The world’s nuclear arsenal has declined significantly from its Cold War peak, but the number of nuclear weapons still in existence remains absurdly high, as a recent overview produced by the Federation of American Scientists and the Natural Resources Defense Council shows. Worldwide deployments of nuclear weapons, 2009, published in the November/December 2009 issue of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, estimates that there are more than 23,000 nuclear weapons still deployed or in storage in the arsenals of the nine nuclear-armed states. Nearly 96% of these weapons are owned by Russia and the United States.
There are hopeful signs that 2010 may see some progress in reducing these nuclear arsenals, however.
The U.S. and Russia are expected soon to complete negotiations on a new strategic arms reduction treaty to replace the one that expired in December 2009. They are also beginning to talk about a follow-on agreement that would further reduce their arsenals and start addressing for the first time stocks of short-range, “tactical” nuclear weapons.
In May, the 2010 Review Conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty will take place in New York. The prospects for a broad international consensus on additional disarmament steps are considerably greater at this review conference than at the last conference, which took place five years ago. That conference failed even to agree on a final document, largely because of backpedaling by the nuclear-weapons states on the commitments they had made at the 2000 conference.
The year is also likely to see a new version of NATO’s Strategic Concept document, which among other elements outlines NATO’s approach to nuclear weapons. The prospects for real change there have seemed pretty bleak, but the recent call by the new German government to remove NATO nuclear weapons from Germany has created some hope of progress in this area as well. Suggestions that the new U.S. Nuclear Posture Review may end up being more ambitious than originally expected (although that outcome remains highly uncertain) also provide some grounds for hope.
None of these developments, even assuming they all actually happen, will be enough to remove the nuclear sword of Damocles that has been hanging over the world for 65 years. But they could be important steps in the right direction.