The Devastating Impact of Idle Nuclear Weapons


We’ve all seen apocalyptic visions of a nuclear wasteland in the near future. Yet, the impact of unused nuclear weapons is often overlooked in historical and current global affairs. The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) of 1968 should have spelt the end of astronomical spending in the rapidly escalating nuclear arms race which was a defining aspect of the Cold War. Whilst issues such as the opportunity cost of nuclear weapons, environmental problems from testing and blatant deception of the public may not seem comparable to a burnt-out nuclear wasteland, they remain some of the debilitating consequences of idle nuclear weapons.

Nuclear spending during the Cold War is well known to have been abnormally high. From 1940 to 1996, the USA alone spent $5.56 trillion in 1996’s money on nuclear weapon research at a conservative estimate, the majority of which was spent on launch systems and delivery vehicles. This was more than the federal spending on education, employment, agriculture and natural resources (to name but a few) combined over the time period. There are very few statistics on Russian nuclear expenditure during the Cold War, but since Russia had by 1986 reached a peak of 40,159 weapons compared to USA’s 23, 317, it can be extrapolated that their spending would have been even larger.

Nuclear Weapons - Our World in Data

During this nuclear arms race from the late 1950’s, both of the global superpowers sought not only to increase their quantity of nuclear stockpiles, but also carried out extensive testing to ensure they would function optimally if required. Despite these weapons never being used on human targets, 528 atmospheric tests have taken place, in utter disdain for the radioactive fallout that spread across continents. In particular, fallout from nuclear tests at the Nevada Test Site, the United States may have caused 10,000 to 75,000 thyroid cancers according to the National Cancer Institute. The study also suggested that children were exposed to greater levels of radiation from drinking milk contaminated with iodine-131. Thus, the mere development of nuclear weapons extended beyond excessive spending to being a direct cause of health crises. After an initial cover-up, in 1980 the U.S House of Representatives Subcommittee stated: “all evidence suggesting radiation was having harmful effects, be it on the sheep or the people, was not only disregarded but actually suppressed.”

The presence of idle nuclear weapons and the subsequent need to develop new technology, such as ballistic missiles, fusion bombs and hydrogen bombs also saw widespread use of nuclear technology in energy production. By 1954, the Soviet Union developed the first nuclear power plant for civil uses, the AM-1 Obninsk, generating electricity for 2,000 homes. Though such ground-breaking research, by 1987 this technology provided 16% of world electricity, it didn’t come without great human cost due to the unforeseen potential issues with nuclear power plants. The most famous of these incidents occurred at Chernobyl Power Plant in 1986 where 31 people died from the initial explosion and 6,500 cases of thyroid cancer were later reported. 350,000 people were evacuated due to the largest ever recorded radiation release. Today, there is still a virtually uninhabited 4,300 square kilometre exclusion zone, 33 years after the disaster.

The Red Forest in the Exclusion Zone near Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.

The technology that nuclear weapons introduced, even when never used on human targets, has made and can continue to make swathes of lands uninhabitable. Not only does this leave hundreds of thousands of stranded and distressed evacuees, unable to return home, but governments must spend billions on rescue efforts and then on compensation to those who have lost their homes, families and livelihoods. Therefore, the mere existence of nuclear weapons has caused unimaginable pain and suffering for victims of a then-fledgling and misunderstood technology. Whilst Chernobyl remains the worst nuclear disaster in human history, it unfortunately has not been an isolated incident. As recently as August last year, following a failed missile test, a nuclear reactor explosion took place at the Nyonoksa test site which killed at least seven people. Russian authorities dismissively quoted that “accidents, unfortunately happen.”

It was also clear that until accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl took place, the nuclear power industry lacked any basic understanding on the effects of ionising radiation. The promises of governments meant that popular culture and science fiction brimmed with the potential concepts of seemingly unlimited nuclear energy. Ford in the 1950’s even developed a concept car known as the Nucleon, which ran via a small nuclear reactor. Still, governments in Russia and USA pretended arrogantly that they comprehended their invention, and that it was entirely safe. It may even be argued that the secrecy, inaccurate information and blatant deception of the public which characterised the Cold War were a direct result of the nuclear weapons program. Society, as well as the economy and the lives of civilians, was disregarded in favour of a childish arms race.

A 1950’s children’s science kit that contained actual uranium.
Photo: Oak Ridge Associated Universities

Avid nuclear deterrence theorists will point to the rapid decrease in nuclear weapon stockpiles from a peak of approximately 65,000 in 1986 to approximately 14,000 in the present day, which has also been coupled with falls in spending on nuclear weapons, all whilst supposedly preventing global war. They are right to hope that in future that these numbers will continue to drop, however the current policies of the age-old nuclear giants seems to indicate the opposite. The more recent New START treaty signed in 2010 between the United States and Russia agreed to reduce the number of deployed nuclear weapons and launching systems, yet once again this has not revealed the complete picture to the public. Despite the number of unused nuclear weapons falling, countries are seeking to update and improve their weapons technology, which increases nuclear weapons spending. For example, the Arms Control Association forecasts that Trump’s modernising of the American nuclear delivery system will see a 19% rise from the current 2020 budget.

Add to this the fact that the New START treaty ends in 2021, the current worldwide recession during the coronavirus pandemic and the rising tensions in Iran and North Korea and suddenly the goal of non-proliferation and reduction in spending of idle nuclear weapons seems very fragile indeed.

Global annual expenditure as of 2011 on nuclear weapons, which remain unused, still reached a whopping US$105 billion. In 2002, the World Bank predicted that half of this, $40-60 billion annually, would have been enough to meet (the now outdated) Millennium Development Goals on poverty by 2015. Another potential use of this money would have been the UN green climate fund, which requires $100 billion per year to reach its goals. When choosing between issues which affect the entire human race, such as poverty and climate change, and so-called ‘deterrence’, world leaders chose to invest in weapons whose mere existence has killed thousands and misled millions from the truth.

History seems to be repeating itself. Untouched hordes of nuclear weapons and sceptical governments were not good news in the first arms race. At this rate, the mere existence of nuclear weapons looks set to cause more economic, social, health and environmental consequences than ever imagined.


  1. United Nations “Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)
  2. Brookings (1998) “The hidden costs of our nuclear arsenal: overview of project findings”
  3. & 11. Our World in Data: Max Roser and Mohamed Nagdy (2020) – “Nuclear Weapons”'[Online Resource]
  4. Arms Control Association (2019) – ” The Nuclear Testing Tally
  5. The New York TImes (1997) “Thousands Have Thyroid Cancer From Atomic Tests”
  6. Quote found from (2001) – “50 Years LAter, the Tragedy of Nuclear Tests in Nevada”
  7. International Atomic Energy Agency (2004) – ‘From Obninsk Beyond: Nuclear Power Conference Looks to Future’
  8. World Nuclear Association (2020) – ‘Chernobyl Accident 1986’
  9. Business Insider (2019) – ‘It looks like the Russians are trying to cover up the truth about that nuclear accident in Nyonoksa’
  10. Hemmings (2011) – ‘1958 Ford Nucleon’
  11. (see 3)
  12. Arms Control Association (2020) – “Surging U.S. Nuclear Weapons Budget a Growing Danger”
  13. Arms Control Association (2020) – “New START at a glance”
  14. International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) (2011) – “Diversion of Public Resources”
  15. Green Climate Fund (2020) – “Resource mobilisation”


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