In the late 1900s the world stood at the edge of a nuclear abyss: America and the Soviet Union, were enemies and each had more than enough bombs to destroy the world several times over.
The Soviet Union (the Russian empire under communist rule) fell in 1991 and those days are over. But since then three more countries have got the bomb. The danger is that sooner or later someone will use it.
Who got the bomb when:
- 1940s: America, Russia
- 1950s: Britain
- 1960s: France, China, Israel
- 1980s: South Africa
- 1990s: Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, India, Pakistan
- 2000s: North Korea
- South Africa, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus are in italics because they no longer have the bomb.
- Israel is widely believed to have the bomb, but does not admit to it.
- Iran is widely believed to be building one, but does not admit to it. It may have one by 2012.
Under America’s nuclear umbrella:
- NATO allies (Canada, Turkey, much of western Europe),
- Japan, South Korea.
America will defend these countries with its own bombs if necessary. In practice the umbrella probably extends to Israel, the Persian Gulf, Latin America, South Africa, Taiwan and New Zealand.
Iran has openly threatened Israel, but it is probably more interested in defending itself against America. Iran fought Iraq for eight years (1980-1988) and all it could manage was a draw. Yet it saw America destroy the same Iraqi army in a matter of months in 1991 and again in 2003.
Osama bin Laden wants the bomb, but most doubt he has one: He does not have enough money to get one or build one. A friendly country would have to give him one.
The bomb works by cutting an atom in half, which in turn cuts other atoms in half and so on. The next thing you know a whole city is gone with fires everywhere and winds blowing clouds of poison over other cities and countries. If enough bombs go off at once, it could become winter all over the world – the nuclear winter.
You can make an atom bomb only out of certain elements, like plutonium, and only if you have the right amount. It does not work with ordinary elements, like iron or copper. Making or getting the plutonium is the hard part.
The first bomb was made jointly by America, Britain and Canada in the early 1940s. They feared that Nazi Germany would build one first and win. Germany fell before either side had one. America used it on Japan instead to end the war there, destroying the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6th and 9th 1945, killing 214,000.
Germany, as it turns out, was not building the bomb. Hitler knew it would take five years: he would have won or lost the war by then.