Is it possible to defuse atomic bombs

Nuclear weaponsWhy there are still 13,400 atomic bombs

Nobody has dared to use atomic bombs since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The effect was too destructive, the consequences too devastating. And yet there was always the desire of some strategists to use this powerful weapon - for a limited nuclear strike, as an option for a credible deterrent. Because the warheads are getting smaller, the delivery systems more precise and the geopolitical situation is getting worse, such ideas could well be heard. An overview of the development of nuclear weapons, their effects, the logic of the new nuclear armament and their risks.

(picture-alliance / dpa / photo report)

How do nuclear weapons work?

The effect of nuclear weapons (also called nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons) is not based on chemical reactions, but on fission or fusion of radioactive materials. Enormous energy is released in the form of heat, pressure and radiation. The atomic bomb is the most powerful and dangerous weapon ever developed.

( Destroyer of the Worlds "Gadget" was the code name of the first atomic bomb that exploded 75 years ago. Three weeks later, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were in ruins. "Modern" bombs are now stored in the nuclear powers' arsenals - they are seen as an option for a "limited nuclear strike".

The first atomic bombs were based on nuclear fission of plutonium and uranium and were used twice by the USA in 1945 with devastating consequences - to this day these are the only atomic bombs used. Hydrogen bombs have been around since 1953. They do not get their energy from nuclear fission, but from nuclear fusion. During the Cold War, the superpowers relied on as many megatons of TNT equivalent as possible in the arms race: the uranium and plutonium bombs appear tiny compared to the hydrogen bombs that are up to 4,000 times more powerful. These mega-weapons have prevailed.

How is the nuclear arms race being conducted today?

The further development and modernization of nuclear weapons is less in the area of ​​warheads than in transport and "packaging". New delivery systems such as the Russian intercontinental heavy-duty missile Sarmat, which can deploy ten to 15 nuclear warheads at once, are one of the central pillars in the modernization of the nuclear arsenals. Many countries are also working on the further development of hypersonic missiles that can reach their destination faster and more accurately.

( Reaching the goal ultra-fast When it comes to modernizing its nuclear arsenals, Russia is furthest away, while the USA is still in the middle. These are, for example, carrier systems that bring warheads more precisely to the target - at a speed that leaves the enemy with little defense.

In order to ensure that the nuclear weapon penetrates meters deep into the ground before the explosion, covers made of high-alloy steel are added, for example. For example, underground bunkers could be destroyed. Or bombs are given precision steering that makes them much more accurate. More accuracy has the effect that the weapons can become smaller and still reliably destroy their target. This is deliberate: One wishes for nuclear weapons with low explosive power that do not kill millions of people and plunge the world into what is known as a nuclear winter. But experts warn against these weapons because they lower the barriers to use and make nuclear war more likely.

(imago-images) Mini-Nukes During the Cold War, the USA and the Soviet Union alone had 70,000 warheads - today there are only 13,400 left in all nuclear powers. Unfortunately, that's still enough to destroy the earth several times. The trend towards smaller atomic bombs is also not good news. On the contrary.

Another area of ​​development concerns digitization. Experts believe that it is unlikely that artificial intelligence alone will one day decide on the use of nuclear weapons - but its influence will presumably grow. AI could be used to control missiles or torpedoes, to detect and defend against cyber attacks and to lead troops.

(imago stock & people) Artificially intelligent The logic of atomic deterrence is based on the ability to counterattack. The heads of state have not had much time to go to the Red Button. What does it mean when the nuclear powers' arsenal is digitized? Do algorithms ultimately decide between life and death?

The further development of nuclear weapons was to be prevented in 1996 with the nuclear test ban treaty - it bans all types of nuclear weapons tests.

( Simulating and testing In the Nevada desert, tons of craters tell of nuclear weapons tests. The last attempt so far took place in 1992. A few weeks later, negotiations began on the nuclear test ban treaty. But does a test ban also prevent the development of new nuclear weapons?

But countries like Russia and China are accused of breaking the treaty. In addition, weapon systems can also be developed purely with the help of simulation programs and laser technology.

What are the effects of nuclear weapons?

Nuclear weapons are among the most destructive weapons known to man. The explosion releases enormous amounts of energy. The extraordinary pressure and heat wave wiped out everything in the immediate vicinity - whether people, buildings or nature. The pressure causes lung and ear injuries as well as internal bleeding in people a little further away, the intense heat severe burns.

In addition, there is a high level of radiation exposure: radioactive material is carried upwards and falls down again within a few minutes. This fallout contaminates a large area around the explosion site. High doses of radiation kill cells, damage organs and lead to rapid death; lower doses damage cells, lead to genetic damage and an increased risk of cancer (breast, colon, thyroid and leukemia) and cardiovascular disease. However, rather small amounts of radioactive material get into the atmosphere, so that the area is not exposed to such immense decades of radiation as, for example, in an accident in a nuclear power plant, in which large amounts of radioactive particles are released. The danger therefore lies in the immediate, extremely high radiation exposure that damages unborn life and results in long-term damage for the people affected and for future generations.

Effects of a 100 kiloton atomic bomb (source: ICAN):

  • 3 km radius: A radioactive fireball, which is hotter than the sun and has a force equivalent to 100,000 tons of TNT, kills all life.
  • 5 km radius: The vast majority of people die quickly from the effects of blast injuries, from suffocation, or from radiation sickness over the next few weeks.
  • 10 km radius: Half of the people affected succumb to their injuries and burns. Many die soon after the explosion from fire and radiation sickness.
  • 80 km radius: Radioactive fallout spreads. Over time, thousands of people die from radiation sickness and cancer.

If there were to be a global nuclear war today, the consequences would be devastating. There are currently more than 13,400 atomic bombs that are many times more powerful than the old models. You could wipe out all life on earth. A regional nuclear conflict would also have the potential to destroy the lives of millions of people in one fell swoop, damage the health of future generations, change the world climate sustainably and trigger a so-called nuclear winter: the conflagrations pump smoke and soot into the atmosphere, which The sun continues to heat them up so that they rise into the stratosphere. A dark veil shields sunlight, the global average temperature drops by two to five degrees, and because less water evaporates as a result, droughts occur. Crop failures and extreme famines are the result. The indirect consequences of the use of nuclear weapons could be even more serious for people than the direct ones.

When and where have nuclear weapons been used so far?

The chemist Otto Hahn discovered the possibility of nuclear fission - on January 6, 1939 he published the results of his experiments for the first time. However, he intended to use atomic energy for civil purposes and was shocked when it was soon used to build atomic bombs.

With the beginning of the Second World War, the cross-border exchange of scientific results and research statuses was stopped. In the USA, immigrant scientists like Albert Einstein warned of the danger of the development of nuclear weapons in Germany. As a result, the "Manhattan Project" was started in 1942: Under the direction of nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer, two atomic bombs made of different fissile materials were to be developed, plutonium and uranium. Only three years later, on July 16, 1945, the first atomic bomb was detonated at the White Sands test site in the New Mexico desert.

(picture alliance / dpa / Jiji Press / Michiko Takei) Hiroshima and Nagasaki - atomic bomb victims are still falling ill
The long-term consequences of radioactive radiation mean that in 2015 in Hiroshima and Nagasaki there were still victims of cancer from back then, said Axel Rosen from the organization Doctors for the Prevention of Nuclear War in the Dlf.

The reasons for their actual use changed: After the development of German nuclear weapons had not proven to be true, the atomic bomb was now seen as the only means in the fight against Japan. Three weeks after the test in Nevada, a uranium bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and the plutonium bomb on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. Several hundred thousand people died. And still today, atomic bomb victims fall ill as a result of the extreme radiation exposure at the time. Since then, no more atomic bombs have come to Eisatz. But the arsenals of the nuclear powers are more than full.

Which countries still have how many nuclear weapons today?

Nine countries worldwide are considered to be nuclear powers:

  • United States
  • Russia
  • France
  • Great Britain
  • China
  • India
  • Pakistan
  • Israel
  • North Korea

The USA, Russia, Great Britain, France and China have been shown to have detonated a hydrogen bomb. These five "official" nuclear weapon states are recognized by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The other four "de facto" nuclear weapon states are not member states of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

While some countries are open about their nuclear arsenals, others have no idea how many warheads they actually have. There are almost 13,400 nuclear weapons worldwide; more than 90 percent are owned by the two military superpowers, the USA and Russia, each with around 6,000 nuclear warheads. This large number of nuclear weapons results from the decades-long arms race during the Cold War. Around 150 US nuclear weapons are located in Europe within the framework of NATO's "Nuclear Participation" strategy, namely in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and Turkey.

At the beginning of 2020, the almost 13,400 nuclear weapons available worldwide were distributed among nine countries. (Statista)

Almost 4,000 of the world's nuclear weapons are immediately operational, an estimated 1,800 of which are constantly on high alert and can reach their destination within a few minutes. Even if the number of global nuclear warheads falls, the risk of nuclear war increases, according to experts.

"First, with North Korea, a new nuclear state has been added. Second, modernization programs are underway in all other nuclear-armed states. And third, arms control is in serious trouble," said Dan Smith, Director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, SIPRI.

Where are nuclear weapons stored in Germany?

US atomic bombs have been stored in Germany for six decades - as well as in Turkey, Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy. During the Cold War there were thousands, today there are twenty nuclear warheads in the Rhineland-Palatinate air base Büchel as part of the "nuclear participation".

(dpa / Thomas Frey) Arms depot in the Eifel - The Büchel atomic bombs
20 nuclear weapons are stored at the Bundeswehr air base in Büchel in the Eifel. As part of NATO operations, German fighter jets could be forced to drop them.

The concept is a component of the NATO security architecture and is intended to protect non-nuclear states - such as Germany, which is legally prohibited from possessing their own nuclear weapons - against attacks by means of nuclear deterrents. This deterrent concept of the Atlantic alliance provides that their allies, including Germany, have access to American nuclear weapons in the event of war and can then bring them to their destination with their own aircraft. At the same time, the participating states have a say in shaping the nuclear deterrent policy in a NATO body, the Nuclear Planning Group.

The majority of the population in the five countries in which the atomic bombs are stored perceive them less as protection than as a threat. They fear that they will become the pre-eminent potential target in a nuclear confrontation. Most military strategists, on the other hand, are convinced that reliable protection of European countries would not be possible without nuclear participation. And they also argue that the concept of nuclear participation also works against the proliferation of nuclear weapons: It enables countries to have a nuclear umbrella without having to develop their own nuclear capacities.

(picture alliance / dpa / Harald Tittel) Nuclear participation: Are nuclear weapons still useful as a deterrent?
SPD parliamentary group leader Rolf Mützenich has sparked a debate about the so-called nuclear participation of NATO: He wants no more nuclear weapons to be stationed in Germany.

In Germany, the SPD parliamentary group leader Rolf Mützenich recently initiated a debate on NATO's nuclear participation. He questions "whether the intended nuclear deterrent of the Cold War is still appropriate today." The German government is committed to the nuclear participation of NATO as an important part of a credible deterrent for the alliance.

(picture alliance / AA / Abdulhamid Hosbas) US nuclear weapons in Germany: "We all want more disarmament"
Wolfgang Ischinger, head of the Munich Security Conference, considers the debate initiated by Rolf Mützenich (SPD) on the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from Germany to be important. A nuclear weapon-free world is the goal, he said in the Dlf.

What are the most important disarmament agreements?

The 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)

During the Cold War, five states had atomic and hydrogen bombs: the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, and China. They had around 8,000 nuclear warheads in their arsenals in the late 1960s. In order not to enlarge the circle of nuclear powers any further and to reduce the risk of nuclear war, the United States and the Soviet Union submitted a joint draft treaty to the United Nations in 1967. The "Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)" was based on three pillars:

  • He obliged the states that owned nuclear weapons not to pass on such military equipment and the technology for its manufacture to third countries. States without nuclear weapons guaranteed that they would make no attempt to get their hands on them.
  • The nuclear states undertook to completely dismantle their arsenals.
  • The states agreed to work together on the civil use of nuclear technology, for example for energy generation.

(Imago / United Archives International) Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty - Ongoing dispute over nuclear disarmament
In 1969 Germany signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In fact, even fifty years later, the nuclear powers are still failing to keep their promise of disarmament. The contract is in jeopardy.

On July 1, 1968, Washington, Moscow and London signed the "Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty". Their signatures and those of forty other states were necessary for it to come into force in 1970. Germany signed in November 1969, and the nuclear powers China and France did not follow suit until decades later. To date, 191 countries have joined. North Korea left again in 2003 - South Sudan and the nuclear powers India, Pakistan and Israel never signed. So there are no problem cases of the international non-proliferation and disarmament regime that are either already in possession of the bomb or are secretly aiming for it.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitors compliance with the contractual provisions every five years. Despite intensive negotiations, the 2015 Review Conference was unable to agree on a final document - which makes it all the more important to make the 2020 contract fit for the future and to strengthen it with new initiatives.

"The pillar of disarmament is the weakest part of the treaty," says Tytti Erästö from the Stockholm peace research institute SIPRI. "In contrast to non-distribution, there are no deadlines or controls here either. The fact that so little has happened here has led to a general feeling of disaffection among the contracting states in the 50 years since the treaty was signed.The behavior of the nuclear states does not live up to expectations. Instead of disarmament, we see modernization programs for the nuclear arsenals and nuclear armament also in political rhetoric. "

The INF Treaty of 1987

By the late 1980s, the US and Soviet Union had peaked in armament, with around 23,000 US and 40,000 Soviet nuclear warheads. As a step in the policy of détente, Ronald Reagan and Michael Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) on December 8, 1987.

The agreement, which came into force on June 1, 1988, provided for a hitherto unprecedented nuclear disarmament for both countries. Gorbachev and Reagan agreed in it to destroy all land-based cruise missiles and medium-range missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. Sea and airborne nuclear weapons were excluded.

Close mutual checks were to ensure that the nuclear weapons stationed on land were actually destroyed. In fact, these controls lasted until 2001. As a result of the treaty, over 1,600 nuclear weapon delivery systems had been destroyed by mid-1991.

According to the German government in 2019, the INF Treaty was also considered to be "an important building block for European security". US President Donald Trump had announced his country's withdrawal from the agreement with reference to Russia's production of the 9M729 cruise missile. Shortly thereafter, Russia declared that the treaty no longer served its interests. Both countries had repeatedly accused each other of breaches of treaty.

(picture-alliance / dpa) Shortly before midnight in February 2021, the "New Start" disarmament contract will expire. Confidence-building steps would be important - but governments rely on military strength. Do you know what you are doing?

The discontinuation of the INF contract in 2019 comes at a time of armament. The global security architecture is becoming increasingly fragile. Nuclear powers emphasize military strength with doctrines such as "escalate in order to de-escalate" or simulation games about the tactical use of mini-nukes (small nuclear weapons). The inhibition threshold for the use of nuclear weapons seems to have fallen, and the mistrust of the powers that be is growing.

On the other hand, confidence-building measures are needed, believes Tytti Eräströ from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). One of them could be that, in addition to China, the other four official nuclear powers USA, Russia, Great Britain and France declare that they will not carry out a nuclear first strike. Explicit security guarantees for other countries or the official condemnation of nuclear weapons as a weapon of war could also ensure more trust, according to Eräströ.

The 2017 Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty

After the failed review conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2015, a new international movement was formed, campaigning for a world free of nuclear weapons. The result is a treaty banning nuclear weapons, which the United Nations General Assembly opened for signature on September 20, 2017.

(AFP / Fabrice COFFRINI) "Nuclear weapons should be banned!" - 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for ICAN
The 2017 Nobel Peace Prize went to the International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). The price will probably have no effect on current conflicts, said left-wing politician Jan van Aken in the Dlf.

According to the German Bundestag, the Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty now "comprehensively prohibits the production, testing, possession, use or the threat of deployment, transfer and stationing of nuclear weapons in its own territory, as well as any aiding and abetting of the aforementioned behavior. Every state that possesses nuclear weapons upon accession is obliged They undertake to destroy them as soon as possible. Member States also undertake to provide medical, psychological, economic and social assistance to victims of nuclear weapons tests or operations and to take measures to clean up contaminated areas on their territory ".

At the 2017 UN General Assembly, 53 states signed up to begin with, and by January 2020 there were 80 states. So far, 34 states have ratified, including Austria. The treaty will enter into force 90 days after the 50th ratification.