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Encryption Security Math Government Science Politics

Former Crypto-Analyst Analyzes the Danger of Nuclear Weapon Stockpiles 142

An anonymous reader writes "IEEE Spectrum reports that noted encryption pioneer Prof. Martin Hellman has a new passion; estimating the risk of our current nuclear weapons policies. His web site, Defusing the Nuclear Threat, asks the question, 'How risky are nuclear weapons? Amazingly, no one seems to know.' Hellman therefore did a preliminary analysis and found the risk to be 'equivalent to having your home surrounded by thousands of nuclear power plants.' The web site and a related statement therefore urgently call for more detailed studies to either confirm or correct his startling conclusion. The statement has been signed by seven notable individuals including former NSA Director Adm. Bobby R. Inman and two Nobel Laureates."
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Former Crypto-Analyst Analyzes the Danger of Nuclear Weapon Stockpiles

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  • Junk Science (Score:2, Informative)

    by tsotha ( 720379 ) on Sunday April 06, 2008 @09:08AM (#22979248)

    Real scientists should shun these kinds of people. This guy has a completely unverifiable model and feeds garbage information into it. He's trying to predict the likelihood of deterrence failing. But it's never failed, so he has no data to go off of. Not only has it never failed, when we think deterrence has been close to failing, we have no way of knowing how close. There's simply no way to assign probabilities to complex chains of events involving humans.

    There's nothing to be learned from a model like this. It's just a good way to lie to yourself and others. It's not falsifiable. It's not science. It's politics.

  • If having all these nuclear weapons is "equivalent to having your home surrounded by thousands of nuclear power plants.", then I feel pretty safe... I mean, despite all the hype around "nuclear disasters" at these power plants, they have proven very safe when managed properly. Most nuclear plants have been running in the U.S. and France for more than 30 years without issues.

    But I doubt this is where Mr Hellman was coming from. Instead, he was using the hype of the nuclear power plants being bad and dangerous to (unsuccessfully) draw a comparison to try to scare people, making him just another alarmist (sorta like Al Gore is for Global Warming).

    Instead of trying to scare people with such silly hype and alarmist speech, could we an intelligent conversation? Thanks.

  • by CrimsonAvenger ( 580665 ) on Sunday April 06, 2008 @09:27AM (#22979322)

    So if one of these nuclear power plants exploded

    The only way to make a nuclear power plant explode is to fill it with dynamite and light the fuse - the fissionables have zero chance of exploding.

    The only threat from surrounding your house with thousands of nuclear power plants is that the cooling towers would affect the wind patterns around your house....

  • by nbauman ( 624611 ) on Sunday April 06, 2008 @10:55AM (#22979792) Homepage Journal
    To answer those who say, "What does some guy who invented an algorithm know about nuclear war," (1) IEEE Spectrum checked Hellman's claims with 2 reliable, independent experts and (2) A long list of people who do know about nuclear war signed on to his claims. You might take seriously the former director of the CIA, the former president's science advisor, 2 Nobel laureates, and the (Republican) former head of the FDA.

    (But that is a reasonable question -- you get points for skepticism.)

    This teaches 2 related lessons about journalism and science:

    (1) There are 2 kinds of publications in the world -- those that check their facts and those that don't. The first are reliable; the second aren't. This is why some obscure guy publishing a blog can be more reliable than most major newspapers and TV stations. (Or in this case, why IEEE Spectrum is more reliable than most daily newspapers.)

    (2) There are 2 kinds of scientists in the world -- those who gather a consensus of experts before going public, and those who don't. The first are reliable; the second aren't. (This is why that story recently about cell phones causing brain cancer by an Australian neurologist was complete bullshit.) Hellman is competent enough in science to know that.

    According to TFA http://www.spectrum.ieee.org/apr08/6099 [ieee.org]

    Hellman's method isn't unfamiliar to those trying to gauge the risk of failure for complex systems, such as nuclear reactors. IEEE Spectrum asked J. Wesley Hines, a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Tennessee, to examine Hellman's methods, which were detailed in the appendix of the Bent article. "I only read the appendix but feel his argument is rational and also feel his methods are justified," says Hines. "Some could argue with the numbers he used, but he does give logical reasons for using those numbers and admits that they have large uncertainties since the events have been rare in the past."

    Robert N. Charette, who runs the risk-management consultancy ITABHI and is a regular contributor to IEEE Spectrum, agrees with Hines. However, he says Hellman should have also turned the analysis on its head. "The other side of the risk equation is, suppose you get rid of nuclear weapons. Does that increase the probability of war? Pretending there aren't any nukes, how many wars would we have had?"

    And the signers http://nuclearrisk.org/statement.php [nuclearrisk.org]

    The above statement has been endorsed by the following Charter Signers:*
    Prof. Kenneth Arrow, Stanford University, 1972 Nobel Laureate in Economics; see also Nobel Announcement
    Mr. D. James Bidzos, Chairman of the Board, Verisign Inc.
    Dr. Richard Garwin, IBM Fellow Emeritus, former member President's Science Advisory Committee and Defense Science Board; see also NY Times article
    Adm. Bobby R. Inman, USN (Ret.), University of Texas at Austin, former Director NSA and Deputy Director CIA
    Prof. William Kays, former Dean of Engineering, Stanford University
    Prof. Donald Kennedy, President Emeritus of Stanford University, former head of FDA
    Prof. Martin Perl, Stanford University, 1995 Nobel Laureate in Physics; see also Nobel Announcement

    (BTW, here's a tip for any student. You used to be able to get a student membership in the IEEE, which includes a subscription to Spectrum and another (expensive) IEEE magazine of your choice, for some ridiculously low amount like $12 a year. It's a great deal for the magazines alone, although IEEE membership has even better benefits that most students don't even know about.)
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 06, 2008 @11:40AM (#22980162)

    Most nuclear plants have been running in the U.S. and France for more than 30 years without issues.

    Most, without issues?. Not all? What does most mean to us?

    1. 1. -- There is NO safe dose of ionizing radiation, and also economic viability
    2. 2. -- Nuclear power plant incidents at home and abroad
    3. 3. -- Nuclear power plant incident preparedness documents
    4. 4. -- A little alarmist media, because sometimes we should be alarmed

    1. -- Some exerpts from "The Politics of Power: Risks and Costs of Nuclear Power Plants": http://www.garynull.com/The%20Politics%20of%20Power%20Final%20&%20Final%20Footnotes.pdf [garynull.com]

    The NAS (The National Academies of Science (NAS) report, Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation,) finding had long ago been discovered and presented by John Gofman, M.D., Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California and Chairman of the Committee for Nuclear Responsibility (CNR). Dr. Gofman said the following in 1994:

    The lowest dose of ionizing radiation is one nuclear track through one cell...Either a track goes through the nucleus and affects it, or it doesn't...I came up with nine studies of cancer being produced where we're dealing with up to maybe eight or 10 tracks per cell. Four involved breast cancer ... it's not a question of 'We don't know.' The DOE has never refuted this evidence. They just ignore it, because it's inconvenient. We can now say, there cannot be a safe dose of radiation. There is no safe threshold. If this truth is known, then any permitted radiation is a permit to commit murder.


    Critics complain that nuclear energy is expensive because of (1) the time and resources it takes to build and decommission nuclear power plants and other nuclear facilities; (2) the hidden costs of mining the uranium ores, reprocessing and storing the waste, and purging the environment of radioactive pollution; and (3) costly health problems from exposure to low level radiation. The Department of Energy (DOE) has admitted that, "economic viability for a nuclear plant is difficult to demonstrate."

    Thomas Cochran, a nuclear physicist and Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) says that nuclear power is "uneconomical, it has a safety problem, it has a horrendous proliferation problem on the global level, and it has a long-term waste problem that hasn't been solved."iii He notes that "nuclear power would be a great solution to greenhouse gases" that cause global warming, were it not for those four problems!

    2. -- http://www.atomicarchive.com/Reports/Japan/Accidents.shtml [atomicarchive.com] This link is a list of "Major Nuclear Power Plant Incidents" from around the world, including the US.

    Here's another one from last year in Michigan: http://blog.mlive.com/grpress/2008/02/palisades_nuclear_power_plant.html [mlive.com]

    3. -- http://www.redcross.org/images/pdfs/code/nuclear_power_plant.pdf [redcross.org] and http://www.fema.gov/areyouready/nuclear_power_plants.shtm [fema.gov] are links to the Red Cross and FEMA nuclear power plant incident preparedness documents.

    4. -- http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=7553564094124690254 [google.com]

  • RTFA (Score:3, Informative)

    by Britz ( 170620 ) on Sunday April 06, 2008 @03:07PM (#22981594)
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_winter [wikipedia.org]

    I didn't put the link there for fun. Here is an interesting part:

    2007 study on global nuclear war

    A study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research in July 2007[3], Nuclear winter revisited with a modern climate model and current nuclear arsenals: Still catastrophic consequences[4], used current climate models to look at the consequences of a global nuclear war involving most or all of the world's current nuclear arsenals (which the authors described as being only about a third the size of the world's arsenals twenty years earlier). The authors used a global circulation model, ModelE from the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, which they noted "has been tested extensively in global warming experiments and to examine the effects of volcanic eruptions on climate." The model was used to investigate the effects of a war involving the entire current global nuclear arsenal, projected to release about 150 Tg of smoke into the atmosphere (1 Tg is equal to 1012 grams), as well as a war involving about one third of the current nuclear arsenal, projected to release about 50 Tg of smoke. In the 150 Tg case they found that:

            A global average surface cooling of -7C to -8C persists for years, and after a decade the cooling is still -4C (Fig. 2). Considering that the global average cooling at the depth of the last ice age 18,000 yr ago was about -5C, this would be a climate change unprecedented in speed and amplitude in the history of the human race. The temperature changes are largest over land ... Cooling of more than -20C occurs over large areas of North America and of more than -30C over much of Eurasia, including all agricultural regions.

Always leave room to add an explanation if it doesn't work out.