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Defining the WMD debate

Gannett News Service

Weapons of mass destruction have a vocabulary all their own. Some common terms and treaties:


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WMD: Stands for weapons of mass destruction, which include biological, chemical and nuclear weapons.

Chemical weapons: These cause death or injury either by burning and blistering the skin and lungs or by attacking the nervous system. Some of the most common chemical weapons include the nerve agents VX and GB, and the blister agent mustard gas.

Biological weapons: These use microbes or proteins to kill. They include Bacillus anthracis, the bacterium that causes anthrax, the smallpox virus and the naturally occurring vegetable protein ricin.

Nuclear weapons: There are two types of nuclear weapons: atomic bombs and hydrogen bombs.

Atomic bombs like the ones dropped in Japan in 1945 split the nuclei of heavy elements - uranium and plutonium - to release energy through a process called fission, which means to divide. The uranium and plutonium used must be isotopes, naturally or artificially altered forms of an element that can sometimes be highly volatile.

Hydrogen bombs like the ones tested in the Pacific Ocean during the Cold War fuse, or bind, the nuclei of hydrogen isotopes to release energy much like the sun releases energy by fusing helium. Hydrogen bombs yield explosions thousands of times more powerful than fission bombs, and require atomic bombs as triggers to initiate the fusion. This makes them far more complex to make than atom bombs.

Nuclear weapons kill people near the blast by vaporizing tissue with searing heat. The shock wave created in the explosion can destroy buildings and kill people several miles away. Bombs can also kill people miles away with radiation, which can take days.

Nations with nuclear weapons: The United States, Russia, France, Great Britain, India, Pakistan, China and Israel have nuclear weapons. Israel is strongly believed to have an arsenal of close to 200 warheads, but it will not admit or deny that it has them. North Korea claims it has nuclear weapons, but that has not been verified.

International Atomic Energy Agency: The Vienna, Austria-based agency monitors and inspects nuclear technology worldwide to certify that it is not being used to make weapons. It was established as an autonomous organization under the United Nations in 1957.

Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: Under the terms of the treaty, known as NPT, five of the world's eight nuclear powers have agreed to disarm while the 182 non-nuclear signatories have agreed to remain free of nuclear weapons. India and Pakistan have refused to sign the treaty, which was created in 1968 and entered into force in 1970. Israel refuses to admit it has nuclear weapons.

Chemical Weapons Convention: This calls for the elimination of chemical weapons. The treaty was entered into force in 1997; 153 countries have signed and ratified it, including the United States.

Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention: This calls for eliminating biological weapons. The treaty was entered into force in 1975; 151 countries have signed and ratified it, including the United States.

Worldwide Threat Briefing: An annual briefing on the state of threats to the United States, given to Congress by the CIA director.

Source: GNS research