Now that it’s acknowledged by all but hardcore supporters of the Bush administration that weapons of mass destruction were not present in Iraq at the time of the U.S. invasion, it’s time to take a look at such weapons that do exist.

According to the authoritative Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, there are more than 30,000 nuclear weapons in the world today. Eight nations are known to possess them (the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan and Israel). And a ninth (North Korea) might have some as well.

The vast majority of these nuclear weapons are in the hands of the United States and Russia. Each of these nations maintains more than 2,000 of them on hair-trigger alert, ready at a moment’s notice to create a global holocaust in which hundreds of millions of people would die horribly. Even the much smaller nuclear arsenals of the other nuclear powers have the potential to cause unimaginable destruction.

Recognizing the unprecedented dangers posed by nuclear weapons, the nations of the world have signed a number of important nuclear arms control and disarmament agreements over the past four decades. These include the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963, the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 1972 and two Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties, the first in 1972, the second in 1979.

After a short hiatus occasioned by the revival of the Cold War, they were followed by the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987, two Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (START I, in 1991 and START II, in 1993), and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT, in 1996). These agreements limited nuclear proliferation, halted the nuclear arms race and reduced the number of nuclear weapons.

The lynchpin of these agreements is the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968, in which the non-nuclear signatories agreed to forgo development of nuclear weapons in return for a pledge by the nuclear powers to move toward nuclear disarmament. A few non-nuclear countries, such as India, kept their options open by refusing to sign the treaty. But the overwhelming majority of nations signed the agreement, because they considered it a useful way to reverse the nuclear arms race.

As late as the year 2000, the parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty promised an “unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear-weapon states to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals.” This included taking specific steps, such as preserving and strengthening the ABM Treaty and ratifying and putting into force the CTBT.

Although the U.S. government is a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty — indeed, initiated it and lobbied hard for its acceptance — the Bush administration has decided that it will not be bound by the treaty’s provisions. It has pulled out of the ABM Treaty, an action that also has the effect of scrapping the START II Treaty. The administration has also rejected the CTBT and this past fall pushed legislation through Congress to begin building new nuclear weapons. A resumption of U.S. nuclear testing, halted in 1992, seems in the offing.

How long other nations will put up with the flouting by the United States of the world’s arms control agreements before they resume the nuclear arms race themselves is anybody’s guess. But it probably won’t be very long.

As in its other policy initiatives, the Bush administration has fallen back on the “war on terror” to justify its abandonment of nuclear arms control and disarmament treaties. But, as Mohamed ElBaradei, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has noted, terrorist groups will not be affected by nuclear weapons. “A nuclear deterrent is clearly ineffective against such groups,” he declared this past October. “They have no cities that can be bombed in reply, nor are they focused on self-preservation.” By building additional nuclear weapons and provoking other nations to do the same thing, the Bush administration has enhanced the prospect of “loose nukes” becoming available to terrorists and other fanatics.

Wouldn’t the United States be safer if there were fewer nuclear Weapons — or none? That’s what poll after poll has shown that the public thinks. And that’s what both Republican and Democratic presidents have argued since the advent of the nuclear era. Even Ronald Reagan, an early nuclear enthusiast, came around to recognizing the necessity for building a nuclear-free world.

Evidently the Bush administration thinks otherwise. While talking loosely (and misleadingly) of nuclear dangers from “evil” regimes, it has jettisoned the U.S. government’s long-standing commitment to nuclear arms control and disarmament. Unless this policy is reversed, the world faces disasters of vast proportions.

*Lawrence S. Wittner is a professor of history at the State University of New York/Albany and author of “Toward Nuclear Abolition” (2003). This article was orginally posted in the History News Service.