MIGHTY HISTORY

North Dakota was the world's 3rd most powerful nuclear power

In 1963, North Dakota was home to 300 Minuteman ICBMs, meaning that it would have had a larger nuclear arsenal than any country besides the U.S. and the Soviet Union if it had seceded. The modern situation is even crazier. If the U.S. broke apart today, seven former U.S. states would be in the top 10 of world nuclear powers.

The Air Force fires an unarmed Minuteman III missiles during a 2017 test.

(U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Ian Dudley)

If you had to guess at the world's strongest nuclear power, you would probably get the top two right. America and Russia are top dogs and have been so since Russia became an official country again. Before that, you guessed it, the Soviet Union was on top.

But do you know who is number three in the world? Well, for a few years in the Cold War, North Dakota could have claimed that spot by seceding.


Even more shocking, according to numbers in 2006, seven U.S. states would be in the world's top 10 nuclear powers at the time if their arsenals had been counted separately. America's nuclear arsenal in Europe could have formed an eighth.

At the start of the Cold War, America was the top atomic power because it was the only atomic power. Then, Soviet scientists created a bomb through their own research and theft of American secrets. For much of the Cold War, America's arsenal was larger, in missiles as well as warheads and bombs.

But there was a problem for Americans in the Cold War. They didn't know that. Thanks to the flawed Gaither Report and the rapidly accelerating fields of atomic and then nuclear research, there was a belief in the U.S. that the Soviet Union in the 1950s could be manufacturing up to five rockets per day with a sparkling new warhead on each. (We've previously written about that, here.)

Intercontinental ballistic missiles sit outside a base in Wyoming.

(U.S. Air Force R.J. Oriez)

So America raced to stay ahead of the Soviet Union, manufacturing hundreds and then thousands of missiles, bombs, and other weapons in the Cold War. In an effort to draw Soviet weapons away from American cities as well as to protect the country's counter-strike capability, America put the newest missile and warheads in hardened silos in the Midwest.

So about 250 Minuteman III missiles were packed with up to three warheads each in sites across North Dakota. It was the largest missile arsenal of any state at the time, leading to North Dakota getting the moniker "world's third-largest nuclear power."

In the modern era, if the U.S. arsenal was split into the states that house the weapons, North Dakota would be the world's fifth-largest nuclear power. Russia is number one with about 6,800 warheads. But, according to this map from the Bulleting of Atomic Scientists in 2006, there are seven U.S. states with larger arsenal than France's number 3 arsenal.

France has 300 nuclear weapons, putting it far behind Washington (2,364 weapons), New Mexico (1,914 weapons), Georgia (1,364 weapons), North Dakota (1,254 weapons), Louisiana (940 weapons), Nevada (902 weapons), and Montana (535 weapons). America's arsenal in Europe is also larger than France's at 400 weapons.

Many of these U.S. weapons are in storage or are scheduled for decommissioning. That's the case in New Mexico and Nevada. Georgia and Washington house weapons that are deployed on ballistic and cruise missile submarines. North Dakota and Montana have missiles in silos as well as air-launched missiles and bombs. Louisiana houses air-launched missiles and bombs.

Now, of course, state governors don't actually control those arsenals. The weapons were commissioned by the federal government and are still largely controlled by the active military and the Department of Energy. So, yeah, it's a U.S. arsenal and not state ones. Still, it's comforting to know that this author's state would have the fourth largest arsenal in the world. Hope we don't piss off Washington State, though.