On the 75th Anniversary of Hiroshima, Here's Where the World Stands With Nuclear Weapons

Seventy-five years ago on Thursday, the U.S. became the first—and to this day the only—nation in the world to use a nuclear weapon against a foreign adversary when it dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. Decades later, analysts warn that the world must do more to ensure that a nuclear weapon is never used again and say that a "new arms race" is underway.

Nine nations possess nuclear weapons—the U.S., Russia, the U.K., France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea—according to data compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Of these nations, the U.S. and Russia have by far the highest number, with about 5,800 and 6,185, respectively. China comes in third, with about 320 as of this year.

"There is a clear lack of public awareness about these issues compared to the 1980s. That means there is little political priority attached to handling the question and reducing the risk of a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions," Dan Smith, director of the SIPRI, told Newsweek.

On August 6, 1945, the U.S. Air Force sent a Boeing B-29 Superfortress to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Just days later, on August 9, the U.S. dropped another atomic bomb, on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. The resulting blasts left hundreds of thousands dead and injured, the vast majority of whom were civilians.

Hiroshima atomic bomb cloud
Aerial view from B-29 Superfortress, of the mushroom cloud from the atomic detonation in Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945. The bombing killed over 30 percent of the city's population and wounded tens of thousands more. US Army Air Corps/PhotoQuest/Getty

"August 6 and 9 remain days for somber reflection and a renewed commitment to building a more peaceful world," a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department told Newsweek. Nicholas Hill, the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, will represent the U.S. at memorials in commemoration of the victims, the spokesperson said.

"The ceremonies are solemn occasions to remember and honor those who lost their lives in World War II," the spokesperson added. "In addition, we view the ceremonies as important opportunities to rededicate ourselves toward building a more peaceful and prosperous world."

But analysts have expressed concerns that growing tensions between world powers are increasing the risk of nuclear conflict.

"All nuclear weapon states, including China, Russia and the United States, have a legal obligation under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to negotiate disarmament," a spokesperson for the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) told Newsweek.

Hiroshima after the bomb
An aerial view of Hiroshima after the dropping of an atomic bomb in August 1945. Getty

"All countries have a moral obligation, as the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki point out, to ensure that no one must suffer as they have," the organization, which won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, said.

Smith pointed to specific geopolitical rivalries, such as tensions between India and Pakistan and between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as new weapon technologies, as contributing factors raising concerns about a future nuclear confrontation. However, he said that such an event still appears unlikely under the present circumstances.

"Nuclear war on any scale remains an unlikely event, but it is less unlikely now than a few years ago. Factors driving this include toxic global geopolitics that reduce the capacity to manage and restrain regional geopolitical rivalries," he said.

In an encouraging step, the U.S. and Russia have launched new nuclear talks and invited China to join. However, China has refused to participate under the present circumstances, saying that its stockpile of weapons is dwarfed by those of the other nations.

"I can assure you that if the U.S. says that they are ready to come down to the Chinese level, China will be happy to participate the next day," Fu Cong, the director general of the Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry's arms control department, said in early July. "But actually we know that that's not going to happen."

Smith suggested that China's logic makes sense, noting that if it were to eventually join, that would signal that the other nuclear-armed powers should join as well. "China's nuclear stockpile remains a small fraction of either Russia's or the USA's and its bombs and warheads are not operationally deployed, unlike a large proportion of U.S. and Russian nuclear holdings," he said.

Many in the U.S. remain the most concerned about adversarial states such as North Korea and Iran, although the Persian Gulf nation does not currently possess nuclear weapons. Analysts have argued that the best way to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear-armed power is to return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal.

Hiroshima, Japan
The wrecked framework of the Museum of Science and Industry as it appeared shortly after the atomic bomb blast over Hiroshima. Getty

The U.S. signed that treaty during the Obama administration, along with the European Union, the U.K., France, Germany, China and Russia. Under the agreement, Iran agreed to curb its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. But President Donald Trump, who had long criticized the deal, withdrew the U.S. from the treaty in 2018, despite consistent reports from the United Nations' nuclear watchdog showing that Iran remained in compliance.

"It remains wholly possible to head off any possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons," Smith said. But, he pointed out, that would require the U.S. "to reverse course and return to the logic of eliminating the risk by agreement." He said pessimistically that it is "impossible to expect that change of direction from the current U.S. administration."

As for North Korea, the nation's strongman leader, Kim Jong Un, recently suggested that he intends for his nation to use its weapons only as a "reliable, effective" deterrent to prevent any attack or future war.

"There won't be any war on this land again, and our national security and future will be guaranteed firmly and permanently because of our reliable, effective self-defensive nuclear deterrent," Kim said in late July.

But from ICAN's perspective, those with nuclear weapons are the ones holding the planet hostage.

"The minority of the world's countries resist the international norm to ban and eliminate nuclear weapons," the organization told Newsweek. "All nuclear-armed states are actively threatening the rest of the world by insisting on maintaining weapons of mass murder that would have global consequences."