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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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  • by Lawrence_Bird ( 67278 ) on Sunday April 06, 2008 @08:38AM (#22979132) Homepage
    Basis of his 'estimates'? Access to SIOP? Access to any other data, either physical or strategic of our, our allies or our 'adversaries' nuclear weapons/plans? Oh.. zero? By all means lets trumpet his 'work' outside his area of training as authoritative, complete with requisite frightening headlines.
  • by petes_PoV ( 912422 ) on Sunday April 06, 2008 @08:44AM (#22979154)
    Just because this guy invented (or part-invented) an encryption technique, he is not necessarily an expert in any other field - no matter how much of a celebtrity he may be.

    While he may have "woken up" to the threat of nuclear weapons, and can use his established reputation to help reduce the threat they pose, he is certainly not an expert and his opinions (for that is all they are) carry no greater weight than yours or mine.

    Beware of celebreties with a cause.

  • by QuantumG ( 50515 ) * <> on Sunday April 06, 2008 @08:59AM (#22979210) Homepage Journal
    Well, to be fair, it makes as much sense as having enough weapons to destroy the Earth 56 times. :)

  • by tomtomtom777 ( 1148633 ) on Sunday April 06, 2008 @09:07AM (#22979244) Homepage

    Just because this guy invented (or part-invented) an encryption technique, he is not necessarily an expert in any other field - no matter how much of a celebtrity he may be.

    Just because this guy invented an encryption technique, doesn't mean he less capable of studying the risks than some nuclear expert. At a first glance, he doesn't seem to claim anything outrageous.

    Beware of "celebrities" with a cause, but not necessarily more or less then "experts" with a cause

  • by gnick ( 1211984 ) on Sunday April 06, 2008 @09:35AM (#22979354) Homepage

    Well, to be fair, it makes as much sense as having enough weapons to destroy the Earth 56 times.
    I'm personally of the opinion that way too much $$$ goes into maintaining the size of the stockpile that we have. But, the massive size isn't as ludicrous as it might sound. The point of having too many weapons isn't so that you can wipe out huge regions multiple times - Just the opposite. By having a large range of nuclear capabilities, you can hit small strategic targets or large targets as necessary while minimizing "splash". If all we had was huge city-killers that could kill the earth once, we'd have to kill huge regions just to hit small hardened targets. But, we have city killers and (relatively) small target killers. Of course, just how small we can design them is restricted by international treaty to make sure that we're not tempted to deploy except in dire need.
  • by Cairnarvon ( 901868 ) on Sunday April 06, 2008 @10:29AM (#22979652) Homepage
    The point of having a stockpile of nuclear weapons isn't to use it, it's *only* to act as a detterent. There's no nuclear weapon small enough that it won't seriously impact innocent civilians, unless you're targetting tiny islands in the Pacific.
  • Re:Junk Science (Score:4, Insightful)

    by vrmlguy ( 120854 ) <> on Sunday April 06, 2008 @10:49AM (#22979754) Homepage Journal

    Real scientists should shun engineers who warn about. 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.
    By that logic, on the morning January 28, 1986, NASA's management was right to ignore the engineers warning that the Space Shuttle Challenger might explode. Those guys also had an unverifiable model: A shuttle had never failed, so they had no data to go off of. Not only had it never failed, they had no way of knowing how close it had ever come to failing. []
  • by gnick ( 1211984 ) on Sunday April 06, 2008 @11:23AM (#22980008) Homepage
    I mostly agree. Nuclear war would be abysmal and should be avoided at (nearly) any cost. But, your deterrent is only as good as your ability.

    If Elbonia possesses a single nuclear weapon strong enough to destroy the entire planet, other countries would assume that they could molest Elbonia quite a bit before pushing them far enough to employ their nuclear 'arsenal'. Even small-scale nuclear attacks may go unresponded.

    But, if Elbonia possesses a large selection of tiny nukes that could target arbitrary targets globally with minimal side effects, that would be a reasonable deterrent to keep other nations from harassing Elbonia . Nations would refrain from nuking Elbonia for fear that Elbonia would actually respond in kind.

    Basically, you have to be able to convince the world that you *could* use your arsenal and *would* use your arsenal if you had to. It's a disgusting situation, but it's reality for now.

    And, the stockpile isn't *just* to have a deterrent. It's mainly for use as a deterrent and, gods-willing, it will never be needed for anything else. But, if we were nuked, it would become a horrible but possibly necessary actual selection of weaponry... If we were to ever set some idiotic policy such as "we would never deploy nuclear weapons for any reason", we would no longer have a deterrent and would be inviting attack.
  • by camelrider ( 46141 ) on Sunday April 06, 2008 @11:32AM (#22980086)
    Well, nuclear power plants in Western Europe and North America have shown themselves to be pretty safe.

    A dozen automobiles are far more dangerous than "thousands" of nuclear power plants. How about one meth lab? Or even one anthracite-powered power plant?

  • by Logic and Reason ( 952833 ) on Sunday April 06, 2008 @11:44AM (#22980198)
    The word is 'cryptanalyst', not 'crypto-analyst'. And Hellman is a cryptographer (or cryptologist), not a cryptanalyst. Cryptographers create encryption schemes; cryptanalysts break them.
  • by Dun Malg ( 230075 ) on Sunday April 06, 2008 @12:36PM (#22980578) Homepage

    Imagine if you would a nuclear storage facility in Russia which during a routine disposal of a weapon something goes horribly wrong and it goes off
    Imagine throwing a pile of bricks and a bucket of mortar in the air and having them come down fully assembled into a perfect patio barbecue. That's about the likelihood of your scenario. Setting off nukes isn't like lighting a fuse on a stick of dynamite. It requires very precise timing, a virtually simultaneous detonation of the high explosives surrounding the warhead. An accidental detonation would be highly asymmetrical and merely result in the immediate area being peppered with fragments of plutonium.
  • by Conspicuous Coward ( 938979 ) on Sunday April 06, 2008 @01:02PM (#22980736)

    Just because the cold war is over people tend to assume nuclear war isn't much of a risk anymore. I think the risk of a nuclear war is high and increasing, and believe that nuclear weapons are still the number one threat to the survival of the human race.

    More countries have nukes than at the height of the cold war, some of those (india and pakistan for example) with pretty belligerent attitudes towards each other. The US is increasing its already massive arsenal, and working on a missile defense system that most of the other nuclear powers see as a first strike weapon. This encourages proliferation and increases tensions, for example with russia.

    Add to that the impending consequences of global warming, and the struggle for resources this will no doubt trigger, and the powder keg that is the current conflict over dwindling oil resources in the middle east, and I think the risk of a serious global conflict that could spill over into nuclear war is much higher than is generally credited.

    The only sane path is still multilateral disarmament. The longer these weapons exist the more the cumulative probability of their use approaches 1, you don't need to be a cryptographer to work that one out.

  • by MicktheMech ( 697533 ) on Sunday April 06, 2008 @01:07PM (#22980764) Homepage
    Yeah, the comparison seems to have more to do with the safety of nuclear power plants than the danger of nuclear weapons. Don't get me wrong, Nuclear power plants create a large potential hazard, but with the systems in place now they're a lot less dangerous than people perceive them to be.
  • John McPhee (Score:3, Insightful)

    by giminy ( 94188 ) on Sunday April 06, 2008 @02:25PM (#22981300) Homepage Journal
    For another (older but still very relevant) look at this and related issues (such as what to do with the plutonium by-product of power generating reactors), look no further than John McPhee's The Curve of Binding Energy. It's an extraordinarily interesting issue that will only become more pressing as time goes on. Unfortunately, it isn't as widely reported on as it used to be, which I suspect is due to political/embarrassment reasons...
  • by smaddox ( 928261 ) on Sunday April 06, 2008 @03:17PM (#22981690)
    Weapons of this size actually have very significant fallout. The reason it is only 10 tons is because of a lack of efficiency. Most of the nuclear material is not fissioned, and so it stays in the air.
  • by zippthorne ( 748122 ) on Sunday April 06, 2008 @08:14PM (#22983736) Journal
    I suppose that could be the reason, but a far more compelling reason is redundancy. Of course that presumes competence in the decision makers, but the argument goes like this:

    You don't ever want a nuclear weapon to go off where you don't want it to go off. If it blows up in the factory, or gets launched and blows up over the enemy you didn't actually have yet, it's very bad for you. i.e. you want it to have an extremely low false-positive rate. So you optimize the design for failure.

    But when you do need nukes, you need them to take out the target. You can mitigate a high false-negative rate with redundancy. If 4/5 bombs shake themselves into dudiness, but you send fifty-six bombs, you've got your five 9s of reliability right there.

    So the proper strategy would be to have an overwhelming abundance of easily disabled bombs. (and you need to design your over-abundance around the end-of-life expected failure rate)
  • by dsmall ( 933970 ) on Monday April 07, 2008 @03:13AM (#22986136)

    I am quite annoyed at the incredible sloppiness at the IEEE site.

    I quote from their site thus:

    "Hellman has set up a Web site related to his nuclear deterrence work. From there you can download the Bent article. You can also view a statement signed by Richard L. Garwin, who came up with the design for the first hydrogen bomb;..."

    Where IEEE dreamed this ... whopper ... up is beyond me, especially now that most of the classification barriers are down and the truth is widely known. This goes into the "bonehead" mistake bin.

    First hydrogen bomb was the Teller-Ulam design, who share the patent, tested Nov 1, 1952, yield 10.4 MT, codename 'Mike'. The history of that design is pretty well known (for example, see Rhodes, 'Dark Sun'). Things were very stuck around 1950. The 'Classical' H-bomb design did not work according to computer simulation. So things sat in 1950.

    Then, suddenly, something new: Stan Ulam pointed an new idea out to Teller, and Teller came up with another idea, and it was a *staged* approach, "technically sweet" (as Oppy put it). Mar 9, 1951, a paper with the first half was published (quite classified). Within a month, Teller thought of the second critical part. (Rhodes, pp. 776). Suddenly everyone thought there was a legitimate chance. There was high activity work leading to a full scale test in late 1952. It worked.

    Now, where is 'Inventor Garwin'? He is not even in the index of Rhodes' book. (!!)

    But from, looking up Garwin, I see: "He received the B.S. in Physics from Case Institute of Technology, Cleveland, in 1947, and the Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Chicago in 1949." and "After three years on the faculty of the University of Chicago, he joined IBM Corporation in 1952, ..."

    Ahh, I see. He got his Ph.D. in Physics, presumably while secretly helping Los Alamos, and joined the U of Chicago, where he sneaked ideas to Stanislav Ulam and Edward Teller across the desk, as it were, you know, down the hall, a mere thousand miles away.

    I've usually found that on nearly anything, when they can't get the basics right, there are serious flaws in the rest. And yes -- there are serious flaws, as to be expected.

    Quick example: tritium. United States weapons are designed to use tritium as a booster in the primary stage. The trouble is, tritium is radioactive, and has a 12 year half-life. It goes bad quickly, in other words. Try to fire a nuke whose tritium has been sitting around for, oh, 24 years (two half lives), and you may get yourself a fizzle yield. This is called "embarrassing", especially if you didn't get a warranty on that nuke from Nukes 'R 'Us.

    At Pantex, in near Amarillo, TX, where we are disassembling nukes to keep up with treaty obligations, the last I read was that we were tearing down 3 warheads to gather enough tritium to refill 1. This means there are, well, boneyards full of nukes that ... just don't work, but somehow get counted as active ... if they make the report more scary.

    I generally find that people who are trying to scare a new "We're All Gonna Die In 20 Years" movement up never think of the tedious reality of these things.

    I'm an older guy.

    I remember the scare tactics.

    1970's: Overpopulation.

    1980's: Nuclear War (and Nuclear Winter)

    1990's: The Ozone Layer

    Incredibly, we're all still alive.

    I have seen this game before and I think I can tell you what it's all about. Someone's trying to start up another "We're all gonna die in 20 years" movement.

    Right now is the time to hammer a wooden stake through its heart.



    The thesis is stupid. "Deterrence is dangerous"? Look around. We're all still alive despite the most psychotic leadership imaginable in charge of tens of thousands of nuclear
  • by carnivorouscow ( 1255116 ) on Monday April 07, 2008 @03:18AM (#22986160)
    Even a "small" atomic weapon will kill a city, little boy was approximately 15 KT and there wasn't a whole lot left of Hiroshima after it was used. To put the size of that weapon in context one warhead in a modern MIRV package is 100+ KT. The reason for eliminating megaton weapons was because missile accuracy became good enough that they were no longer necessary to compensate for being off target. The additional mass that went into a single large weapon became several smaller weapons with improved accuracy and addition fuel for increased range.

    The reason our weapon arsenal is so large isn't target diversity, it's to insure it became impossible to win an atomic war with an overwhelming initial strike. with 10,000 warheads 99% of them could be destroyed in their silos, hangers or subs and there would still be enough atomic weapons left to still annihilate the aggressor nation. Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) is a frightening policy but it's the reason we ended up with this huge stockpile of weapons.

"There is no distinctly American criminal class except Congress." -- Mark Twain