October 21, 2021
Which Countries Have the Most Nuclear Weapons?
In theory, nuclear weapon stockpiles are closely held national secrets. The leading countries have rough estimates that aren’t regularly updated, newly nuclear countries keep their capabilities vague and unclear, and Israel has never officially confirmed a nuclear weapons program.
But thanks to limited disclosures, records, and leaks, we can visualize the full extent* of the world’s nuclear arsenal. This graphic uses estimated nuclear warhead inventories from the Federation of American Scientists as of August 2021.
Based on these estimates, there are just nine countries with nuclear weapons in the world.
Editor’s note: Exact numbers of nuclear warheads possessed by countries are closely guarded state secrets, with the FAS estimate being the closest, most-used, and most-trusted international approximation available.
Nuclear Weapons, by Country
The nuclear arms race has always centered around the U.S. and Russia.
After the end of World War II and well into the Cold War, the world’s two superpowers raced to build more nuclear weapons (and more capable nuclear weapons) than the other.
Even while international organizations lobbied for the end of nuclear proliferation, the world’s nuclear weapon stockpile grew to a peak of 70,300 total warheads in 1986.
As arms agreements and non-proliferation treaties started to gain greater momentum, the U.S. and Russia cut back on stockpiles while new countries with nuclear weapons started to pop up.
Despite reducing their stockpiles significantly since the end of the Cold War, Russia and the U.S. still own around 90% of all nuclear warheads in the world.
Far behind them are China and France, which started testing nuclear weapons in 1964 and 1960 respectively. The UK has the fifth-most nuclear weapons today, though it was the third country in the world to develop them after the U.S. and Russia in 1952.
The countries with fewer than 200 nuclear weapons are regional rivals India and Pakistan, which first tested nuclear weapons in the 1970s, and North Korea, which began to operate uranium fabrication plants and conduct explosive tests in the 1980s.
Israel is also estimated to have fewer than 200 nuclear weapons, and reports have its weapons program dating back to the 1960s. However, the country has never confirmed or announced its nuclear capabilities.
Countries With Nuclear Weapons, by Warhead Status
Though the world has 13,132 nuclear weapons, that doesn’t mean they’re all ready to fire.
Weapons (or “warheads”) are delivered by missile, and countries don’t keep all of their nuclear warheads primed for use. The estimation of nuclear stockpiles also clarifies whether warheads are considered deployed, reserved, or retired:
- Deployed warheads are deployed on intercontinental missiles, at heavy bomber bases, and on bases with operational short-range delivery systems.
- Reserve warheads are in storage and not deployed on launchers.
- Retired warheads are still intact but in queue for dismantlement.
Only four countries have officially deployed warheads, while the majority of the world’s nuclear stockpile is in reserve. This is partially due to estimates ranging from relatively transparent in the case of the U.S. to opaque and uncertain for countries like China and North Korea.
But some countries are expected to further bolster their stockpiles. The UK government announced it would increase its stockpile to no more than 260 warheads, and U.S. intelligence expects China, India, and Pakistan to increase their stockpiles.
Though the world’s nuclear stockpile will likely continue dwindling on account of U.S. and Russia retirements, the 2021 landscape of countries with nuclear weapons shows that proliferation is still underway.
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Omri Wallach is a writer focused on tech, business trends, and everything current. He got his Master of Journalism at the University of British Columbia and still lives in sometimes-sunny Vancouver.