The destructive power of nuclear weapons was instantly apparent from the moment the first atomic bomb was tested in the desert near Alamagordo, New Mexico during World War II. The United States had undertaken the urgent task of transforming nature's power into the world's most powerful weapon because they wanted to beat Hitler in this scientific quest.
We did and shocked the world with the blast over Hiroshima. Since 1945, nuclear explosives have been the most feared of the weapons of mass destruction, in part because of their ability to cause enormous instantaneous devastation and because of the persistent effects of the radiation they emit - undetectable by unaided human senses.
In the decades following Hiroshima, other nations joined the nuclear club. The five nuclear nations have traditionally been the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China. But it was the Cold War race between the United States and Russia that built up the overwhelming nuclear weapons stockpiles that still threaten the world.
The Nonproliferation Treaty, which was entered into force in 1970 banned the further proliferation of nuclear weapons and 188 signatory nations have agreed to its goals of global disarmament. But in recent years India and Pakistan have declared themselves nuclear nations and many experts believe that Israel, Iran, Iraq and North Korea all have nuclear weapons programs.
Although many felt that the threat from nuclear weapons diminished with the end of the Cold War, the world today may be in more danger for a number of reasons.
- The supply of weapons and materials has increased, while the security - especially in Russia - has decreased.
- Global terrorism has increased the demand for these weapons.
- It no longer takes a genius to create a nuclear bomb. Through the Internet there has been a proliferation of information about how to make a bomb.
Many experts do not believe that so-called "dirty bombs," conventional bombs with radioactive material, should be considered weapons of mass destruction because the damage would be very limited. But they are included in this section because of the possibility that dirty bombs could be used by terrorists, as well as the fact that if used, these weapons could cause widespread panic and massive economic damage.
To learn more about nuclear weapons watch "Nuclear Nightmares: Poisons and Plagues" on your local PBS station.