The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference opened in New York today – a good occasion to recall the size of the nuclear arsenal that the Treaty promises, through Article VI and earlier Review Conferences, to eliminate.

The short answer to the question of how many nuclear warheads actually exist is that it’s a secret. But it’s not really a very well-kept secret – the number is about 22,500, give or take a few hundred (any one of which, if detonated over a major population centre, could alone produce deaths in the millions).

We owe much of the fact that the global nuclear arsenal is a largely open secret to the careful and long-term monitoring work of the US based Natural Resources Defense Council[i] and the Federation of American Scientists,[ii] and to the researchers Robert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen. Their work is published regularly on their organizational websites, as well as in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists[iii] and theYearbook of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.[iv]

Current numbers can be found in three recent reports:[v] Russia, 12,000; US, 9,500; France, 300; China, 240; UK, 185; Pakistan, 90; Israel, 80; India, 80; North Korea, 10. All are estimates, but based on public disclosures at various times and calculations of production (and dismantlement) rates linked to fissile material inventories, relevant facilities, and so on.

Russian and American nuclear warheads need to be divided into several sub-categories: deployed strategic (US 2,000; Russia 2,600); strategic warheads in stockpiles and available for deployment (US 2,500; Russia 4,600); awaiting dismantlement (US 4,500; Russia 3,000); non-strategic warheads deployed and available for deployment (US 500; Russia 2,000).

In a May 2 posting, Kristensen refers to a new US fact sheet which says US deployed strategic warheads are now down to 1,968, indicating significant progress toward reaching the limits set out in the New START agreement.[vi]

The US will lift part of the veil of secrecy today, according to a New York Times report,[vii] releasing “long-classified statistics about the total size of America’s nuclear arsenal.” If that comes to pass it will be a significant development on the transparency and accountability front.

Non-nuclear weapon states in the NPT have been calling for that kind of reporting since 2000 when a formal reporting provision was included in list of key and practical disarmament steps. The Americans have offered more transparency than other nuclear weapon states, but they have yet to lift the veil of basic secrecy – we’ll say whether that changes today.

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[v] Status of World Nuclear Forces 2010, Federation of American Scientists. May 3, 2010.

The US Nuclear Arsenal, 2009, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March/April 2009.

Russian Nuclear Forces, 2010, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January/February 2010.

[vi] “United States Moves Rapidly Toward New START Warhead Limit,” 2 May 2010.

[vii] David E. Sanger, “U.S. Releasing Nuclear Data on Its Arsenal,” New York Times, 2 May 2010.

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