.
8. There are more than 12,000 nukes in the world
Although the Axis of Stupidity’s stockpile of nuclear weapons has been greatly reduced since their peak in the Cold War era (when there were 60,000 bombs in the world), the number of nukes remains high. In early 2023, it was estimated that the nine nuclear-armed countries have roughly 12,500 warheads between them. The US and Russia have the most — 89 percent of the total or more than 5,000 each.
The other seven countries, including China, see no need for more than several hundred. But many are proliferating regardless. The UK, for example, recently increased its cap on nuclear warheads by 40%, from 180 to 260. It has also decided, like the Biden administration (despite its pledge for nuclear transparency), not to disclose stockpiles in the future.
Of the 12,500 worldwide, only 2,000 are on high alert — ready to launch in an instant. But to put this in perspective, just one of the US Navy’s nuclear-armed submarines, with its 24 warheads, carries “seven times the destructive power of all the bombs dropped during World War II” — including the nukes dropped on Japan.
7. Many are in continual transit
Thankfully, America’s mind-blowingly idiotic Chrome Dome operation ended in 1968 — though not without catastrophe. The sub-hare-brained policy of keeping a dozen nuclear-armed bombers in the air at all times led, unsurprisingly, to a number of flirtations with oblivion, including the 1966 Palomares disaster (more on that later) and the 1968 Thule disaster, where a B-52 carrying four nukes crashed through a Greenland ice sheet.
Between 1968 and 1991, lessons learned, nuclear-armed bombers were on ground alert instead. However, Bush the First ended that with his Presidential Nuclear Initiative. Nowadays they’re back in the air. Whenever they need shifting from military bases to storage facilities and back again, depending on the day’s paranoid aggression, they’re loaded onto C-17 and C-130 cargo planes.
They’re also moved by road on booby-trapped tractor trailers, as well as by submarine. The UK, for instance, has ten nuclear warheads on continual undersea patrol. It’s an accident waiting to happen — especially as warheads are moved to frighten enemies. This was recently seen in Russia’s strategically useless but psychologically intimidating relocation of nukes to Belarus.
6. UFOs have control of the missiles
In some ways, this is actually reassuring; although we don’t know who or what is piloting these craft, or what their interest is in nuclear bombs, they can’t be more disastrous than humans… Can they?
Ever since Roswell in 1947, UFOs have been associated with nukes. Roswell Army Airfield was in those days home to the only nuclear bomber squadron in the world, the 509th Bomb Wing, which nuked Japan two years earlier. Since then, many credible military witnesses have had encounters at nuclear sites. The All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO) has gathered testimony and other evidence of more than a hundred incidents. One is from the former USAF ICBM launch officer Robert Salas who said that in 1967 an “orange flying disc” deactivated, one by one, 10 warheads at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana. It left the weapons “unlaunchable” for several hours. Another report, from 1964, claims a flying saucer shot beams at a test missile traveling thousands of miles an hour causing it to fall from the sky. There was apparently video footage but the CIA covered it up. The so-called “Chinese spy balloon”, which in early 2023 also flew near Malmstrom, may be the latest in a decades-long string of nuke-related UFO visits.
Although deactivating nukes is benevolent enough, UFOs have also demonstrated the ability to activate them. In 1987, claims the Russian colonel and radio expert Boris Solokov, “up to five” UFOs were seen by dozens of Soviet soldiers at a nuclear base in Ukraine. At the same time the control panel lit up with launch codes for activated nuclear missiles.
5. An unknown number of nukes are unaccounted for
You may have heard the term “Broken Arrow event”. It’s the US military’s euphemism for an “accidental event that involves nuclear weapons or nuclear components but does not create the risk of nuclear war” — which itself is a euphemism for endemic incompetence threatening all life on Earth.
That Palomares incident mentioned earlier? That was a Broken Arrow event. It occurred when a USAF B-52 bomber carrying four nukes collided with a refueling aircraft over the southern coast of Spain. Both planes exploded, shaking buildings below, especially in the fishing village of Palomares where “shrapnel sliced towards the ground” and “body parts fell to the earth.” The 1.45 megaton nukes weren’t armed, so they didn’t detonate. But only three were recovered; the fourth lies somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea.
This terrifying incident is just one of the 32 Broken Arrow events that have happened since 1950. And these are just the ones the US has declassified. There may have been more. As for how many nukes the US still hasn’t recovered, it’s somewhere between 3 and 30. Equally troubling is how little is known about other countries’ incompetence. “We don’t really know anything about the United Kingdom or France, or Russia or China,” says non-proliferation expert Jeffrey Lewis.
4. Nukes are more destructive (and usable) than you think
Since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear weapons have also become more destructive. The US nuclear arsenal, at its peak, had the destructive equivalent of 1.4 million Hiroshimas. A lot more. The nuke that wiped out Hiroshima, the larger of the two, had a 15 kiloton yield — roughly 3,000 times weaker than the most destructive nuke ever tested: the Soviet Union’s 50 megaton Tsar Bomba.
But what about nowadays? Amid escalating tensions in Ukraine, exactly what level of destruction is Russia actually threatening? According to experts, a full-scale nuclear exchange over Ukraine (ICBMs, submarine-launched missiles, and bomber-launched cruise missiles) is nowhere near as likely as the limited use of low-yield nukes. But “low-yield” is misleading. While on average it means something like 10 kilotons (five kilotons short of Hiroshima), Russia has up to 6,000 of them.
There’s a reason for this focus (in the US as well) on low-yield nukes, and it’s not humanitarian. Because they’re developed to significantly limit long-term radiation, they’re more imminently usable in war. In other words, the nuclear-armed nations are building low-yield bombs not for deterrence but deployment. Needless to say, their first use will set a terrible precedent and risk escalation beyond anyone’s control.
3. Your children are unlikely to live out their natural lives before nuclear war
According to Martin Hellman, cryptologist and Professor Emeritus at Stanford University, “a child born today may well have less-than-even odds of living out his or her natural life without experiencing the destruction of civilization in a nuclear war.” Critics say it’s not possible to determine the likelihood of something that’s never happened, but Hellman disagrees. Conceding that it’s not possible to give a precise figure, he says it’s nevertheless possible “to upper and lower bound it.”
A risk of one percent per day, for example, he considers too high, since that would make nuclear war “almost certain within the next year.” A risk of one in a million per year, meanwhile, he considers too low because it suggests the current nuclear deterrence strategy, aptly named MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), can prevent nuclear war for the next million years. This is highly unlikely given the amount of near misses we’ve had in less than 80. As Noam Chomsky puts it, “it’s kind of a miracle that we’ve survived. Miracles don’t go on forever.”
Having established these upper and lower bounds for the risk of nuclear war (next year or in a million years’ time), Hellman drew on his “extensive study of nuclear risks” to narrow the range. Ten percent per year is a closer upper bound, he says, based on having survived 60 years of MAD nuclear deterrence. And 0.1 percent is a closer lower bound, suggesting we can survive another thousand — during which time he’d expect 10 major crises (like the Cuban Missile Crisis), 100 lesser crises (comparable to the Taiwan Straits Crisis, Russo-Georgian War, or the conflict in Ukraine), and many other events leading to nuclear threats. So between a yearly risk of 0.1 and 10 percent, we have a risk of roughly one percent per year, or 0.3 to 3 percent per year. This, he says, is unacceptably high.
2. The Doomsday Clock is closer to ever than midnight
These days it can sound like the boy who cried wolf, the Doomsday Clock that’s been ticking down the last few minutes for the past seven decades. But a lot of research goes into the placement of those hands. And now they’re set at 90 seconds to midnight — the closest we’ve ever been to global nuclear catastrophe — closer than any time during the Cold War.
Explaining their decision, the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists cited the ongoing war in Ukraine and its destabilization of post-WWII European security arrangements, not to mention wider “norms of international conduct.” Leaders on both sides (i.e. Biden and Putin) have issued nuclear threats, but even if neither of them launches a strike, there’s still a risk of accidental escalation. The Atomic Scientists also point out the proximity of fighting to nuclear reactor sites, which risks the release of radioactive material. Furthermore, the only nuclear weapons treaty still in place between the US and Russia is set to expire in a few years time. When it does, Russia will no longer have permission to inspect American stockpiles (and vice versa), which could lead to a new nuclear arms race.
But Ukraine is just one factor pushing us closer to midnight. There’s also the conflict between India and Pakistan, both of which are nuclear-armed. This already febrile situation is made worse by India’s perceived need for a deterrent against China potentially leading it to increase its arsenal, prompting Pakistan to do the same in response. Then there’s Israel, which continues to pretend it has no nuclear weapons when it actually has more than a hundred — increasing the urgency with which its Middle Eastern enemies seek to build arsenals of their own. China’s also a threat, as is North Korea. But the greatest threat of all is the US. Unlike China, which has (for now at least) a “no-first-use” policy, American nukes are bound by no scruples and are always on high alert.
1. Life on Earth is basically entrusted to the President of the United States
Most of the nuclear-armed nations have safeguards against their leaders single-handedly ending the world. India and Pakistan both require authorization from a council like a board of directors. Every member must agree before a strike can be launched. Israel is thought to have comparable controls.
Russia also explicitly prevents a single person issuing the command. Despite Western press releases to the contrary, it’s thought the president, defense minister, and chief of general staff all have access to launch codes that may only work in unison. Experts believe even more people may be required to authorize a first (i.e. offensive, rather than defensive) strike. In China, although little information is publicly available, it’s thought (based on a 2004 military text) that the Central Military Commission’s 11 members — senior generals and party officials, including the president — may have to reach a consensus. It’s not known for certain.
What is known for certain, though, is the nuclear launch protocol of the United States — as well as its two nuclear lapdogs France (which possibly needs three people) and Britain (which technically needs the consent of the monarch). In the US, only the president is required to authorize a nuclear strike. That’s right. They don’t have to consult with advisors. They don’t need permission from Congress. They don’t need approval from the Supreme Court, or even the Department of Defense. Nobody in the world can legally stop the senescent Joe Biden (the president at the time of writing; yours may be worse) from ending every single life on the planet. This should terrify you. If not, think of it this way: the power to start a nuclear war is in the hands of the most war-hawkish person on Earth, the cognitively challenged president of an empire in decline, who, as it happens, is the only person to have actually launched nukes in war to obliterate countless civilians.
Good luck Earth. Let’s hope it doesn’t run out.