Martin Hellman on the risk of nuclear war

Despite the end of the Cold War, there remains some possibility of a major nuclear exchange between some combination of those world powers with more than a couple of hundred nuclear weapons. Such an outcome could arise through accident or miscalculation, unauthorized launch, or simply through the progressive stressing of the situation, in a manner akin to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the Yom Kippur War of 1973, of the Able Archer exercise in 1983.

Martin Hellman – one of the three civilian inventors of public key cryptography – has written a piece describing some statistical ways through which we could contemplate the risk of global nuclear war, as well as evaluate it relative to other threats. As a near-term nightmare scenario, the massive use of nuclear weapons surely exceeds the threat posed by climate change: climatic change across a decade is highly abrupt, whereas the time between the decision to use nuclear weapons and the generation of mass casualties would likely be only minutes.

Based on the frequency with which near misses have taken place, Hellman argues that the perpetuation of the current global nuclear situation carries a 1% per year risk of mass nuclear exchange. He estimates that this exceeds the risk of living beside a nuclear power plant by 1000 to 1 and has a clever rhetorical device for making that concrete:

Equivalently, imagine two nuclear power plants being built on each side of your home. That’s all we can fit next to you, so now imagine a ring of four plants built around the first two, then another larger ring around that, and another and another until there are thousands of nuclear reactors surrounding you. That is the level of risk that my preliminary analysis indicates each of us faces from a failure of nuclear deterrence.

Surely, if his estimate is anywhere near correct, all the ongoing concern about new nuclear power plants should be superseded more than one thousandfold by concern about the state of security in the face of nuclear war. After all, everybody lives with the risk associated with global thermonuclear war and nuclear winter. Only those living fairly close to nuclear power plants bear acute risks associated with meltdowns.

Hellman’s warning is akin to the one repeatedly sounded by former US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who himself revised the American nuclear warplan for the Kennedy administration in 1963. In both cases, the suggestions are similar: work to reduce the number of weapons, increase the time required for anybody to use them, and avoid the complacent belief that the lack of explosive accidents or attacks since the Second World War proves them to be impossible.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

13 thoughts on “Martin Hellman on the risk of nuclear war”

  1. It seems that we often get new things to worry about (ozone depletion, climate change), but rarely escape from the things we had to worry about before (nuclear war).

    It would be nice if we could actually solve a problem once in a while.

  2. US plans separate nuclear command

    The US Air Force (USAF) is planning to set up a new Global Strike Command for its nuclear weapons as part of a re-organisation after recent mishaps.

    The move follows the discovery that six nuclear weapons were mistakenly flown across the US, and that nuclear missile fuses were sent unknowingly to Taiwan.

  3. “When Bill Kaufmann started thinking about the Bomb, Soviet-American tensions were near their peak. A lot of people seriously believed that a nuclear war was possible, even likely. And the U.S. Strategic Air Command’s plan for such a war was, to put it simply, insane. If the Soviet Union invaded Western Europe, SAC’s actual, official, and only plan was to launch its entire atomic arsenal—3,423 nuclear bombs, packing a total of 7,487 megatons of explosive power—against every major urban, industrial, and military target in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and Communist China. The official estimate held that the attack would kill 285 million Russians and Chinese, severely injure 40 million more, and wreak incalculable casualties from radioactive fallout.”

  4. Will the Pentagon Thwart Obama’s Dream of Zero?
    How serious is the president about nuclear disarmament?
    By Ron Rosenbaum
    Posted Friday, Aug. 21, 2009, at 4:14 PM ET

    Barack Obama dreams of Zero. A world without nuclear weapons. None. Zero. The nuclear lions will lie down with the non-nuclear lambs and hope that there are no nuclear wolves hoarding or hiding the deadly devices out there in the darkness. Meanwhile, though, the decisive question—whether this is merely a dream, merely rhetoric—will depend on how seriously the Pentagon’s nuclear commanders take what is, in effect, a mandate to zero themselves out. And there are indications that more forceful direction from the White House is needed if they are to transform Obama’s Zero from dream to reality.

    Obama put Zero on the map at the very beginning of his presidency. In an April speech in Prague, he spoke of a desire for “a world without nuclear weapons.” And when he met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow in July, the two leaders agreed to deep reductions in the number of nuclear warheads and launchers each country keeps at hand, renewing the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty that had been due to expire at the end of this year.

  5. A World Free of Nuclear Weapons
    By George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn.

    The Wall Street Journal
    January 4, 2007; Page A15

    Nuclear weapons today present tremendous dangers, but also an historic opportunity. U.S. leadership will be required to take the world to the next stage — to a solid consensus for reversing reliance on nuclear weapons globally as a vital contribution to preventing their proliferation into potentially dangerous hands, and ultimately ending them as a threat to the world.

    Nuclear weapons were essential to maintaining international security during the Cold War because they were a means of deterrence. The end of the Cold War made the doctrine of mutual Soviet-American deterrence obsolete. Deterrence continues to be a relevant consideration for many states with regard to threats from other states. But reliance on nuclear weapons for this purpose is becoming increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective.

  6. A Real Nuclear Option for the Nominees
    Averting “inadvertent” war in two easy steps.
    By Ron Rosenbaum
    Posted Friday, May 9, 2008, at 2:33 PM ET

    Do you know about this? On Nov. 22, Thanksgiving Day, 2007, two U.S. jets were scrambled from the 90th Fighter Squadron at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska to intercept two Russian long-range “strategic” bombers (strategic being a euphemism for nuclear-capable) in the skies over the Aleutian Islands as the bombers approached Alaskan air space.

    The U.S. F-22 jets monitored the Russian Bear H bombers at close range for a few minutes before the bombers turned back. This encounter was one of the consequences of Vladimir Putin’s decision, announced last August, to resume regular “strategic flights” of its nuclear bombers. Most reports said that the bombers were not carrying nukes, that the flights were ostensibly for “training” and “readiness” purposes, although nuclear armed missions were not explicitly ruled out. And probing the state of U.S. and NATO warning and defense systems and reminding the world of Russia’s superpower status may have been on the agenda as well.


    RUSSIA IS EXPANDING THE SCOPE OF ITS NUCLEAR DOCTRINE to include pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons, Russian Presidential Security Council Chief Nikolai Patrushev said in an interview published Wednesday by Moscow daily Izvestia. The former director of the Federal Security Service (the successor agency to the KGB) emphasized that nuclear weapons might be used in a preventive manner to repel conventional aggression in regional and even local wars. He was talking about the pre-emptive use of tactical nuclear weapons — which is, incidentally, an option the United States retains.

    Russia considers its nuclear arsenal to be the pillar of its defensive military capabilities, and tactical nuclear weapons increasingly have taken a central role in its defensive scenarios since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

    “It is unlikely that the Russians would employ nuclear weapons in any given scenario, but whatever they say publicly has next to no bearing on what they actually would do in an unknowable, future situation.”

    The potentially frightful speed of a modern nuclear exchange means there is little time for deliberation: To whatever extent possible, national command authorities seek to explore, understand and balance ahead of time the complexities and options of any given scenario. These scenarios are among the most closely guarded state secrets in the world. When and how they are updated is not generally a matter for public consumption.

  8. Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov (Russian: Станислав Евграфович Петров) (born c. 1939) is a retired lieutenant colonel of the Soviet Air Defence Forces who deviated from standard Soviet protocol by correctly identifying a missile attack warning as a false alarm on September 26, 1983. This decision may have prevented an accidental retaliatory nuclear attack on the United States and its Western allies. Investigation of the satellite warning system later confirmed that the system had malfunctioned.

    There are varying reports whether Petrov actually reported the alert to his superiors and questions over the part his decision played in preventing nuclear war, because, according to the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation, nuclear retaliation is based on multiple sources that confirm an actual attack. The incident, however, exposed a flaw in the Soviet early warning system. Petrov asserts that he was neither rewarded nor punished for his actions.

  9. India may be reinterpreting its nuclear weapons doctrine, circumstantial evidence suggests, with potentially significant ramifications for the already tenuous nuclear balance in South Asia.

    New assessments suggest that India is considering allowing for pre-emptive nuclear strikes against Pakistan’s arsenal in the event of a war. This would not formally change India’s nuclear doctrine, which bars it from launching a first strike, but would loosen its interpretation to deem pre-emptive strikes as defensive.

    It would also change India’s likely targets, in the event of a war, to make a nuclear exchange more winnable and, therefore, more thinkable.

    Analysts’ assessments, based on recent statements by senior Indian officials, are necessarily speculative. States with nuclear weapons often leave ambiguity in their doctrines to prevent adversaries from exploiting gaps in their proscriptions and to preserve flexibility. But signs of a strategic adjustment in India are mounting.
    Continue reading the main story

    This comes against a backdrop of long-simmering tensions between India and Pakistan — including over state-sponsored terrorism and the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir — which have already led to several wars, the most recent in 1999.

    The new interpretation would be a significant shift in India’s posture that could have far-reaching implications in the region, even if war never comes. Pakistan could feel compelled to expand its arsenal to better survive a pre-emptive strike, in turn setting off an Indian buildup.

  10. “It’s very scary because all the ‘first-strike instability’ stuff is real,” Mr. Narang said, referring to a dynamic in which two nuclear adversaries both perceive a strong incentive to use their warheads first in a war. This is thought to make nuclear conflict more likely.

  11. The fear of a first strike, Mr. Joshi wrote, “incentivizes Pakistan to undertake a massive nuclear buildup, in order to dispel any possibility of India disarming it entirely.”

    India, whatever its strategy, would feel compelled to keep pace.

    Second comes the tightening of nuclear tripwires, Mr. Joshi warned, as “this reciprocal fear of first use could pull each side in the direction of placing nuclear forces on hair-trigger alert.”

    Finally, in any major armed crisis, the logic of a first strike would pull both sides toward nuclear escalation.

    “If Pakistan thinks India will move quickly, Pakistan has an incentive to go even quicker, and to escalate straight to the use of the longer-range weapons,” Mr. Joshi wrote.

    This thinking would apply to India as well, creating a situation in which the nuclear arsenal becomes, as analysts dryly put it, “use it or lose it.”

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