The U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal contains exactly 5,113 warheads, down from a Cold War high of 31,255, according to numbers that until Monday were among the United States’ most closely held secrets.
The Pentagon released the exact figures on the U.S. nuclear stockpile as the international conference opened at the United Nations in New York seeking to renew the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT.
The first day of the meeting included a war of words between Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The Iranian leader said in a speech to the world body that the United States has never respected any nonproliferation commitments.
“The first atomic weapons were produced and used by the United States,” he said. “This seemed, apparently, to provide the United States and its allies with the upper hand in World War II. However, it became the main source of the development and the spread of nuclear weapons by the others and brought about the nuclear arms race.”
• Click here to view the nuclear weapons stockpile fact sheet. (PDF)
As Mr. Ahmadinejad delivered his remarks, British, French and U.S. delegations walked out to protest Iran’s failure to comply with U.N. controls on its uranium enrichment.
Mrs. Clinton delivered two messages in her remarks to the conference. She first pointed out that the United States was releasing for the first time the numbers of U.S. nuclear weapons to demonstrate “transparency,” as well as numbers of nuclear warheads destroyed.
A Pentagon fact sheet revealed that nuclear weapons, both strategic and tactical, ranged from 25,540 in 1962 to about 23,000 for most of the next three decades until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, when warhead levels began declining sharply.
The secretary of state also singled out Iran for criticism. “Iran is the only country represented in this hall that has been found by the IAEA board of governors to be currently in noncompliance with its nuclear safeguard obligations,” Mrs. Clinton said. “It has defied the U.N. Security Council and the IAEA and placed the future of the nonproliferation regime in jeopardy, and that is why it is facing increasing isolation and pressure from the international community.”
The Obama administration has sought to lead on disarmament by example. The last major NPT conference in 2005 ended without a consensus agreement.
While U.S. officials last week downplayed the prospect for a consensus in this conference as well, the goal for the United States will be to create an almost supermajority of states to support core principles for strengthening the NPT. Iran is expected to block any consensus document at the end of the conference.
One U.S. proposal will be to seek automatic penalties on countries that violate the essential bargain of the pact by using nuclear technology and fuel to build weapons and not for peaceful atomic energy.
Iran’s government has said its program is peaceful in nature. But Western intelligence services have noted that Iran has continued to operate undisclosed facilities for making nuclear fuel. The latest such facility was found near the city of Qom, the seat of the Iranian clerisy.
The IAEA in several reports also has said it has been unable to resolve questions about Iran’s nuclear weapons work.
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, praised the decision to release the numbers.
“This is a huge positive step forward,” he said. “There are very accurate independent estimates of the U.S. arsenal but it is important for the U.S. government to make clear how many nuclear weapons we have, to explain how much the United States has reduced and will reduce the nuclear stockpile in the future.”