If you thought the Cold War was over—that long nuclear standoff that shaped the last five decades of the 20th century—think again. Following his American counterpart, and perhaps prompted by new tensions over the war in Georgia and the agreement between the U.S. and Poland to deploy a missile defense system there, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev has announced plans to upgrade that country's "nuclear deterrent" by 2020.

It's part of a full upgrade for the Russian armed forces: more nuclear-powered subs, better bombs as well as their own "air and space defense network". "Star wars" has at last come to a galaxy not so far away.

The move prompted U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to boast that the U.S. possesses an "extremely capable, robust, broad and indeed varied nuclear deterrent," according to an interview with Reuters. That no doubt includes not only the hit-or-miss missile defense effort but also plans to build new nuclear weapons and the industrial complex that develops and fabricates them.

At the same time, the U.S. has given its tacit approval to India's uninvited entry into the ever less exclusive nuclear weapons club; the Congress* approved a deal that would give India access to U.S. nuclear know-how for the first time since the Asian democracy exploded an atomic bomb in 1974.

The deal would neuter international treaties on nuclear testing and nonproliferation, according to critics, or simply make a special exception for India, according to proponents.

The deal is aimed only at bolstering India's nuclear power industry, a technology which other developing countries such as Egypt, Vietnam and even the oil-rich Persian Gulf states (especially Iran) have expressed interest in pursuing (or are pursuing). In order to fend off concurrent nuclear weapon proliferation—because running civilian nuclear reactors also produces the radioactive elements required for an atomic bomb—the science academies in both the U.S. and Russia argue in a new report that similar exceptions must be made for these countries.

Instead of allowing them to develop domestic nuclear capabilities, though, the scientists from the two leading nuclear powers argue that internationally controlled facilities should produce the world's fissile fuel—and take back the radioactive waste / bomb material at the end of its useful power-generating life.

In other words, the atomic age is approaching critical mass again.

Credit: Alice McKernon/istockphoto.com

* Article was updated on 10/2/08 to reflect Senate passage of the nuclear deal with India.