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How Risky Is Deterrence?

Professors urge scientists to do the math on nuclear disasters.

Brian Stauffer

As a result of the cold war thaw and improved Russian-American relations, the world's nuclear stockpile has shrunk by two-thirds. That's good news, but the fact that 25,000 nuclear weapons still lie nestled in various locations on the planet should have more people very worried, says Martin Hellman, emeritus professor of electrical engineering.

According to Hellman's own rough calculations, the possibility of another nuclear episode—including all-out nuclear war—is likely to be 1,000 to 10,000 times greater than most of us could tolerate. “The risk is equivalent to that of having thousands of nuclear power plants surrounding your house—there's too much of a chance that one of them could fail,” Hellman says. The danger, he warns, is only increasing with each new entrant into the nuclear weapons club, which may soon include terrorist groups.

Since last year, Hellman has been publicly calling for scientists to conduct formal risk-analysis studies to determine how likely it is that deterrence—the building up of tit-for-tat formidable nuclear stockpiles, our main method of avoiding nuclear war—could fail in the future.

“Although at first it doesn't sound like much, such research would be a critical first step toward raising public awareness about the situation,” Hellman says. Among the seven prominent signers of a statement urging scientific support are two Nobel laureates from Stanford, Professor Kenneth Arrow (economics) and Professor Martin Perl (physics), as well as Stanford's President Emeritus Donald Kennedy, former Dean of Engineering William Kays, and former National Security Agency director Bobby Inman.

The statement is featured on Hellman's website, Defusing the Nuclear Threat (, dedicated to raising the alarm about the potentially unacceptable risk of nuclear catastrophe that society faces, and to spurring action for change.

Hellman is no Dr. Doom. “I assume what one of Stanford's most beloved professors of past decades, Harry Rathbun, called 'the nobler hypothesis'—that people are in fact capable of change, and that although a positive outcome may seem impossible now, it is achievable,” he says. “Prior to Gorbachev, if you had told me that a chairman of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union would not wage war on states that seceded, for example, I would have thought you were crazy. That's just one instance of the kind of change that's possible.”

Hellman, who is perhaps best known for his invention of the revolutionary public-key and trap-door encryption methods, has been working on the issue of nuclear deterrence since 1980, when he first participated in a “quest for meaning” group led by Rathbun and Rathbun's wife, Emilia. Disturbed by the threat of nuclear escalation posed by growing U.S.-Russia tensions, the group turned its attention to activist efforts aimed at creating a world “beyond war.”

With the eventual fall of the Iron Curtain, however, not only did the nuclear threat seem to lessen temporarily, but so did public interest in disarmament. “I knew the problem wasn't solved; at best we had bequeathed the reckoning to our children,” Hellman says.

In his search for solutions, last fall Hellman came to the realization that people are terribly polarized about the seriousness of the nuclear threat. “On the one hand are those like me, for whom the risk of our current nuclear weapons policy is so clear on an intuitive level that we had not bothered to analyze it,” he says. “On the other are those who look at the success of deterrence as evidenced by the fact that there hasn't been a world war in 63 years, and they think the risk is near zero.

“I realized we needed to quantify the risk,” Hellman explains. “That would help resolve the differences espoused by well-meaning people on both sides of the issue.”

Hellman's clarion call for risk-analysis studies is aimed at agencies, educational institutions, scientific societies and the U.S. government—anyone with the funding and personnel to carry it through. “This project doesn't take a position on goals such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the abolition of nuclear weapons, or world peace,” he emphasizes. “Rather, we see research as a necessary step that might allow some or all of those goals to be achieved if the proposed studies show they are needed.”

Hellman hopes his efforts eventually will reach the new occupant of the White House but notes, “No president will touch the issue of nuclear deterrence until there is a public outcry. The United States must take the lead on this issue and think several moves out. The future of civilization could depend on it.”

Read a March 2010 update on this story.

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