Chance of nuclear war is greater than we think

Published 21 July 2009

Stanford engineer makes risk analysis, saying the risk of a child born today suffering an early death due to nuclear war is at least 10 percent

What are the chances of a nuclear world war? What is the risk of a nuclear attack on United States soil? The risk of a child born today suffering an early death due to nuclear war is at least 10 percent, according to Martin Hellman, a tall, thin and talkative Stanford Professor Emeritus in Engineering. Nuclear tensions in Iran and North Korea are increasing the need to take a long look at how the United States handles weapons of mass destruction, Hellman said.

Auto manufacturers assess the risk of injury to drivers, and engineers assess potential risks of a new nuclear power plant. So why have we not assessed the risk of nuclear conflict based on our current arms strategy? Hellman and a group of defense experts, Nobel laureates and Stanford professors are calling for an in-depth analysis.

With more than 25,000 nuclear weapons in existence and the ability to build many times more, the choice is between creating a safer world and having no world at all, Hellman wrote in his paper “Risk Analysis of Nuclear Deterrence.”

Weapons from the cold war still remain, but public concern for nuclear strategy has dissipated, Hellman said. Many of those who do think about it, such as political leaders, say the fantasy of nuclear disarmament is too risky for national defense, he explained. “People who are saying change is too risky are implicitly assuming that the current approach is risk free, but no one really knows what the risk is if we don’t change,” Hellman said.

Hellman’s story
Hellman first became concerned about nuclear war in the 1980s when Ronald Reagan became president. Reagan brought the nuclear threat into clearer focus by being honest about fighting plans, Hellman said. Also, a fellow Stanford professor, Harry Rathbun, started a group to convince people that nuclear weapons represented more than just scientific progress, but a real threat of global destruction. Hellman credited his wife, Dorothie, for getting him to join the group: “I never would have gotten involved if it wasn’t for her.”

In 1982, Hellman took an 18-month, unpaid leave from Stanford to work as a volunteer for the group started by Rathbun. During this time, Hellman became convinced that nuclear destruction not only could happen, but would happen unless we changed some of our fundamental beliefs about national security and war.

Hellman’s numbers
About fifteen years after Hellman became convinced of impending destruction, he began punching numbers to