HCSS Nuclear Timeline

Welcome to the HCSS Nuclear Timeline. This timeline provides a comprehensive overview of key events in nuclear history. It traces the long legacy of nuclear security threats and policies and puts these developments in a broader context. Events covered span a wide range of fields, including scientific developments, nuclear power, (non-)proliferation efforts and safety and security issues.

This historical overview can help policymakers, researchers, and the general public to better understand the continuing impact of nuclear issues on our world. Making our world a safer place in light of the unabated nuclear threats is a concern that faces all of us. As US president Obama noted during the second Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul in 2010:;xNLx;;xNLx;“At the dawn of the nuclear age that he helped to unleash, Albert Einstein said: “Now everything has changed…” And he warned: “We are drifting towards a catastrophe beyond comparison. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive.” That truth endures today. For the sake of our common security, for the sake of our survival, we cannot drift. We need a new manner of thinking -- and action. That is the challenge before us.”;xNLx;;xNLx;This timeline is made up of five broad categories of events:;xNLx;;xNLx;-Non-Proliferation & Disarmament:;xNLx;;xNLx;Events in this category relate to the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and technology, the limiting of nuclear testing or weapons development, and nuclear disarmament. It includes a range of items on, e.g., the establishment of institutions such as the IAEA, the founding of nuclear-weapon-free zones, the signing of treaties, the shutting-down of reactors, and anti-nuclear protests and disarmament campaigns.;xNLx;;xNLx;-Nuclear Energy:;xNLx;;xNLx;This category covers landmark events in the history of civilian nuclear power programs around the world, including technological developments, accidents at nuclear reactors, and the implications of civilian nuclear power on the development of nuclear weapons.;xNLx;;xNLx;-Various:;xNLx;;xNLx;In this catch-all category we give general decade-by-decade summaries, and cover a range of miscellaneous events, such as early nuclear research, significant cultural or geopolitical shifts, declarations of strategy, and notable (near)accidents involving nuclear weapons.;xNLx;;xNLx;-Nuclear Security:;xNLx;;xNLx;The nuclear security category concerns the history of measures, institutions, technologies, and international agreements ensuring the security and safety of nuclear stocks. The term refers to the detection and prevention of theft, sabotage, smuggling, or unauthorized access to nuclear weapons, nuclear material, and other radioactive substances. This category also includes a number of notable incidents where nuclear security was compromised or threatened.;xNLx;;xNLx;-Proliferation & Threats: ;xNLx;;xNLx;This category tracks the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and offers an overview of the various national nuclear weapons programs and landmark nuclear tests, as well as the numerous international crises, deadlocks, pre-emptive strikes, and computer errors that brought the world closer to a nuclear war.;xNLx;;xNLx;;xNLx;This timeline has been a collaborative effort led by the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies. We are heavily indebted to researchers from the Harvard Belfer Center, the Partnership for Global Security, the Department for Nuclear Security at Delft Technical University, and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs for their input. A timeline with such a broad scope is never fully finished. We invite users to share with us any suggestions they may have for further improvement. Please do not hesitate to contact us at info@hcss.nl.;xNLx;;xNLx;;xSTx;span style="font-size: 10px; font-style: italic";xETx; [1] http://www.un.org/depts/dhl/maplib/images_maplib/unflag.gif ;xSTx;/span;xETx;;xNLx;

1896-03-01 00:00:00

Becquerel discovers Radioactivity

Henri Becquerel is often credited with the scientific discovery of radioactivity. While researching the transmission of energy via light (a process known as ‘phosphorescence’), the French physicist discovered a new penetrating ray in 1896. Fellow chemist Marie Curie would later lend it the name ‘radioactivity’. For their research, Becquerel, Marie Curie and her husband Pierre Curie would win the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903.

1900-03-01 00:00:00


The first decades of the 20th century witnessed several revolutionary discoveries in the fields of experimental physics, chemistry and electromagnetism. These advances would lay the foundation for the development of the science of nuclear physics.

1904-03-01 00:00:00

Rutherford, Father of Nuclear Physics

Ernest Rutherford is often considered to be the father of nuclear physics. The New Zealand-born physicist and chemist presented in 1902 a theory of radioactive decay in which one element mutates into another. Rutherford showed that some atoms spontaneously lose energy by emitting particles of ionized radiation. He argued that during the radioactive decay of uranium different forms of radiation were released, which he called α- and β-radiation. The speed at which atoms decayed he called ‘half life’, or the amount of time after which there is a 50% chance for an atom to have undergone nuclear decay.

1929-03-01 00:00:00

Particle Accelerators

Particle accelerators have been of paramount importance to both the early research of nuclear structure, and the early production and enrichment of fissile materials. They were introduced in 1929, when Ernest O. Lawrence conceived of a device, called a cyclotron, that used electromagnetic fields to accelerate charged particles and focus them into highly energetic beams. By bombarding elements with these high-energy particles (usually Deuterium), cyclotrons were able to create radioactive isotopes (see “Exploration of radioisotopes - 1934”). In this manner, they could be used for research into the nuclear structure of atoms, and they would later be used to ‘transmute’ uranium-238 into plutonium.

1934-01-01 00:00:00

Exploration of Radioisotopes

Though the concept of radioactive isotopes had existed since 1912, it took until 1934 for Frédéric Joliot-Curie and Irène Joliot-Curie to discover a way of creating radioisotopes through nuclear reactions, paving the way for the development of nuclear medicine.

1938-03-01 00:00:00

Nuclear Fission Achieved

In the 1930s, experimental physicists began to manipulate the properties of particles by inducing them with radiation. The most notable work in this field was conducted by Italian physicist Enrico Fermi and German physicists Otto Hahn, Fritz Strassman and Lise Meitner.

1940-01-01 00:00:00


The 1940s was a decade of incredible destruction and discovery. Scientists feared that their atomic research would be used for nefarious purposes by warring nations during WW2, just as earlier advances in chemistry had led to the development of chemical weapons during WW1. German-born physicist Albert Einstein was one of the most vocal advocates of this fear. He viewed the increasing power of Nazi Germany through an atomic prism. The most violent decade of the 20th century would witness the development of the world's first atomic bomb and the deployment of atomic weapons against the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Soviet Union would also successfully develop an atomic weapon in this decade, setting the stage for the Cold War.

1940-08-09 00:00:00

WW2 Sparks Atomic Weapons Research

With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the implications of ongoing atomic research expanded greatly. Though still in its early stages, weaponized atomic research soon became a priority of the warring powers, resulting in the first sustained nuclear chain reaction as part of the US Manhattan Project in 1942.

1943-08-09 00:00:00

The Quebec Agreement Signed

The United States, the United Kingdom and Canada signed the Quebec Agreement on August 19th, 1943.

1945-07-16 00:00:00

Trinity Test

On July 16th, 1945, the world’s first nuclear device was detonated by the US military in the desert of New Mexico. The detonation produced an explosion equivalent to approximately 20 kilotons of TNT. The Trinity Test was considered a huge success for the scientists of the Manhattan Project (see “WW2 Sparks Atomic Weapons Research 1940”) and the US military. Only one month after the test, atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

1945-08-06 00:00:00

Little Boy & Fat Man dropped on Japan

The end of WW2 was marked by the devastating destruction caused by two nuclear bombs dropped by the United States on two Japanese cities. On August 6th, 1945, an atomic bomb codenamed ‘Little Boy’ was detonated over Hiroshima, exploding with an equivalent force of 15,000 tons of TNT [1]. Three days later a second atomic bomb, codenamed ‘Fat Man’, was dropped on Nagasaki, exploding with an equivalent force of 21,000 tons of TNT [2]. The combined death toll from the two initial blasts was 215,000 people. Five days later, Japan formally surrendered to Allied forces, effectively ending the war. Ever since, Japan has foresworn the development of nuclear weapons, despite the large stocks of plutonium produced by its nuclear power industry.

1946-01-01 00:00:00

UN Forms Atomic Energy Commission

On January 1st, 1946, with its first resolution, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) voted to form the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission (UNAC).

1949-08-29 00:00:00

First Soviet Nuclear Test

Only four years after the launching of their atomic weapons program, the Soviet Union successfully detonated its first nuclear device on August 29th, 1949. The detonation was both a scientific and intelligence success for the Soviet Union, which magnified the increasing tensions with the United States.

1950-01-01 00:00:00


The 1950s saw further nuclear proliferation, ever more powerful nuclear weapons, the first nuclear power plants, safety accidents, and the first large scale protests. Britain became the third nation to detonate a nuclear device. Nuclear technology was introduced for civil energy purposes. The US and the Soviet Union would test weapons of terrifying magnitude, whilst several institutions were set up to ensure the safe and peaceful production of nuclear energy.

1950-01-02 00:00:00

Nuclear Energy in the 1950s

On December 20, 1951, an experimental nuclear reactor at the Idaho National Reactor Testing Station in the US became the first to generate electricity.

1952-10-03 00:00:00

First British Nuclear Test

On October 3rd, 1952, Great Britain became the world’s third nuclear power, following the detonation of its first nuclear device.

1952-11-01 00:00:00

The Hydrogen Bomb

The US conducted the first ever full-scale hydrogen (thermonuclear) bomb test in November 1952. The device, code-named Ivy Mike, had an explosive yield of 10.4 megatons, making it 700 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

1953-12-08 00:00:00

'Atoms for Peace' Speech

On December 8th, 1953, US President Dwight Eisenhower gave his famous “Atoms for Peace” speech to the United Nations (see video).

1954-01-01 00:00:00

Nuclear Power for Propulsion

The United States launched the USS Nautilus, the first nuclear submarine, in 1954. The Nautilus could remain underwater for up to four months without resurfacing. It marked the onset of more use of nuclear reactors for ships other than nuclear submarines, such as ice-breakers[1], cargo-passenger ships and aircraft carriers. The energy created in the nuclear reactor heats water up to steam, to be used to drive the turbines.

1954-03-01 00:00:00

Castle Bravo

On March 1st, 1954, the US conducted the world’s first test of a thermonuclear device light enough to be military-ready, code-named Castle Bravo, at a testing site in the Marshall Islands. Although designers anticipated a yield of 5-8 megatons, the device actually reached 15 megatons, making it the most powerful bomb tested by the US.

1954-06-26 00:00:00

World’s First Civilian Nuclear Power Plant

On June 26th, 1954, the world’s first civilian nuclear power plant opened in Obninsk, Russia. It would soon be followed by the inauguration of G1 in France (1955), Calder Hall in the UK (1956), and Shippingport in the US (1958). [1]

1954-09-29 00:00:00

Founding of CERN

The ´European Organization for Nuclear Research´, more commonly known as CERN (the acronym of its French title ´Organisation européenne pour la recherche nucléaire´), was founded in 1954 as a joint nuclear research center by 12 European nations[1].

1956-01-01 00:00:00

Suez Crisis

In July 1956, Egyptian president Nasser nationalized the strategically important Suez Canal. He did so in response to the announcement that the UK and the United States would withdraw earlier offers to fund the construction of the Aswan Dam, in light of the ever-closer ties between Egypt and communist states such as the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China.

1957-01-01 00:00:00

First Pugwash Conference

In 1957, the first Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs was held in the village of Pugwash in Nova Scotia, Canada. The conference was set up in response to a 1955 Manifesto signed by pre-eminent intellectuals and scientists from the United States, the Soviet Union, Japan, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Austria, China, France and Poland. The document became known as the Russell–Einstein Manifesto, after two of its most prominent signatories, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell and German physicist Albert Einstein (who signed it just days before his death on 18 April 1955).

1957-03-01 00:00:00

Euratom Founded

In March, 1957, Euratom (fully: the European Atomic Energy Community) was formed as part of the founding Treaty on European cooperation, the Treaty of Rome. The Treaty was ratified by the six founding countries of the European Economic Community (now the EU): Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. The goal of Euratom was to pool the nuclear industries of its signatories to allow all Member States to benefit from atomic energy. Its membership now comprises all Member States of the European Union.

1957-07-29 00:00:00

IAEA Created

On July 29th, 1957, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was established as an autonomous agency by the United Nations.

1957-09-29 00:00:00

Mayak Incident

The Mayak incident is one of the most severe nuclear accidents in history [1].

1957-10-01 00:00:00

Windscale Fire

Another large scale nuclear accident occurred in October 1957, when a unit at the Winsdcale nuclear reactor caught fire.

1957-10-20 00:00:00

France, Israel Launch Nuclear Programs

The 1950s saw France and Israel begin to develop their own nuclear weapons programs. The French nuclear program would soon become public with their successful nuclear test in 1960. The Israeli program, which the Israeli government to this day neither confirms nor denies, is thought to have not started in earnest until the late 1960s (see “Israel makes Nuclear Advances – 1967”) [1]. The development of the French and Israeli nuclear program had been closely linked, as Israeli observers were present at French tests, and had access to the experimental data [2]. This special relationship was further reinforced by the deteriorating situation in the Middle East, and in particular the Suez Crisis (see “Suez Crisis - 1956”).

1960-01-01 00:00:00


The 1960s saw both France and China join the ranks of nuclear powers, and the Cuban Missile Crisis would bring the world to the brink of nuclear war. The same decade would also see notable efforts towards arms reduction and nuclear non-proliferation. The creation of the world's first nuclear weapons-free zone, the birth of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the peaceful conclusion of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) between the US and the Soviet Union signaled the beginnings of a new era in nuclear history. There came an increased awareness, especially in the US, of the threat posed by unsecured, ‘loose’ or volatile nuclear weapons or materials. The first policies were developed to increase nuclear security—officially defined by the IAEA as "the prevention and detection of, and response to, theft, sabotage, unauthorized access, illegal transfer or other malicious acts involving nuclear material, other radioactive substances or their associated facilities. The response element of the definition refers to those actions aimed at ‘reversing’ the immediate consequences of unauthorized access or actions (e.g. recovering material). Response to the radiological consequences that might ensue is considered part of safety.” [1]

1960-01-01 00:00:00

Anti-Nuclear Protests Expand

The early 1960´s saw an expansion of the anti/nuclear movement around the world. The first anti-nuclear protests broke out in the US in 1946, in the wake of a series of nuclear weapon tests performed at the Bikini Atoll [1]. In the 1950s, these protests intensified, especially in Japan after the so-called “Lucky Dragon incident” (See 'Castle Bravo'). Large-scale protests followed in Japan, and also in other countries like India [2].

1960-01-02 00:00:00

Nuclear Energy in the 1960s

The 1960s was the beginning of a boom for civilian nuclear power programs, with Germany, Italy, Japan, Belgium, Canada, Sweden, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Spain, and India joining the USSR, the US, the UK, and France as states operating nuclear power plants as part of their energy mix [1].

1960-02-13 00:00:00

Gerboise Bleue

On February 13th, 1960, France detonated a nuclear device in the desert of Algeria.

1961-01-23 00:00:00

Goldsboro B-52 Crash

Recently declassified documents show just how close the US Air Force came to detonating a nuclear bomb over North Carolina on January 23rd, 1961 [1].

1961-10-30 00:00:00

Tsar Bomba

On October 30th, 1961, the Soviet Union detonated the AN602 hydrogen bomb over the Novaya Zemlya archipelago.

1961-12-01 00:00:00

The Irish Resolution Submitted to UNGA

On December 1st, 1961, the UNGA unanimously approved a resolution submitted by Ireland, which called on all states to refrain from transferring or acquiring nuclear weapons. The Irish Resolution would serve as the basis for the drafting of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) at the end of the decade (see “The NPT is Signed – 1968”).

1962-06-01 00:00:00

First Permissive Action Link Controls

With the rapid advancement of nuclear technology and the expansion of the US nuclear weapons program, came new fears over the command and control structure of US nuclear forces. As nuclear warheads became more advanced, and their delivery systems had to be kept at permanent readiness, these weapons also became easier to misuse.

1962-10-16 00:00:00

The Cuban Missile Crisis

As the arms race between the US and the Soviet Union accelerated, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev sought to counter what he perceived as a US strategic advantage by placing nuclear missiles in Cuba. When US president Kennedy learned of this development he launched an air and naval blockade of the island, which nearly led to the outbreak of a hot war between the two superpowers. The crisis was resolved following an agreement between the US and the Soviet Union in which the latter would withdraw their nuclear missiles from Cuba in exchange for the US removing its nuclear missiles from Turkey and Italy. A ‘hotline’ was also established between the United States and the Soviet Union, allowing for direct communication between Soviet and US leaders.

1963-08-05 00:00:00

Limited Test Ban Treaty Signed

In order to prohibit nuclear weapons tests in the atmosphere, outer space or underwater, a Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT) was signed by the United States, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom on August 5th, 1963. It has no defined end-date and, as of 2013, 126 nations have ratified or acceded to the Treaty.

1964-01-29 00:00:00

Release of “Dr Strangelove”

January 29th, 1964, marked the release of the black comedy “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” satirizing the Cold War.

1964-10-16 00:00:00

China 5th Nuclear Power

After the US, the Soviet Union, the UK and France, China became the world’s fifth nuclear power in 1964.

1965-01-01 00:00:00

The Apollo Affair

In 1965 the Pennsylvania based Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation was investigated by the US government after losing 90kg of HEU. The affair unfolded after it was revealed that and Israeli spy Rafael Eitan, who would later become the head of Mossad, had visited the factory in the months preceding the loss. This fueled speculation that the HEU had been passed to Israel by the Jewish American owner of the company, Zalman Shapiro.

1966-01-17 00:00:00

The Palomares Incident

On January 17th, 1966, an American B-52 strategic bomber armed with four hydrogen bombs collided with its refueling plane off the coast of Spain.

1967-03-01 00:00:00

First Nuclear - Weapon-Free Zone

In 1967 the nations of Latin America and the Caribbean came together to declare their hemisphere a ‘nuclear-weapon-free zone’ (NWFZ).

1967-06-01 00:00:00

Israel Makes Nuclear Advances

While US intelligence had discovered Israel’s Dimona facility by 1958, and identified it as a nuclear reactor by 1960, it remained unable to obtain a clear picture on the state of its nuclear weapons program. The US worried about a regional nuclear arms race. But only after increased diplomatic pressure from the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations did Israel accede to the demands for a US inspection of the complex. However, as these inspections were scheduled long in advance, Israel was able to disguise the true nature and extent of its reactor complex [1]. While estimates vary, it is believed that Israel was able to start production of nuclear weapons after the 1967 Six-Day War at the earliest [2].

1968-07-01 00:00:00

The NPT is Signed

The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) was drafted in response to the rapid proliferation of military and civilian nuclear technology during the 1960s. The Treaty was signed on July 1st, 1968, by the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union and 59 other countries and in later years expanded. The Treaty entered into force two years later, in 1970. Since then, NPT Review Conferences have been held every 5 years to assess the operation of the treaty (see “NPT Review and Extension conference – 1995”, "NPT Review stalled--2005" and "2010 NPT Review Conference"). The NPT is widely seen as the cornerstone of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, and consists of three pillars:

1969-10-27 00:00:00

Operation Giant Lance

On October 10, 1969, US President Richard Nixon and national security advisor Henry Kissinger made plans to send a nuclear-armed squadron of B-52 strategic bombers on a series of mock attacks on the Soviet Union. Rather than a deliberate attack, the maneuver was a feint meant to end Soviet support for the Viet Cong, by convincing Hanoi that Nixon was willing to risk nuclear war in his desire to win the Vietnam War.

1969-11-17 00:00:00

Strategic Arms Limitation Talks

In November 1969, serious negotiations began between the United States and the Soviet Union, aimed at stemming the pace of the nuclear arms race, which had been developing rapidly between the Cold War powers.

1970-01-01 00:00:00


Opposition to nuclear energy would increase dramatically in the 1970s. The anti-nuclear movement would pick up in the West, with major protests against nuclear energy erupting in Germany and the United States. The movement’s fears would be later realized by the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979, when a nuclear meltdown resulted in the release of radioactive materials in the US state of Pennsylvania. In the same decade, the United Nations would take action towards implementing a disarmament regime. In spite of these efforts, however, India would become the sixth nation to successfully detonate a nuclear device in 1974. Over the same period, steps were taken, most notably by the IAEA, to increase nuclear security, by recommendations on the protection of nuclear materials.

1970-01-02 00:00:00

Nuclear Energy in the 1970s

The 1970s continued the boom in civilian nuclear power programs that had begun in the 1960s. The global capacity of installed nuclear power crossed the milestone of 100GW in this decade (capacity in 2013 stands at around 372GW) [1]. In addition to the 14 states which had installed nuclear power plants in the 1950s-1960s, 6 more states connected nuclear power plants to their national grids: Pakistan, Czechoslovakia, Argentina, Bulgaria, South Korea and Finland [2].

HCSS Nuclear Timeline

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