Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century

Nuclear weapons have been a focus of FAS work since its founding in 1945 by scientists concerned about control of the awesome new technology they had helped create.

Today we are often asked to speak on the dangers of radiological weapons known as dirty bombs. We inform on the dangers of nuclear weapons proliferation by individuals, non-state terrorists, or states. We follow next generation nuclear weapons development including proposed “bunker busters.”

We stay on top of the debate over resuming nuclear weapons testing. We track Administration policy and hard-to-find reports for Congress.

In January 2005 FAS released a study that asked: What missions remain for US nuclear weapons now, 15 years after the end of the Cold War? What rationales justify our keeping 6,000 deployed warheads, plus missiles, bombers and other support, at a cost of <$8 billion taxpayer dollars per year? Why does Russia try to keep <5,000 warheads officially deployed, though they are daily more prone to accidental launch against?

In Missions for Nuclear Weapons after the Cold War FAS Strategic Studies Project Director Ivan Oelrich finds that, of 15 missions claimed for US nuclear forces, only one justifies their present size and structure: a first strike against Russia’s vast nuclear arsenal. Our contined ability to execute such an attack, makes Russia keep its large force to deter us. The two nations stay locked in Cold War military postures, even though no stakes between us justify such holocaust.

“The US and Russian arsenals are the elephant in the living room that no one wants to talk about,” Oelrich says. “Yet millions of Americans could be killed after the launch of even part of the Russian force. By comparison, a dirty bomb attack most likely would kill hundreds of thousands.”


Try our NEW Bomb-A-City Calculator. Pick an American city. Pick the size of the bomb you wish to detonate virtually (1 kt to 4 MT). Choose your method of delivery (aircraft or automobile/suitcase). Then see the radius within which most buildings would be destroyed.

What can we do?

“November 2005 will mark the 15th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This is the year to downsize and restructure both sides’ nuclear forces more drastically than is required by 2012 by the Moscow Treaty,” Oelrich said in releasing his report. How low should we go? Oelrich did the numbers in a paper published by the Institute for Defense Analyses in 2001.


FAS urges individuals and groups to contact members of Congress to stop work on next generation nuclear weapons including bunker busters. FAS urges cool-headed, technically accurate tracking of proliferationissues concerning North Korea, Iran, Pakistan and others.

Related Information

Ways of Knowing About Weapons: The Cold War’s End at the Los Alamos National Laboratory
This is a Ph.D. dissertation by Dr. Laura McNamara, completed at the University of New Mexico Department of Anthropology in 2001. This dissertation is a cultural anthropology of the nuclear weapons program at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

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Major US cities are hit after Russia launches some its 5,000 nuclear warheads in error due to its decaying warning system. This graphic opened Doomsday Machine I on History Channel‘s Modern Marvels in which FAS experts discussed the dangers. Image: History Channel Dec. 28, 2004.