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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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  • misleading summary (Score:5, Interesting)

    by aleph42 ( 1082389 ) * on Sunday April 06, 2008 @08:34AM (#22979110)

    I find the summary misleading. I thought the risk analysis was about incidents with nuclear weapons when at peace, but he only calculates the risks of all out nuclear war.

    While it's an interseting number it's not a useful one to take a decision, since one of the sad premise of today's war strategy is that, since others have the nuclear weapon, you must have it too. No one is going to dump his nuke stocks because he might have to use them some days.

    It's like doing an article summary saying "having a gun in your room is dangerous", when it really means "a gunfight is something that might happen".

    I would have been more interested by numbers about the effects of an all out nuclear war. The only ones I can remember are that a US president was told (during the cold war) that scenarios predicted 300 million american death *at best* in a *winned* nuclear war against Russia. The second one ( which I'm not sure about) is that, at the peak of the number of nukes between US and Russia, they could have "destroyed the earth 52 times" (killed everything on it? phisically shatter?).

    Does anyone have more details concerning these numbers?
  • by Rosco P. Coltrane ( 209368 ) on Sunday April 06, 2008 @08:42AM (#22979150)
    ...which are managed by a monkey and operated by people with a god complex.

    You might find this [] refreshing then.

    Quite frankly, I reckon even if these (carefully screened) individuals who control the nuclear arsenal were trigger-happy, they'd quickly rethink their situation when they realize they have the destiny of the world in their hands. Yes, even the chief monkey in the White House.
  • by aleph42 ( 1082389 ) * on Sunday April 06, 2008 @09:16AM (#22979282)
    I agree that the MAD strategy sounds stupid, but the fact is that it seems to work.

    An optimistic view of MAD would be that countries accessing to nukes are forced to act in a "mature" way: to preserve the statu-quo and limit the power struggles to cold wars (through proxy states like Viet-nam, or through economical, and now "cyber" warfare).

    A pesimistic view would be that with thechnology ever rising (*), it becomes easier and easier to get the nuke; and once an unstabble country gets it, any coup can land a nuke to some weirdo. We already had one country (Pakistan?) selling nuclear tech to pretty much anybody (they blamed it on one guy when it got known).

    (*): For example, the missile itself is an important part of the potential danger (think Cuba), and right now for smaller bazooka like missiles, a PS2 is enough do the guidance system.

    As for the forcefield: the US are supposely building an anti-missile shield (hit-to-kill missiles), but it's really not working that well. And at the beggining of the cold war it would have been a _very_ risked bet.

    (btw, thanks for commenting on the sig! You inserted some code in your comment, but I was thinking more along the line of a grammar tree to hide the instructions in some normal-looking text ^^ )
  • by gnick ( 1211984 ) on Sunday April 06, 2008 @09:29AM (#22979326) Homepage
    I work very close to the issue at hand and can testify to seeing major gaps in the "careful screening" that goes into clearing the persons responsible. And it's distressing - Minor security incidents that clearly implicate cleared individuals go largely uninvestigated (petty theft, etc.) But, on a bright note, there's so much redundancy and security-bureaucracy that the security environment for special nuclear material or critical weapons components is actually very good (if rather expensive).
  • by RAMMS+EIN ( 578166 ) on Sunday April 06, 2008 @09:35AM (#22979352) Homepage Journal
    ``Our desire for cheap international trade based around largely uninspected shipping containers exposes us to an enormous risk.''

    The counter point to this is that while, indeed, the system is far from secure, things seem to be going alright.

    I find this is the key difference between Real World security and computer security. In computer security, weaknesses, once known, _will_ be exploited on a massive scale. In the Real World, things are often far less grave. This explains both why so few people get computer security right (applying a Real World "it will be ok" attitude to computer security is a mistake), and why I think people should just relax and not worry so much about, for example, terrorists blowing up airplanes.

    Security should, at least in my opinion, always be a cost-benefit trade-off. More severe security measures can reduce the risk of a disastrous security breach, but security measures incur their own cost, which you pay every day, even if no security breach is even attempted. The trick is finding the right balance.

    Of course, it isn't a very comfortable idea that you or your friends might be blown up anytime, or get ruined by identity fraud, but I'd honestly rather live with that idea than to spend my life locked up in my house, afraid to go out because the bus might be blown up, and afraid to order anything online because my credit card data could be stolen...and _still_ run the risk to get killed in an earthquake.
  • by Diagoras ( 859063 ) on Sunday April 06, 2008 @09:39AM (#22979366) []

    Useful analysis of the effects of a nuclear war.

    Overkill is a myth.
  • by smallfries ( 601545 ) on Sunday April 06, 2008 @09:49AM (#22979432) Homepage
    Although the OP has already said above that he was quoting from memory and the number is probably wrong - it would be a neat trick. At the height of the cold war "winning" was defined as having more of your population survive than the other side. This was also the criteria that the Indians were using to claim they could "win" a war against Pakistan if Kashmir ever went hot.

    Depending on how long you run the stats for it is not impossible that that percentage of the US would have been wiped out in a full-scale exchange with the old USSR. Not all of them in the initial explosions (which would have blanketed every major urban area and several non-urban but military sites) but the country would not have been able to function in the aftermath.

    Ignoring the effects of a nuclear winter and just considering the raw effects of massive irratiated zones up and down the country, complete standstill in economy and transportation. Within a few years of the initial exchange those death tolls don't look quite so unreasonable. Even for the "winning side". Scary stuff indeed.

    PS This new enforced preview is a bugger. I missed the date on your pop. estimate and so now I see your point. I thought you merely meant that a percentage that high was unlikey.... oh well, moving on.
  • by sycodon ( 149926 ) on Sunday April 06, 2008 @10:53AM (#22979780)

    The MAD policy was presumably successful in that the soviet Union never attacked, even during such tense times as the Cuban Missile Crises.

    There were many successful treaties regarding nuclear weapons negotiated so "oh well I dont (sic) give a shit about resolving conflict" is an ignorant statement at best.

    And your analogy about punches, knifes, guns is inaccurate in that MAD was not about escalation, but deterrent.

    MAD was the ONLY viable policy in that the U.S.S.R. had publicly stated that their goal was complete domination "We will bury you". They didn't want to play nice. They put up the Iron Curtian. They encourage communist coups.

  • by capnkr ( 1153623 ) on Sunday April 06, 2008 @11:00AM (#22979838)
    I'd rather be in a home surrounded by nuke plants than by coal/oil plants, anyway.

    During peacetime, things would be much cleaner in my environment.

    And, if the missiles ever really start flying, I would be assured of a quick ticket outta here, before having to live in a screwed up world full of nuclear winter.

    Besides - power plants used to be targeted anyway, I'd bet - *regardless* of what source/type of fuel they used.

    Mod story "boring and pointless fearmongering (again)"...
  • by nbauman ( 624611 ) on Sunday April 06, 2008 @11:24AM (#22980024) Homepage Journal

    This is about like the guy who does the obituaries column in the local paper sounding the alarm about nuclear war - meaningless, but no doubt it makes him feel better....

    You picked a poor metaphor. The guy who did the obituaries in the New York Times was Theodore Bernstein, who is most distinguished for arguing at an editorial conference before the imminent Cuban Bay of Pigs invasion that the Times had an obligation to print what they knew about the invasion, which would have scuttled the invasion. (That was the journalistic equivalent of the engineer's pre-flight conference before the Challenger disaster.) That invasion led to the U.S.-U.S.S.R. Cuban missile nuclear showdown, which was as close as we've ever come to destroying the world.

    Bernstein was accused of left-wing sympathies during the days of the blacklist, and as a result, the Times busted him down to the obituary page. Back in those days, we had a social contract that, if you committed yourself to a corporation, they would give you a job for life, so instead of firing people who were drunk or incompetent, the Times would just assign them to the obituary page. Unlike everyone else, Bernstein revolutionized the obituary page by writing serious obituaries.

    Bernstein also wrote a textbook about copy-editing called Headlines and Deadlines, which is still used in journalism schools. The main point of that book, BTW, was that copy editors should check the facts of a story, and make sure it gets all sides. If the Times had followed that advice, they would have avoided some recent humiliations. So Bernstein got the last laugh again.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 06, 2008 @12:58PM (#22980702)
    I'm an old timer who can remember duck and cover drills (don't look at the bright light, etc.) in school, and used to have a copy of the Army's old 1956 manual on The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, did lots of reading - used to subscribe to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, etc. - and tend to follow that stuff even today, only more casually. When we lived in Southern California in the 1950's, I can remember the AEC announcing A-tests and putting directions to the public parking area in the papers, and if the wind shifted they blasted away anyway!

    Among my eclectic readings, I recall in the 1960's there was a John Birch Society reading room not far from our home, and I liked to keep track of all the elements out there. I recall a book there written by the former head of AEC security who stated the Soviets had not made a bomb of their own prior to 1954 except that they had stolen material and or bombs from the US. Given that we used to have prototypes of the latest Soviet tanks and airplanes undergoing testing at various government proving grounds at the time that seems pretty credible (they used to fly the brand new MIG-21, not yet operational in the Soviet Air Force, out of an air base in San Antonio, where we lived, and the newspapers and TV stations were "discreet"). I used to read a lot of heavy literature on MAD, etc., and one of my favorite remembrances of the literature of that era was a parody of the captain of the Titanic which began: "If struck by an iceberg - we would never strike first -....."

    I recall in the '73 (?) Middle East War, there were comments in the paper and on TV that the US had detected Soviet nuclear weapons on a ship moving through the Dardanelles (out of the Black Sea into the Med), and this from a plane flying at 20,000 feet. Supposedly they were heading to Egypt to give the Egyptians some real firepower to use on Israel. The supposed response of the Israelis was to line up their nukes next to attack aircraft for the next overflight of a Russian satellite. The shit you used to see in the papers if you were on the lookout for this sort of thing!

    Those of you old enough to remember the demise of the Soviet Union may not have noted the obscure note on the wire services (quickly removed) during the time that the Soviets had moved something like 500,000 troops to a base near the capitol of Estonia. The reports were of a commando raid on a Soviet weapons storage facility elsewhere in Estonia, and "unconfirmed reports" were that 25+ weapons went out through the wire that night. For the next week, all the papers and TV news reports, and I mean all of them, showed pictures of groups of unhappy bored Soviet soldiers still on their bases. In fact, they never left their bases until they returned to the former Soviet Union. Stories were that the Soviets had been given a message about what would happen if the soldiers ever left their barracks. The bizarre staged photos of the troops "still on their bases" seems to support this.

    My point of the three previous comments is that there has probably been a long history of nuclear weapons and nuclear materials escaping from proper command and control - probably literally from the days of the Manhattan Project. The remote detection capabilities of 35 years ago means that any re-assurances that there are no nuclear materials unaccounted for should not be in the least reassuring!!! If you are sensitive to the meaning of words, you will note, for instance, that they have never, not once, said that nuclear materials or actual weapons were not stolen from the former Soviet Union. The US and the Russians are unanimous in this subterfuge. "We have accounted for all of them." Even given evidence that a substantial number of weapons were in fact no longer in the Russian arsenal.

    Then today there are the Pakistani's, the North Koreans and probably the Chinese peddling nuclear bomb technology and materials. The efforts of Iran to get the bomb (and they never stopped, which is obvious even in the body of the famous recent National Intelli
  • by PeterPiper ( 167721 ) on Sunday April 06, 2008 @01:16PM (#22980824) Homepage
    Back in the late seventies, early eighties, when we were locked into a nuclear stalemate, I and much of the world were reasonably quite concerned. Back then, I read literally dozens of text books on the subject of nuclear deterrence and war fighting strategies. I was 'extremely' well informed. I am nowadays, much more concerned about other things. I would be the first to admit that a terrorist use of a nuke is a high probability, but there is virtually zero chance that such an event would lead to a global nuclear war.

    From the article:
    "This simplified analysis ... assumes that the experience of the first 50 years of deterrence can be extended into the future."

    The experience of the first 50 years CANNOT be extended into the future. Those first 50 years were very different animals. We were poised in a 'mexican standoff' with a superpower enemy possessing a vast nuclear arsenal that feared and hated us. We no longer have such a superpower enemy. Even if Russia started to hate us the way the Soviet Union used to, they are no longer a superpower, they are a pale shadow of what the Soviet Union once was. Their existing arsenal is so old and unmaintained, most of their missiles wouldn't launch and the warheads wouldn't detonate. Most of their weapons are no longer in service. They maintain enough to serve as a deterrent against a nuclear attack by an opposing nation, but that is it. They cannot wage nuclear war.

    There is only one nuclear war fighting capable nation on earth right now and that is the US. The US is not about to fight a nuclear war with itself. No other nation will use nukes against the US, unless their very existence was at stake and the US knows to not attack nations that could ship a bomb to us in a shipping crate. Global nuclear war requires two opponents both possessing a nuclear war fighting capacity. Deterrent forces alone are not sufficient for anything other than deterring the other guy from attacking. In order to strike first, you need a 'first strike' capacity, the idea that you have sufficient weapons to knock out with your first strike, the other guy's ability to strike back. Only the US has this capacity.

    From the article:
    "Because this estimate is based on a simplified, time invariant model, it does not apply to the current point in time when relations between the U.S. and Russia are significantly better than they were, on average, during the last 50 years. However that does not invalidate its conclusions."

    Er, yes it does invalidate its conclusions. Obviously. The author suggests that the time may come when US/Russian relations deteriorate and asserts that this would then recreate the old situation. However Russia is no longer a superpower and could never again challenge the US in this regard. The Chinese could in theory build up to challenge the US in a new nuclear stalemate however and if China ever starts to build up it's nuclear forces, we would then have cause to worry. However we would likely see evidence of that sort of a buildup long before the threat matured and hopefully could take diplomatic action to change the situation.

    Note also that China does not need to challenge the US with nukes. They hold a very effective deterrent against US aggression by the quantity of US dollars they hold in their reserve. If they were to ever dump those dollars into the global finance system, it would create a domino effect on the US dollar that would utterly crash the US economy. Both China and the US authorities know this.

    As a total aside; a missile shield in the hands of the US could invalidate the deterrent forces of those nations possessing them. The US in theory could launch a disarming first strike against a nation and then use it's missile shield to shoot down the few missiles the disarming strike missed. This would result in the US being able to initiate a nuclear strike with impunity, even against a nation possessing a nuclear deterrent force. This is why a missile shield is opposed by most nations. In reality of course, such a disarming first strike could not be sure of stopping the shipping crate nukes that likely would be coming in retaliation.
  • by jilles ( 20976 ) on Sunday April 06, 2008 @01:16PM (#22980832) Homepage
    Your impression of things being alright does not constitute a fact. It's merely an impression. Real world security is very much like computer security: how you feel about security has little or no relation to how secure you are. Hellman knows this.

    The US has used this knowledge to great advantage using propaganda at various times in its history. The anti communist-propaganda in the fifties was a great example. So was the weapons of mass destruction campaign just a few years ago. In both cases the aim was to spread panic in order to do what was perceived as necessary to protect the oil business. Given the oil prices today, this was probably misguided. As was the rest of that war.

    The US government also uses this tool in the opposite way. Major incidents are routinely played down or not reported at all. Or when they are reported the facts are misrepresented. This creates a false sense of security. For example, US marines getting blown up in Iraq on a daily basis was kind of hard to keep out of the news but you can always try to give a positive swing to it and try to keep the pictures of the flag covered coffins out of the news. Like everything George Bush does, he botched that as well since the pictures got out.

    So now the issue is that both the US and Russia have been providing nuclear technology to various unstable regions such as Israel, Taiwan (oops sorry for sending those detonators, yeah right), Pakistan, India, Iran, North Korea and maybe a few others. Luckily, Reagan only sent Stinger missiles to his buddy Bin Laden in Afghanistan in the eighties.

    So, I find the theory that the probability of one of the powers that be in such regions hitting the big red button is much worse than once in a million years to be quite credible at face value. The big question is just how bad things are. I'm hoping the rest of the world is not so trigger happy when it happens but the probability for that might be such that the event is quite likely to happen. Another possibility is of course that at some point somebody repeats the Manhattan project by putting all the little pieces of the puzzle together or by stealing & acquiring the necessary information. This is roughly how Pakistan became a nuclear power.

    So I don't care so much about how you feel about it. Probably for the economy it is actually best if you and most other people are blissfully ignorant. But on the other hand a little recession is a small price to pay for some good quality protection. All I know is that some smart guy that seems to have done a lot of homework seems to be pointing out that facts are pointing towards likely escalation to full nuclear war. And as a software engineer, I do know Murphy's Law.

    Risk assessment for total destruction of this planet and all life on it should probably be biased a little towards being overly pessimistic on things happening side rather than optimistic on the things not happening side. After all, if you are wrong nothing happens and if you are right, you had some time to do something about it. Consequently, claiming everything is fine is rather fatalistic.
  • by dasunt ( 249686 ) on Sunday April 06, 2008 @08:24PM (#22983796)

    There's some speculation that nuclear winter wouldn't have happened -- the models that predicted it are relatively simplistic, especially by modern standards, and considering that the majority of the bombs will be airbursts.

    OTOH, who is going to argue that a nuclear war is safe? It's like the statistics that there are enough weapons to destroy the earth x times over. Bullshit. The dinokiller astroid was 100 million megatons. At the peak, the nuclear weapon stockpile was .02 million megatons. At the best, you can wipe out humanity, and that is something I doubt -- the exchange is going to happen in the northern hemisphere, and humans are damn resistant animals. (Question left for the student: assuming a 20,000 megaton stockpile, purely fission weapons, how muchc more will a global exchange increase the total background radioactivity on the earth?)

Machines that have broken down will work perfectly when the repairman arrives.