The Nuclear Gamble

Writing about the 2009 collision of two nuclear submarines (one French and one British), TIME magazine reporter Eben Harrel eloquently and succinctly summed up the nuclear gamble:

Twenty years after the end of the cold war, humanity still lives within 30 minutes of its own destruction. The price we pay for maintaining nuclear weapons is the gamble that the highly improbable will not lead to the unthinkable. The question to ask after this latest nervy episode: is it worth it?

Two years later, Harrell’s question is still valid.

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, since 1982, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book, co-written with my wife Dorothie, with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." It's on Amazon and a free PDF can be downloaded from its website:
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1 Response to The Nuclear Gamble

  1. Glen Milner says:

    I am interested in determining the risk of an accident during the handling of Trident D-5 missiles at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor (or at the submarine base at Kings Bay, Georgia.) The problem is that the propellant used in the Trident missile is more volatile than TNT and is capable of mass detonating upon impact.

    The Navy has stated that the risk of an accident that could lead to an explosion at the Explosives Handling Wharf at Bangor is less than one in a million. And, if this accident were to occur, the chances are less than one in a 100 million for a second stage detonation and less than one in a trillion for a first or third stage detonation. The numbers certainly indicate a low probability of an accident. I believe, however, that the same company that helped develop these figures, Lockheed Martin, also helped to predict a one in 100,000 chance of a catastrophic failure in the Space Shuttle program.

    In the case of an accident at the Explosives Handling Wharf, the entire submarine could detonate. I am interested in this issue because the Navy now wants to build a second Explosives Handling Wharf at Bangor. See The Navy prefers not to discuss safety issues involving the wharf in detail, and states:

    The existing EHW at NBK Bangor, as well as two EHWs at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Georgia, have operated safely for over 30 years. The explosives handled at the existing EHW are mainly in the form of missile motor propellant. Accidents are prevented by incorporating test results and over 50 years of experience into an overall system of safety which includes facilities, equipment, training, and personnel.

    I wrote a paper nine years ago on Trident propellant—see

    On November 7, 2003, a missile handling crew at the Bangor submarine base hoisted a Trident C-4 missile into a ladder that was left inside the loading tube. A nine-inch hole was made in the nose cone as the ladder came within inches of a nuclear warhead. A related article is at

    Is the Navy’s argument a good one–that they have operated safely for 30 years? Should citizens in the Puget Sound region believe they are safe for at least another 30 years?

    Thank you, Glen Milner

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