Many countries have advanced nuclear power programs to supply energy to their citizens. Most of them, however, do not have a stockpile of nuclear weapons.
The lack of nuclear arms development among the majority of the world’s countries can be attributed to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NNPT). The treaty states that those with nuclear weapons programs get to keep their nuclear weapons and will focus on disarmament, while those without nuclear weapons will not attempt to develop or acquire them.
Since the treaty was signed 40 years ago, science and technology has made significant advancements in virtually every field. Many countries, if they so wished, could develop nuclear weapons without much, if any, help from outside. One reader wanted to know, hypothetically of course, “Which countries could develop nuclear weapons the quickest?”
Without nuclear power plants or any technological precursors that many counties now have the luxury of, it took just 4 years for the Soviet Union to build their first nuclear weapon – the second country to go nuclear.
France was able to achieve nuclear capability in 2 years while India was able to do it in 7. With information and technology (laser isotope separation) more widely available than ever, the average for most countries would hover around 5 years. That’s 5 years from the decision to go ahead with the project, to an actual viable nuclear bomb.
Who Would Reach The Finish Line First?
Right now, the nations with the most potential are Japan and Germany. Both countries are extremely active in nuclear science and engineering. Their expertise in nuclear non-proliferation issues is very similar to the expertise you need to create bombs. Both could develop nuclear weapons in an extremely short time frame if they so desired.
While Germany has the cash on hand, an educated workforce, access to some of the best technology in the world, and has access to fissile material thanks to the decommissioning of their reactors; Japan stands in a league of its own. Japan has an active breeder reactor development program and has tens of tons of reactor grade plutonium (enough for 10,000 nuclear warheads).
Latent Nuclear Power
Thanks to Japan living in a region where tensions are high (China’s rapid growth and constant threats from North Korea), Japan has a much greater incentive to maintain a latent nuclear weapons program.
According to U.S government nuclear proliferation assessments, no non-nuclear country is as well positioned to “break-out” and develop advanced nuclear weapons than Japan. It is believed that Japan could go from a decision to viable nuclear weapons in as little as a few months.
In addition to the difficulties of building a bomb, countries wishing to pursue a nuclear weapons program would also have to maintain the weapons they create. This is an extremely costly and complex process which requires very specific & world-class infrastructure. Countries like the UK lease the rights and technology to do so from the US. This factor alone drastically lowers the chances of countries ‘going rogue’ and secretly developing nuclear weapons.
John H. Large (May 2, 2005). “The actual and potential development of Nuclear Weapons Technology in the area of North East Asia” (PDF)
Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)
“Disarmament and Non-Nuclear Stability in Tomorrow’s World,” Conference on Disarmament and Nonproliferation Issues, Nagasaki, Japan 2007 (PDF)
Hans M. Kristensen, National Resources Defence Council, 2005, U.S. Nuclear Weapons in Europe: A Review of Post-Cold War Policy, Force Levels, and War Planning (PDF)
Summary of the 2010 NPT final outcome document, Beatrice Fihn, Reaching Critical Will, June 1, 2010