Nuclear Lunacy

Several GOP lawmakers have expressed outrage over a recent AP report claiming that President Obama is considering significant reductions in our nuclear arsenal. Representative Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) referred to the plan as a “preposterous notion” and “reckless lunacy,” while Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.) accused Obama of “catering to his liberal base that believes that if we unilaterally disarm, the rest of the world will follow suit and threats to our national security will just go away.” There is nuclear lunacy in the world, but it is the closed-minded defenders of the status quo who are infected, not those investigating new possibilities.

Senator Inhofe’s reference to unilateral disarmament is a frequent red herring used by those resisting change. Obama has always emphasized that unilateral disarmament is not an option.

Furthermore, my research indicates that a child born today has at least a 10% chance of not living out his or her natural life due to our reliance on nuclear weapons, so change is demanded, not optional.*

Reducing our arsenal even to the lowest level mentioned in the AP report would not hurt our national security. A statement on my web site that states:

Russia and the United States each have thousands of nuclear weapons, whereas a few hundred would more than deter any rational actor and no number will deter an irrational one. Either side could therefore reduce its nuclear arsenal with little to no loss in national security, even if the other side did not immediately reciprocate. In light of the growing specter of nuclear terrorism, a reduced nuclear arsenal could even enhance national security by lessening the chance for theft or illicit sale of a weapon. (emphasis added)

has been signed by a former Director of the National Security Agency (Adm. Bobby R. Inman) and a man who was one of the key designers of the first H-bomb (Dr. Richard Garwin). Other highly regarded military authorities also have advocated significant reductions in our arsenal.**

What do you think? Is it “reckless lunacy” to seek alternatives to Mutually Assured Destruction or to continue depending on that Cold War era strategy ad infinitum?

Martin Hellman

* Even if nuclear deterrence could be expected to work for 1,000 years before we destroyed ourselves, that would imply almost a 10% risk over the 78-year life expectancy of a child born today (78/1000 = 7.8%). If the time horizon is 100 years, that child would have worse than even odds. For details see my papers in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and The Bent of Tau Beta Pi.

** In 2010, two professors at Air Force schools, along with the chief of the Air Force Headquarters’ Strategic Plans and Policy Division, published a paper arguing that approximately 300 nuclear weapons would suffice for our current strategy of nuclear deterrence. A related OpEd appeared in the New York Times.

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, for almost 30 years, 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 with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." Its soon to open website explains:
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3 Responses to Nuclear Lunacy

  1. Carl Shulman says:

    I agree these security objections seem far overblown, and exaggerate the costs of intermediate arms reductions. However, it would be nice to have some clearer explanation of the benefits, e.g. a table of estimates of casualties of nuclear war with different arsenal sizes in these risk analyses, so that it would be easy to contrast the risk-reducing benefits of intermediate arms reductions with claimed security costs. The linked papers estimate the likelihood of nuclear war, but not, as far as I saw, the casualty rate conditional on one.

    The calculation of risk for a newborn child could also use a term for the casualty rate conditional on nuclear war. The above calculation seems to assume a ~100% casualty rate conditional on nuclear war, an assumption that would preclude our even describing the big immediate benefit of nuclear arsenal cuts (short of abolition) in reducing the expected casualty rate.

  2. Nuclear Risk says:

    You’re right that the calculation assumed a 100% casualty rate in a full-scale nuclear war. But in very rough estimates like this – order of magnitude estimates as they are known – a factor of 2, or even 3, error is not a big deal. Thus, if the casualty rate were 50%, or even one in 3, it wouldn’t affect my conclusion.

    Regarding your question about estimates of casualties versus arsenal size, I haven’t put any energy into that. My goal is to try and avoid losing even one city. That’s not to say that other goals should be overlooked, but that’s not what I concentrate on.

    Thanks for your comment.

    Martin Hellman

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