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.
|Country||Total Warheads (2021)||% of Total|
|🇰🇵 North Korea||45||0.34%|
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.
|Country||Deployed Warheads||Reserve Warheads||Retired Warheads|
|🇰🇵 North Korea||0||45||0|
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.
The Top 10 Largest Nuclear Explosions, Visualized
Just how powerful are nuclear bombs? Here’s a look at the top 10 largest nuclear explosions.
The Top 10 Largest Nuclear Explosions, Visualized
Just how powerful are nuclear explosions?
The U.S.’ Trinity test in 1945, the first-ever nuclear detonation, released around 19 kilotons of explosive energy. The explosion instantly vaporized the tower it stood on and turned the surrounding sand into green glass, before sending a powerful heatwave across the desert.
As the Cold War escalated in the years after WWII, the U.S. and the Soviet Union tested bombs that were at least 500 times greater in explosive power. This infographic visually compares the 10 largest nuclear explosions in history.
The Anatomy of a Nuclear Explosion
After exploding, nuclear bombs create giant fireballs that generate a blinding flash and a searing heatwave. The fireball engulfs the surrounding air, getting larger as it rises like a hot air balloon.
As the fireball and heated air rise, they are flattened by cooler, denser air high up in the atmosphere, creating the mushroom “cap” structure. At the base of the cloud, the fireball causes physical destruction by sending a shockwave moving outwards at thousands of miles an hour.
A strong updraft of air and dirt particles through the center of the cloud forms the “stem” of the mushroom cloud. In most atomic explosions, changing atmospheric pressure and water condensation create rings that surround the cloud, also known as Wilson clouds.
Over time, the mushroom cloud dissipates. However, it leaves behind radioactive fallout in the form of nuclear particles, debris, dust, and ash, causing lasting damage to the local environment. Because the particles are lightweight, global wind patterns often distribute them far beyond the place of detonation.
With this context in mind, here’s a look at the 10 largest nuclear explosions.
#10: Ivy Mike (1952)
In 1952, the U.S. detonated the Mike device—the first-ever hydrogen bomb—as part of Operation Ivy. Hydrogen bombs rely on nuclear fusion to amplify their explosions, producing much more explosive energy than atomic bombs that use nuclear fission.
Weighing 140,000 pounds (63,500kg), the Ivy Mike test generated a yield of 10,400 kilotons, equivalent to the explosive power of 10.4 million tons of TNT. The explosion was 700 times more powerful than Little Boy, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.
#9: Castle Romeo (1954)
Castle Romeo was part of the Operation Castle series of U.S. nuclear tests taking place on the Marshall Islands. Shockingly, the U.S. was running out of islands to conduct tests, making Romeo the first-ever test conducted on a barge in the ocean.
At 11,000 kilotons, the test produced more than double its predicted explosive energy of 4,000 kilotons. Its fireball, as seen below, is one of the most iconic images ever captured of a nuclear explosion.
#8: Soviet Test #123 (1961)
Test #123 was one of the 57 tests conducted by the Soviet Union in 1961. Most of these tests were conducted on the Novaya Zemlya archipelago in Northwestern Russia. The bomb yielded 12,500 kilotons of explosive energy, enough to vaporize everything within a 2.1 mile (3.5km) radius.
#7: Castle Yankee (1954)
Castle Yankee was the fifth test in Operation Castle. The explosion marked the second-most powerful nuclear test by the U.S.
It yielded 13,500 kilotons, much higher than the predicted yield of up to 10,000 kilotons. Within four days of the blast, its fallout reached Mexico City, roughly 7,100 miles (11,400km) away.
#6: Castle Bravo (1954)
Castle Bravo, the first of the Castle Operation series, accidentally became the most powerful nuclear bomb tested by the U.S.
Due to a design error, the explosive energy from the bomb reached 15,000 kilotons, two and a half times what was expected. The mushroom cloud climbed up to roughly 25 miles (40km).
As a result of the test, an area of 7,000 square miles was contaminated, and inhabitants of nearby atolls were exposed to high levels of radioactive fallout. Traces of the blast were found in Australia, India, Japan, and Europe.
#5, #4, #3: Soviet Tests #173, #174, #147 (1962)
In 1962, the Soviet Union conducted 78 nuclear tests, three of which produced the fifth, fourth, and third-most powerful explosions in history. Tests #173, #174, and #147 each yielded around 20,000 kilotons. Due to the absolute secrecy of these tests, no photos or videos have been released.
#2: Soviet Test #219 (1962)
Test #219 was an atmospheric nuclear test carried out using an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), with the bomb exploding at a height of 2.3 miles (3.8km) above sea level. It was the second-most powerful nuclear explosion, with a yield of 24,200 kilotons and a destructive radius of ~25 miles (41km).
#1: Tsar Bomba (1961)
Tsar Bomba, also called Big Ivan, needed a specially designed plane because it was too heavy to carry on conventional aircraft. The bomb was attached to a giant parachute to give the plane time to fly away.
The explosion, yielding 50,000 kilotons, obliterated an abandoned village 34 miles (55km) away and generated a 5.0-5.25 magnitude earthquake in the surrounding region. Initially, it was designed as a 100,000 kiloton bomb, but its yield was cut to half its potential by the Soviet Union. Tsar Bomba’s mushroom cloud breached through the stratosphere to reach a height of over 37 miles (60km), roughly six times the flying height of commercial aircraft.
The two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had devastating consequences, and their explosive yields were only a fraction of the 10 largest explosions. The power of modern nuclear weapons makes their scale of destruction truly unfathomable, and as history suggests, the outcomes can be unpredictable.
Mapped: The State of Global Democracy in 2022
We map the state of global democracy, as the Democracy Index hits its lowest point since the inception of the index in 2006.
Mapped: The State of Democracy Around the World
The world’s (almost) eight billion people live under a wide variety of political and cultural circumstances. In broad terms, those circumstances can be measured and presented on a sliding scale between “free” and “not free”—the subtext being that democracy lies on one end, and authoritarianism on the other.
This year’s Democracy Index report by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), is one such attempt to apply a score to countries based on how closely they measure up to democratic ideals.
According to EIU, the state of democracy is at its lowest point since the index began in 2006, blamed in part on the pandemic restrictions that saw many countries struggling to balance public health with personal freedom.
In this year’s report, the EIU reported a drop of the average global score from 5.37 to 5.28, the biggest drop since 2010 after the global financial crisis. This translates into a sobering fact: only 46% of the population is living in a democracy “of some sort.”
Let’s dive a bit deeper into what this means.
Percentage of Population by Regime Type
In 2021, 37% of the world’s population still lived under an authoritarian regime. Afghanistan tops this list, followed by Myanmar, North Korea, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Syria. Of course, China has a big share of the population living under this style of regime.
On the other side of the spectrum we have full democracies, which only account for 6.4% of the population. Norway tops this list, followed by New Zealand, Finland, Sweden, and Iceland.
|Regime Type||No. of Countries||Share of countries||Share of World Population|
Let’s explore the characteristics of each of the four types of regime according to the EIU:
Full democracies are nations where:
- Civil liberties and fundamental political freedoms are respected
- Valid systems of governmental checks and balances exist
- There are limited problems in democratic functioning
- Media is diverse and independent
Flawed democracies are nations where:
- Elections are fair and free
- Basic liberties are honored but may have issues
- There are issues in the functioning of governance
Hybrid regimes are nations where:
- Electoral fraud or irregularities occur regularly
- Pressure is applied to political opposition
- Corruption is widespread and rule of law tends to be weak
- Media is pressured and harassed
- There are issues in the functioning of governance
Authoritarian regimes are nations where:
- Political pluralism is nonexistent or limited
- The population is ruled by absolute monarchies or dictatorships
- Infringements and abuses of civil liberties are common
- Elections are not fair or free (if they occur at all)
- Media is state-owned or controlled directly or indirectly by the ruling regime
- The judiciary system is not independent
- Criticism of the government is censored
Global Democracy Index by Region
As mentioned earlier, in 2021, the global democracy score declined from 5.37 to 5.28. This was driven by a decline in the average regional score, but every region has a different reality. Let’s take a look at the democratic state of each region in the world.
North America (Canada and U.S.) is the top-ranked region in the Democracy Index with an average score of 8.36, but this dropped significantly from 8.58 in 2020.
Both countries have dropped their positions in the global ranking, however, Canada still maintains the status as a full democracy.
The U.S. is still classified by EIU as a flawed democracy, and has been since 2016. The report points to extreme polarization and “gerrymandering” as key issues facing the country. On the bright side, political participation in the U.S. is still very robust compared with the rest of the world.
Latin America and the Caribbean experienced the largest decline in regional scores in the world. This region dropped from 6.09 in 2020 to 5.83 in 2021. This decline shows the general discontent of the population about how their governments have handled the pandemic.
In this region, the only country that falls under a full democracy is Costa Rica. On the other side of the spectrum, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba fall under the authoritarian regime classification.
In 2021, Western Europe is the region with the most full democracies in the world.
In fact, four out of the top five full democracies are in this region: Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Iceland. A notable downgrade in this region happened in Spain; the country is now considered a flawed democracy.
Eastern Europe paints a different picture, where there is not a single full democracy. Three countries (Moldova, Montenegro, and North Macedonia) were upgraded from being considered hybrid regimes to flawed democracies.
Ukraine’s score declined to 5.57, becoming a hybrid region. Russia’s score also declined to 3.24 keeping the authoritarian regime status. It’s important to note that this report by the EIU was published before the invasion of Ukraine began, and the conflict will almost certainly impact scores in next year’s report.
Sub-Saharan Africa has the most countries at the bottom of the Democracy Index rankings.
The fact is that 23 countries are considered “authoritarian regimes”. Meanwhile, there are 14 countries that are hybrid regimes, six countries under flawed democracy, and only one country, Mauritius, is considered a full democracy.
In North Africa, four countries are considered authoritarian regimes: Sudan, Egypt, Libya, and Algeria. Only Morocco and Tunisia fall into the hybrid regime classification.
Middle East and Central Asia
This region concentrates a substantial number of countries classified as authoritarian regimes. In fact, the region’s overall democracy score is now lower than what it was before the start of the Arab Spring in 2010.
There are no countries falling under the category of full democracy in this region. Only Israel (7.97) and Cyprus (7.43) are considered flawed democracies. Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, and Pakistan fall under the category of hybrid regimes, and the rest of the countries in the region are considered authoritarian regimes.
East Asia and Oceania
This is broad region is full of contrasts. Aside from Western Europe, East Asia and Oceania contains the most full democracies: New Zealand, Taiwan, Australia, South Korea, and Japan. There are also a high number of countries that fall under the category of flawed democracies.
It’s worth noting that some of the most contentious geopolitical relationships are between neighbors with big differences in their scores: China and Taiwan, or North and South Korea are examples of this juxtaposition.
Decline in Global Democracy Levels
Two years after the world got hit by the pandemic, we can see that global democracy is in a downward trend.
Every region’s global score experienced a drop, with the exception of Western Europe, which remained flat. Out of the 167 countries, 74 (44%) experienced a decline in their democracy score.
As pandemic restrictions continue to be lifted, will democracy make a comeback in 2022?
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