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Former Crypto-Analyst Analyzes the Danger of Nuclear Weapon Stockpiles

Zonk posted about 6 years ago | from the pro-tip-they're-risky dept.

Encryption 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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142 comments

That thar man is a scientist (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#22979100)

Ima told by mah pastor that them thar scientists aint nothin but devils and deviants all with thems evolutions and atheisms. I aint gonna listen to no scientist. the real threat aint nukular weapons no way! ima afriad of evolution and terruhists who wanna steal my freedums.

Thousands of nuclear plants... (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#22979102)

...which are managed by a monkey and operated by people with a god complex.

Re:Thousands of nuclear plants... (4, Interesting)

Rosco P. Coltrane (209368) | about 6 years ago | (#22979150)

...which are managed by a monkey and operated by people with a god complex.

You might find this [wikipedia.org] 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.

Re:Thousands of nuclear plants... (4, Interesting)

gnick (1211984) | about 6 years ago | (#22979326)

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).

Re:Thousands of nuclear plants... (1)

peach4964 (1232864) | about 6 years ago | (#22979388)

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.

Then you should recognize the need to replace the existing weapons having HMX based HE systems with IHE HE systems.

Re:Thousands of nuclear plants... (2, Insightful)

camelrider (46141) | about 6 years ago | (#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?

Re:Thousands of nuclear plants... (3, Insightful)

MicktheMech (697533) | about 6 years ago | (#22980764)

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.

misleading summary (5, Interesting)

aleph42 (1082389) | about 6 years ago | (#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?

Re:misleading summary (4, Funny)

QuantumG (50515) | about 6 years ago | (#22979142)

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.
That'd be a neat trick.

United States -- Population: 301,139,947 (July 2007 est.)

Re:misleading summary (1)

aleph42 (1082389) | about 6 years ago | (#22979196)

Ooookay. My bad for quoting from memory.

My source is a TV documentary on a missile crisis during the cold war; very serious as far as I could tell. (It was about a time when reflection of sunlight on some clouds had caused the "missile incoming" alarm in Russia to go off).

Since I obvoiously misremembered the number, I can only say that it was huge (I'm sure about the act it was millions, and ny second guess is it was 100 mil or so). The president, who had received that analysis just after he was elected, definitively ruled out an all out nuclear war.

Again, sorry for the bad number.

Re:misleading summary (2, Insightful)

QuantumG (50515) | about 6 years ago | (#22979210)

Well, to be fair, it makes as much sense as having enough weapons to destroy the Earth 56 times. :)

Re:misleading summary (3, Insightful)

gnick (1211984) | about 6 years ago | (#22979354)

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.

Re:misleading summary (3, Insightful)

Cairnarvon (901868) | about 6 years ago | (#22979652)

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:misleading summary (4, Insightful)

gnick (1211984) | about 6 years ago | (#22980008)

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.

Re:misleading summary (1)

gnick (1211984) | about 6 years ago | (#22980244)

...unless you're targetting tiny islands in the Pacific.
As a side note, some of the Pacific-island-neighbors really lost out in some of those tests... Testing restrictions were rather lax in the early days.

Re:misleading summary (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#22980778)

You are absolutely wrong. Check out the Davy Crockett [wikipedia.org] for a look at how small nuclear weapons can get. The minimum yield on the weapon was only 10 tons, well within the capabilities of chemical explosives, and nothing which is going to hurt anybody who isn't pretty close by. The fallout might get people farther away, but there wouldn't be all that much by comparison, and it'll depend on what's downwind.

More practically, nuclear weapons tend to be much larger but their targets are often out in the middle of nowhere. A large number of warheads would be targeted against enemy missile fields and strategic bomber bases, neither of which have many civilians living nearby. A "limited" nuclear war which doesn't kill a lot of civilians is entirely possible, although very difficult politically. Not every use of nuclear weapons in war needs to turn into a civilization-destroying armageddon.

Re:misleading summary (-1, Redundant)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#22981216)

The whole point of maintaining overkill is having reliable second strike capability. That is, a nuclear power can destroy another nuclear power, even if she is attacked first. Majority of nuclear weapons are not ready to be deployed very quickly. So it makes perfect sense to destroy as many of them as possible, as early as possible. Which means when one flies, they all fly, to destroy as many enemy weapons as possible. The idea of limited nuclear war between nuclear powers is absurd.

Re:misleading summary (1)

aleph42 (1082389) | about 6 years ago | (#22979360)

If you count "killing everyone on earth" as destroying it, then it's probably accurate.

I often saw on article about meteors that it wouldn't take much to fill the atmosphere with enough dust (for years) to kill most plants thus most life.

Actually some weeks ago I searched for some time on wikipedia for the effect of nukes and weather their combined power could physically destroy earth. But I quit after having to go on the page about sugar to get an idea of how much energy was in 10^10... :)

Re:misleading summary (1)

Dun Malg (230075) | about 6 years ago | (#22980452)

If you count "killing everyone on earth" as destroying it, then it's probably accurate.
Even then, it's a gross overstatement. "Destroy the world X times over" is a phrase used by "peace activist" types when talking to the media. It's pure hyperbole. The earth is a pretty darned big place. Nuclear weapons are large on a human scale, but on the scale of the entire planet, they are hardly pinpricks. Even if you accept the widely discredited "nuclear winter" scenario, it wouldn't even come close to killing even HALF of the world's population.

Re:misleading summary (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#22981204)

But why 56 times? Obviously someone did some math there, I mean, it doesn't matter if you kill the world 5 times or 50 times, only once is enough. So those "'peace activist' types" don't really have a good reason to come up with such a number (I can imagine them saying: '10 times!' or '50 times!' or '100 times!').

I don't think it'd be that hard to kill half the world's population with nukes. Maybe you don't even need to throw them on people: Mount Pinatubo (a volcano) had an eruption in 1991 and the amount of stuff blown into the atmosphere globally dropped the temperature by ~0.5 degrees Celcius. If that's what you can do with a single volcano, I imagine you can do much better with a large stockpile of nukes.

Re:misleading summary (1)

stevied (169) | about 6 years ago | (#22981086)

In any serious nuclear war, the enemy is going to be targeting known missile sites. Presumably the assumption is that a significant %age of weapons may be destroyed before they can be deployed, therefore build in some factor of redundancy. Whether the factor is in fact 56, and if so, whether it's sensible, I couldn't say ;-)

Re:misleading summary (2, Interesting)

smallfries (601545) | about 6 years ago | (#22979432)

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.

Re:misleading summary (1)

BountyX (1227176) | about 6 years ago | (#22979192)

Don't take my posts literally; it's just code to control my botnet.


That's one of most clever sigs I've seen (prob becuase I too control my botnets with slashdot postings). EXEC jhsad34287Kjfa;p_=234$ cmd.exe /c echo "no im just kidding....or am I?" END .

Back to the nukes. To comment on your point, what's even worse is that the US official foriegn policy is MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mutual_assured_destruction [wikipedia.org] ). Not only does this contradict our species effort to surive, but it's like saying, since you punched me, I will punch you back just as hard. This is our defense strategy as opposed to focusing on efforts to block or dodge a punch. Instead of stockpiling nukes we could be using that opportunity cost for effective defense that does not cause esclation AND prevents a successful nuclear strike. Guess what, we have the MAD policy in place and completly neglect the figures...oh well I dont give a shit about resolving conflict, if you punch me in your face I'll hit you in your face until you pull your knife out, thats when I pull out my gun. MAD is the worst policy ever, we could have developed a force field if we didn't have to spend all of our resources on offense ;)

Re:misleading summary (4, Interesting)

aleph42 (1082389) | about 6 years ago | (#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 ^^ )

Re:misleading summary (1)

BountyX (1227176) | about 6 years ago | (#22979454)

The point I really wanted to make is not where MAD fails (it is effective), but the opportunity cost it has on defense. In my opinion, if we focused on anti-coercion measures to create an ideal defense infrastructure as much as the research we put into gaining an escalated advantage of the status-quo, we wouldn't have a crappy missle retaliation system that dosn't work. That is speculation, but at the same time the opportunity cost should not be ignored just becuase MAD remains effective. I believe a better system would focus on a defense-centric policy that could deter attacks in a way that would maintain the status-quo and render subsequent strikes as futile. A smaller offensive measure would be used for retaliation, but not with the intention of assured destruction. The small force would be used to strike back and wear the enemy down over repeated attacks since a defense-centric policy will allow enemies to launched repeated strikes knowing the counter attack will not be large. The goal of the defense-centric policy would be economic control of resources. Eventually the enemy will no longer be able to sustain an offense, in which the small counter force can now entirley destroy the enemy. So basically the longer the enemy attacks, the easier it will become for the counter force to destroy the enemy. Again, all speculation and opion. I know video game expirience isn't real-world credible but in Starcraft and Warcraft, this strategy dominated. It was the most effective in FFAs.
BTW, a grammar tree?...that is...evil >=) (wh00ps that grammar sequence was the reformat command). ;)

Re:misleading summary (1)

hcmtnbiker (925661) | about 6 years ago | (#22979872)

(*): 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.

You don't even need anything close to a PS2 to guide a missile. Look at the space shuttle, it fly's between hearth and satellites and requires significantly less computer then a PS2.

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.

I think you would be surprised how well the PAC-3 patriot missile operates. It's virtually one kill per launch. The proper deployment is what's tricky about the missile system.

Guess what, we have the MAD policy in place and completly neglect the figures...oh well I dont give a shit about resolving conflict, if you punch me in your face I'll hit you in your face until you pull your knife out, thats when I pull out my gun. MAD is the worst policy ever, we could have developed a force field if we didn't have to spend all of our resources on offense

You might want to think about how long it takes to develop technology before you go making a comment like that. Technology takes a long time to develop, and beyond that, defensive technology takes much longer. You have to assess everything offensively before you can build something defensively. Otherwise your analogy would work. Fact is that you cant block everything and you have to play offense sometime, either that or get your ass kicked. When dealing with the lives of millions of your own people you prefer not to have your ass kicked, so you develop a way to even the field. That's all MAD is, it's a way to even the playing field. In MAD everyone is equal. If the US had previously had a missile defense system why wouldn't they have just bombed the hell out of Russia? It would solve their problem and Russia couldn't have fought back effectively. Once you have nuclear missiles going back to not having them is quite honestly the only stupid idea. Say you spend your time on a missile defense system, but your enemy spends his time on stealthy missiles. It's quite possible your system isn't developed enough to take that kind of threat. In war a good offense really is the best defense.

Re:misleading summary (1)

KDR_11k (778916) | about 6 years ago | (#22980902)

I think you would be surprised how well the PAC-3 patriot missile operates. It's virtually one kill per launch.

The supposed issue is that that's against single targets, when you've got a whole bunch of debries, warheads and decoys coming down on you the system won't be able to stop more than one or two before it can no longer tell what to shoot. Mistake one warhead for a debry and you die.

Re:misleading summary (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#22979974)

Actually your average PS2 would suck for that, a GumStix would be better. Years ago a guy built his own cruise missile and ICBM isn't far off.

Re:misleading summary (2, Interesting)

sycodon (149926) | about 6 years ago | (#22979780)

Hmmm...

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.

Re:misleading summary (1)

stoicfaux (466273) | about 6 years ago | (#22980478)

Back to the nukes. To comment on your point, what's even worse is that the US official foriegn policy is MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mutual_assured_destruction [wikipedia.org] ). Not only does this contradict our species effort to surive, but it's like saying, since you punched me, I will punch you back just as hard.
Removing the 'Mutual' from Mutually Assured Destruction greatly increases the chances of nuclear war. If your enemy has no defense against your nukes, then the temptation for you to use your nukes increases dramatically. Meanwhile, your enemy isn't stupid and realizes that he will be at your mercy once your defense is implemented.

You need to open your mind and think about it from the enemy's point of view. Your enemy can:
a) build his own missile shield before you finish yours
b) figure out how to defeat the missile shield before it goes live,
c) attack before the missile shield is live,
d) trust that you'll be nice enough to not attack, bully, or force political and economic concessions from your position of superiority.

A is too expensive for the Russians.

B is either too expensive, or inherently destabilizing. Russia could put subs closer to the US but that would reduce an already short warning time, thus increasing the chances of a mistake triggering nuclear annihilation. Or they could develop stealth missiles/bombers. Or they figure out how to smuggle nukes into the country, which cuts the warning time to zero.

C, attack now, is very tempting. You simply state that you will launch before the missile shield goes live. Under MAD, bluffing is not a winning strategy. If the US backs down, we lose face but nobody loses. If we don't back down, then Russia has to do _something_ or it loses. Which means they must launch.

D, trust your enemy, isn't likely. Even if you're 99% sure that the US wouldn't launch, can you guarantee that the US won't use its advantage to rape you economically and politically? Can you guarantee that the US government will remain stable long enough to not nuke you until you can achieve parity again? (civil war? economic collapse? coup? police sate? religious fundamentalism? pride? stupidity?)

A counter argument is that the longer we have nukes pointed at each other, the chances of a mistake occurring approach near certainty. However, if the US is immune to Russian nukes, then we're likely to become less concerned about making mistakes ourselves, thereby increasing the chances of mistakes. (Why continue to put a lot of money and attention into something that won't affect you?)

Thus, taking the Mutual out of Mutually Assured Destruction is almost guaranteed to start a nuclear war.

So the only practical solution is to build a small scale missile defense shield designed to stop a small number of launches, while you figure out a safer way to defeat your enemies or otherwise provide security for your nation. The economic collapse of the USSR is one example. Converting your former enemies is another way (such as extending NATO membership to former Warsaw Pact countries.) But a full scale missile defense right now is just asking for MAD.

This is our defense strategy as opposed to focusing on efforts to block or dodge a punch.
The problem with defense is that defense cannot win. It can only lose or not lose.

MAD is the worst policy ever, we could have developed a force field if we didn't have to spend all of our resources on offense ;)
MAD is an all or nothing policy. Either we have peace or everyone dies. Simple and to the point. MAD put the 'Cold' in the Cold War.

If we didn't have nukes and MAD, then world wars are less 'risky' and thus would have happened more often. Without nukes and MAD, we would have needed a HUGE conventional army stationed in Europe to keep the Red Army in check. Which means most of us would have had military experience. Economically, I'd rather have expensive nukes and a smaller army, rather than a huge expensive army. Civilians are better for the economy than grunts.

MAD isn't perfect, and isn't a long term solution, but a full scale missile shield is worse. A missile shield would cause fear in our enemies. Scared people do stupid, desperate things. Conversely, bullies thrive on fear. The only long term solution is to build trust and respect. Which requires having consistently good leadership. And all nations are far away from that goal.

Re:misleading summary (1)

KDR_11k (778916) | about 6 years ago | (#22980876)

The problem with "antinukes" is that it basically tells the rest of the nuclear powers that soon enough their nuclear weapons won't be a deterrent while you'll still be able to nuke them. A nuclear first strike on the country trying to develop these weapons is probably the safest action.

Re:misleading summary (1)

vertinox (846076) | about 6 years ago | (#22979312)

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".

If you mean that by if your gun misfires and then an automated system kicks in putting all your guns into auto-sentry mode shooting everything that moves which also causes your neighbors sentry guns to start shooting causing a chain reaction with your neighbors then by what you mean... Yes.

The key thing about a nuclear weapon mishap is that there is the chance that a single detonation or incident might result in an automated response (by automated I mean computer systems and persons are just doing the job they spent years training for) which will escalate into the worst case scenario.

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 (in America they actually have those facilities in huge concrete domes but I'm not so sure about Russia) and in the confusion an independent facility assumes an attack from the US is happening and starts launching ICBMs (heck they thought a Norwegian rocket was an attack for a bit).

Now there are rumors that the Russians or American have systems that can detect nuclear explosions on their soil which was designed to counter a 3 minute sub attack off the coast which could possible start the chain of events to go to full scale nuclear war.

We aren't talking about simple gun fights here... We're talking about guns that blow up entire houses.

Re:misleading summary (4, Insightful)

Dun Malg (230075) | about 6 years ago | (#22980578)

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.

Biggest problem is nuclear winter (1)

Britz (170620) | about 6 years ago | (#22979656)

It used to be (in the 50s) that scientists predicted the survival of human civilisation in Africa and Australia after a nuclear war.

After the 60s pretty much everyone predicted (maybe they now predict, if they didn't factor in the dust problem, but calculated with nuclear stockpiles ready somewhere around the 1960s) the end of life as we know it if there was a nuclear war.

The reason is pretty simple. Because of the large detonations a lot of dust would be thrown into the air. It would be so much and would be thrown so high that it would turn the earth dark shutting out the sun. That is called nuclear winter. It would kill all live that depends in some way on the sun.

While radiation is a problem, it is by far not the biggest one. The term "nuclear winter" can be a bit misleading.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_winter [wikipedia.org]

Re:Biggest problem is nuclear winter (1)

NeverVotedBush (1041088) | about 6 years ago | (#22979962)

Actually, there would be so many problems that it is hard to say which one would be the biggest. These days, with the US economy so delicately balanced that the best Bush could do after 9/11 was to tell everyone to go out and spend, if we lost even a single major city to a nuclear explosion, this country could easily topple. As the economy collapsed, we would then have roving gangs and individuals out looking to steal food or anything else they needed to survive. Stores would be cleaned out, transportation of any commodities would most likely be hijacked, and order would be turned upside down. People would behave like animals and the only ones safe would be the ones with nothing anyone else considered of value.

Re:Biggest problem is nuclear winter (1)

Dun Malg (230075) | about 6 years ago | (#22980668)

The reason is pretty simple. Because of the large detonations a lot of dust would be thrown into the air. It would be so much and would be thrown so high that it would turn the earth dark shutting out the sun. That is called nuclear winter. It would kill all live that depends in some way on the sun.
The theory of "Nuclear Winter" is crap. Krakatoa injected orders of magnitude more dust and smoke into the stratosphere in 1883 than all the nuclear weapons in the world could. This resulted in a 0.5degC reduction in temperature for approximately 2 years.

Re:Biggest problem is nuclear winter (1)

kesuki (321456) | about 6 years ago | (#22980888)

It's not the amount of dust that matters it's the relative density of the mass, the height it reaches in orbit, and if it repels water vapor, or if it binds strongly to water vapor.

For instance if you designed a special weapon designed to create a permanent blanket against the sun, then you'd be targeting the mesosphere with rockets with highly diffused and very light particles that are very effective at reflecting the earth's sun. I have no clue what would be the best material to use, and there is little science on the mesosphere, but the stratosphere is still in the water cycle, so any sun blocking weapons that only went in the stratosphere would eventually fail. only a mesosphere approach could permanently block the sun for the rest of time.

Re:misleading summary (1)

powerlinekid (442532) | about 6 years ago | (#22980830)

A couple points...

During the cold war the US did not have 300 million citizens so that figure is very exaggerated.

There isn't and never was enough nukes on the planet to kill everything and physically destroy it. Theres an interesting website out there that talks about what it would take to physically destroy the planet. The conclusion was that we can't do it with our current technology.

As for killing everything on it... the numbers don't add up. If theres 6 billion people, we're talking 99.99999999... would have to be killed just to get down to two people. The odds of every single person dying is slim. Throw in "everything killed" and it is even more unlikely since there is plenty of living organisms that handle the extra radiation dosage or live in remote areas that would be unaffected.

Otherwise your post is good.

Re:misleading summary (1)

rshimizu12 (668412) | about 6 years ago | (#22980924)

The whole argument is misleading. Nuclear weapons have a limited shelf life. This is why the US is re-manufacturing it's whole nuclear arsenal. Let's also remember that the triggers require secure codes. Trying to put nuclear weapons and reactors is also misleading. The notion of mutually assured destruction is quickly diminishing since the US and other countries are developing and deploying ABM technologies.

Re:misleading summary (1)

Spatial (1235392) | about 6 years ago | (#22981012)

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? physically shatter?).

Believe you me, nobody will be shattering our planet with nuclear weapons any time soon. Or ever with any weapon. Remember what we're dealing with here: six septillion kilograms of rock and metal held together by the massive force of its own weight. A solid iron core thousands of kilometres in diameter surrounded by thousands more of molten material so dense that rocks float on it. And we're on those rocks. Shatter it? We can no more shatter the planet with nuclear weapons than a gnat can shatter a human skeleton.

The Earth is tough. Wiping the biosphere off it entirely is relatively easy.

And he is qualified how? (3, Insightful)

Lawrence_Bird (67278) | about 6 years ago | (#22979132)

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.

Re:And he is qualified how? (4, Funny)

AaxelB (1034884) | about 6 years ago | (#22979408)

Well, since he's a well-known crypto-analyst, my guess is that he's incredibly paranoid and vastly overestimates any chance of catastrophe. So... I guess that makes him qualified to make scaremongrish claims, in a strange way.

Re:And he is qualified how? (4, Interesting)

capnkr (1153623) | about 6 years ago | (#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)"...

Here's how he's qualified (3, Informative)

nbauman (624611) | about 6 years ago | (#22979792)

To answer those who say, "What does some guy who invented an algorithm know about nuclear war," (1) IEEE Spectrum checked Hellman's claims with 2 reliable, independent experts and (2) A long list of people who do know about nuclear war signed on to his claims. You might take seriously the former director of the CIA, the former president's science advisor, 2 Nobel laureates, and the (Republican) former head of the FDA.

(But that is a reasonable question -- you get points for skepticism.)

This teaches 2 related lessons about journalism and science:

(1) There are 2 kinds of publications in the world -- those that check their facts and those that don't. The first are reliable; the second aren't. This is why some obscure guy publishing a blog can be more reliable than most major newspapers and TV stations. (Or in this case, why IEEE Spectrum is more reliable than most daily newspapers.)

(2) There are 2 kinds of scientists in the world -- those who gather a consensus of experts before going public, and those who don't. The first are reliable; the second aren't. (This is why that story recently about cell phones causing brain cancer by an Australian neurologist was complete bullshit.) Hellman is competent enough in science to know that.

According to TFA http://www.spectrum.ieee.org/apr08/6099 [ieee.org]

Hellman's method isn't unfamiliar to those trying to gauge the risk of failure for complex systems, such as nuclear reactors. IEEE Spectrum asked J. Wesley Hines, a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Tennessee, to examine Hellman's methods, which were detailed in the appendix of the Bent article. "I only read the appendix but feel his argument is rational and also feel his methods are justified," says Hines. "Some could argue with the numbers he used, but he does give logical reasons for using those numbers and admits that they have large uncertainties since the events have been rare in the past."

Robert N. Charette, who runs the risk-management consultancy ITABHI and is a regular contributor to IEEE Spectrum, agrees with Hines. However, he says Hellman should have also turned the analysis on its head. "The other side of the risk equation is, suppose you get rid of nuclear weapons. Does that increase the probability of war? Pretending there aren't any nukes, how many wars would we have had?"

And the signers http://nuclearrisk.org/statement.php [nuclearrisk.org]

The above statement has been endorsed by the following Charter Signers:*
Prof. Kenneth Arrow, Stanford University, 1972 Nobel Laureate in Economics; see also Nobel Announcement
Mr. D. James Bidzos, Chairman of the Board, Verisign Inc.
Dr. Richard Garwin, IBM Fellow Emeritus, former member President's Science Advisory Committee and Defense Science Board; see also NY Times article
Adm. Bobby R. Inman, USN (Ret.), University of Texas at Austin, former Director NSA and Deputy Director CIA
Prof. William Kays, former Dean of Engineering, Stanford University
Prof. Donald Kennedy, President Emeritus of Stanford University, former head of FDA
Prof. Martin Perl, Stanford University, 1995 Nobel Laureate in Physics; see also Nobel Announcement


(BTW, here's a tip for any student. You used to be able to get a student membership in the IEEE, which includes a subscription to Spectrum and another (expensive) IEEE magazine of your choice, for some ridiculously low amount like $12 a year. It's a great deal for the magazines alone, although IEEE membership has even better benefits that most students don't even know about.)

And, he's mostly right (2, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#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 Intelligence Estimate), and the rhetoric of their leadership is downright frightening. One of the most frightening aspects of their commentary is their estimates that an Israeli retaliation would inflict no more than 15% casualties on the Iranian people. From my reading in the 1960's, I know that the magic boundary is around 25% casualties, beyond which there is always a complete loss of civil order (government breaks down and fails): this 25% figure was based on studies of the Black Death and other plagues. They are basically saying "We can take the hit."

The world is probably less safe today than when I was a lad ducking under my desk and covering up while the teacher pulled the heavy black curtains over the windows of my schoolroom. Then, there are Islamic terrorists - there are reports that Osama bin Laden has the Bomb, but I don't believe it simply because no western city has gone up in a mushroom cloud, which I am confident would happen within three months of his ever possessing one.

If you RTFA you will note he appeared to use some reasonable Bayesian prediction methods, but also notes that the risks tend to be episodic and not constant overall, so that even predicting long term risk is somewhat questionable in terms of meaning. (I.e., the risks were different during the Cuban missile crisis than the month before or after.)

Re:And he is qualified how? (1)

timeOday (582209) | about 6 years ago | (#22979796)

The only thing he could be slammed for is claiming surprise at what is blindingly obvious - that a world full of world-destroying weapons is an incredibly dangerous and unstable situation, and poses a risk far beyond any other faced by the human race. People equate the threat of terrorism to the cold war, what a joke. During the Cuban Missile Crisis we were that close to millions of deaths, and possibly the end of a human-habitable climate on earth! In the last few years nukes have proliferated like never before. Any sane person can see this is by far the biggest threat faced by humanity - really the only good shot we have at snuffing ourselves out entirely.

Re:And he is qualified how? (1)

ComputerGeek01 (1182793) | about 6 years ago | (#22980752)

Very well put! This is nothing but modern day soothsaying I half expect the end of his "paper" to say "...give me your credit card and God will come down and save you!". Although the theory is interesting I believe I used to play a LARP game that involved the exact scenario describes. Either way I think a nuclear bomb would be to expensive for terrorist activity especially since you could send someone baking soda and they would die from a heart-attack (Anthrax scare if you can't put it together)

Twofo Goatse (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#22979136)

Goatse. [twofo.co.uk] [goatse.ch]

You nerds love it.

it's a very long way from encryption algorithms (2, Insightful)

petes_PoV (912422) | about 6 years ago | (#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.

Re:it's a very long way from encryption algorithms (1)

QuantumG (50515) | about 6 years ago | (#22979218)

Dude who has shown he is good with math, does some math, news at 11.

Re:it's a very long way from encryption algorithms (5, Insightful)

tomtomtom777 (1148633) | about 6 years ago | (#22979244)

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

Re:it's a very long way from encryption algorithms (1)

CrimsonAvenger (580665) | about 6 years ago | (#22979302)

and can use his established reputation to help reduce the threat they pose,

Which "established reputation" is that? Fact is, 99.9% of America has never heard of him, and will never hear of him without wondering "who the hell is this guy?".

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....

Re:it's a very long way from encryption algorithms (4, Interesting)

nbauman (624611) | about 6 years ago | (#22980024)

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.

Re:it's a very long way from encryption algorithms (1)

CrimsonAvenger (580665) | about 6 years ago | (#22980286)

I concede the point, if your "local paper" is the New York Times. My local paper is the Times-Picayune (dumb name, not sure why they still care about Picayune), and the only thing I know about the Obit columnist is that he (or she) has a name.

Re:it's a very long way from encryption algorithms (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#22979510)

I agree completely. As someone who is taking his comprehensive exams in security studies next week, I can confidently say this guy's work is complete crap. It's quite apparent he hasn't read any of the recent literature on this topic, nor does he sound all that familiar with the other 50+ years of research on the topic. There are plenty of people out there who actually study international politics, have been active in government, and understand fairly well the organized insanity that is nuclear deterrence. And yes, many of them can actually do math.

Re:it's a very long way from encryption algorithms (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#22980546)

No, his opinion here isn't the same as yours. You just puke out any statement that came to you *this moment*. He had to go through peer review from experts in engineering concerning a logical argument, and this takes time. Slashdot by contrast does peer review by a bunch self-righteous low-need achievement nerds (myself included). The difference here is the criticism he received was analytic on the content of his reasoning(the review suggesting his work should extend to look at what is the safety in having nukes vs. not). Your argument is simply pointing out appeal to authority is bad, and then assuming that all perspectives are equal. They are not.

"Beware of celebrities with a cause" would be better stated as: "Beware of the ignorant with an audience".

thousands of nuclear plants (4, Funny)

Peter La Casse (3992) | about 6 years ago | (#22979214)

'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'

That's reassuring, because it seems unlikely that my home will ever be surrounded by thousands of nuclear power plants.

Re:thousands of nuclear plants (1)

peach4964 (1232864) | about 6 years ago | (#22979328)

I don't see the relevance of this article. If we are concerned about the risk of our nuclear weapons, one immediatge improvement I would recommend is replacing those that have the sensitive HE with new(RRW) warheads that have the insensitive HE (IHE) and other modern improvements in safety. Unfortunately, the politics of nuclear weapons is standing in the way of making these improvements

Re:thousands of nuclear plants (1)

Darfeld (1147131) | about 6 years ago | (#22979424)

Actually, I wonder what this sentence means exactly?

"thousands of nuclear plants"? The hell if average Joe (or even average geek Joe) know what are the risk of living near even one. This is just meant to be scary, it doesn't really give an idea for the danger.

For a start, the danger living near a nuclear plant depends on the technology of the plant, and on the people that operate it. Even then, it might not be as dangerous as most people think.

I'll wait till someone less afraid of the word "nuclear" come with his one study.

thou shalt not..... (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#22979216)

no weapon is specified, but the sentiment is clear. there's some notion that we should be building more refridgerators & fewer/no weapons. see you there? let yOUR conscience be yOUR guide. you can be more helpful than you might have imagined. there are still some choices. if they do not suit you, consider the likely results of continuing to follow the corepirate nazi hypenosys story LIEn, whereas anything of relevance is replaced almost instantly with pr ?firm? scriptdead mindphuking propaganda or 'celebrity' trivia 'foam'. meanwhile; don't forget to get a little more oxygen on yOUR brain, & look up in the sky from time to time, starting early in the day. there's lots going on up there.

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20071229/ap_on_sc/ye_climate_records;_ylt=A0WTcVgednZHP2gB9wms0NUE [yahoo.com]
http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20080108/ts_alt_afp/ushealthfrancemortality;_ylt=A9G_RngbRIVHsYAAfCas0NUE [yahoo.com]
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/31/opinion/31mon1.html?em&ex=1199336400&en=c4b5414371631707&ei=5087%0A [nytimes.com]

is it time to get real yet? A LOT of energy is being squandered in attempts to keep US in the dark. in the end (give or take a few 1000 years), the creators will prevail (world without end, etc...), as it has always been. the process of gaining yOUR release from the current hostage situation may not be what you might think it is. butt of course, most of US don't know, or care what a precarious/fatal situation we're in. for example; the insidious attempts by the felonious corepirate nazi execrable to block the suns' light, interfering with a requirement (sunlight) for us to stay healthy/alive. it's likely not good for yOUR health/memories 'else they'd be bragging about it? we're intending for the whoreabully deceptive (they'll do ANYTHING for a bit more monIE/power) felons to give up/fail even further, in attempting to control the 'weather', as well as a # of other things/events.

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dictator style micro management has never worked (for very long). it's an illness. tie that with life0cidal aggression & softwar gangster style bullying, & what do we have? a greed/fear/ego based recipe for disaster. meanwhile, you can help to stop the bleeding (loss of life & limb);

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the bleeding must be stopped before any healing can begin. jailing a couple of corepirate nazi hired goons would send a clear message to the rest of the world from US. any truthful look at the 'scorecard' would reveal that we are a society in decline/deep doo-doo, despite all of the scriptdead pr ?firm? generated drum beating & flag waving propaganda that we are constantly bombarded with. is it time to get real yet? please consider carefully ALL of yOUR other 'options'. the creators will prevail. as it has always been.

corepirate nazi execrable costs outweigh benefits
(Score:-)mynuts won, the king is a fink)
by ourselves on everyday 24/7

as there are no benefits, just more&more death/debt & disruption. fortunately there's an 'army' of light bringers, coming yOUR way. the little ones/innocents must/will be protected. after the big flash, ALL of yOUR imaginary 'borders' may blur a bit? for each of the creators' innocents harmed in any way, there is a debt that must/will be repaid by you/us, as the perpetrators/minions of unprecedented evile, will not be available. 'vote' with (what's left in) yOUR wallet, & by your behaviors. help bring an end to unprecedented evile's manifestation through yOUR owned felonious corepirate nazi glowbull warmongering execrable. some of US should consider ourselves somewhat fortunate to be among those scheduled to survive after the big flash/implementation of the creators' wwwildly popular planet/population rescue initiative/mandate. it's right in the manual, 'world without end', etc.... as we all ?know?, change is inevitable, & denying/ignoring gravity, logic, morality, etc..., is only possible, on a temporary basis. concern about the course of events that will occur should the life0cidal execrable fail to be intervened upon is in order. 'do not be dismayed' (also from the manual). however, it's ok/recommended, to not attempt to live under/accept, fauxking nazi felon greed/fear/ego based pr ?firm? scriptdead mindphuking hypenosys.

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"If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land."

meanwhile, the life0cidal philistines continue on their path of death, debt, & disruption for most of US. gov. bush denies health care for the little ones;

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whilst demanding/extorting billions to paint more targets on the bigger kids;

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& pretending that it isn't happening here;

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all is not lost/forgotten/forgiven

(yOUR elected) president al gore (deciding not to wait for the much anticipated 'lonesome al answers yOUR questions' interview here on /.) continues to attempt to shed some light on yOUR foibles. talk about reverse polarity;

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"Thousands of nuclear plants"? (1)

argent (18001) | about 6 years ago | (#22979236)

Would it be better if my home was surrounded by thousands of oil refineries instead?

Oh, whoops, I'm in Houston, it probably is.

April 2008 Sci Am article (1)

Kupfernigk (1190345) | about 6 years ago | (#22979238)

There is an article in April Scientific American which exposes the twin facts that no screening currently exists that can detect significant amounts of weapons grade Uranium being brought into the US or Europe in shipping containers, and that the amount of weapons grade U on the loose is enough to make home made kiloton weapons possible. Although the article only cites public data, there are an awful lot of physicists and engineers about who could design a simple low yield nuclear device given access to enough enriched uranium.

I also wonder if the murder of the ex-KGB agent using polonium was a covert warning - because, of course, if you have access to enough polonium you can made a gadget to trigger a plutonium weapon, which can be quite small and, even if it fails to create a fission explosion, has enough HE to spread radioactives over a large area.

Our desire for cheap international trade based around largely uninspected shipping containers exposes us to an enormous risk.If all shipped goods had to be properly inspected at point of entry, trade would suffer a bit, it would be less attractive to make things cheaply in China or Thailand, but a huge hole in the security system would be fixed. It's ridiculous that air travelers are inspected at vast inconvenience and expense when it is literally possible to import a bomb's worth of uranium or plutonium with no real checks at all.

Amusingly, after demonstrating how pathetic the security systems for freight are, one of the authors of the article was put on the airport watch list for several months, thus demonstrating that the no fly and watch business is about control and shutting up awkward people.

Re:April 2008 Sci Am article (1)

aleph42 (1082389) | about 6 years ago | (#22979320)

I really agree with your post as a whole, and I think it is a shame that current systems discourage leaders to take decisions that are good only in the long term.

But there is a small factual point I don't understand: how would the KGB using polonium was a warning? Everyone knows that Russia has nukes! (and polonium).

Apart from that, you seem to say that the author of that article was on the no-fly list. How did he get off it? Judging from what I heard of this list, that was no small feat.

You assume it was the "KGB" (1)

Kupfernigk (1190345) | about 6 years ago | (#22979698)

I prefer to assume that it was a criminal gang, on the basis that the officials of the KGB and its successor are not stupid. If a Russian mafia organisation has access to significant quantities of radioactives and the necessary laboratory facilities, this is a demonstration that they could potentially build a bomb, and transport bomb making materials on civil aircraft and around London. If the real KGB wanted to kill somebody, I am sure they could do it far more easily and less traceably, without causing a diplomatic incident.

Re:April 2008 Sci Am article (3, Interesting)

RAMMS+EIN (578166) | about 6 years ago | (#22979352)

``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.

Re:April 2008 Sci Am article (1, Interesting)

jilles (20976) | about 6 years ago | (#22980832)

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.

Re:April 2008 Sci Am article (1)

smoker2 (750216) | about 6 years ago | (#22980338)

You do realise that you're talking rubbish ?
I have posted on this before but for the record - I drive a truck, 18 wheeler, hgv, whatever you like to call it where-ever you are. I regularly collect shipping containers from major ports around the UK (which is part of the EU). I have been pulled to one side while leaving the port before (last year sometime) because I had set off the *radiation detectors*. The stated contents of the container were toilets shipped from China. The officials used a higher spec machine to check the load, and found it to be what it purported to be. I was allowed to continue on my way.
EVERY truck leaving the major UK ports is scanned automatically, and if it can pick up the residual radiation given off by porcelain, then I'm pretty sure it would pick up weapons grade nuclear material.
Felixstowe [google.com]
One [headru.sh] of my trucks.

Junk Science (1, Informative)

tsotha (720379) | about 6 years ago | (#22979248)

Real scientists should shun these kinds of people. 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. There's simply no way to assign probabilities to complex chains of events involving humans.

There's nothing to be learned from a model like this. It's just a good way to lie to yourself and others. It's not falsifiable. It's not science. It's politics.

Re:Junk Science (1)

BountyX (1227176) | about 6 years ago | (#22979314)

I commented above on the US official policy towards nuclear detterrence (MAD policy). There are several instances where MAD makes some pretty shaky assumptions. Most are common sense stuff at the bottom of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mutual_assured_destruction [wikipedia.org] . No sources cited, but if you have ever play starcraft you will understand how regularly those assumptions DO FAIL., lol. For example, I always kept backup ghosts with a dropper, but whenever I got nuked, it was game over even if the second strike destroyed the enemy, the first strike always had a greater chance of deterring an expected retaliation and prepared to rebuild accordingly. However, a defense-centric policy deterred first strikes. Too bad the US invests so much more in offense rather than defense). My point is, there are assumptions where deterrence does fail. That's why were so scared of Terrorists becuase MAD cannot be applied to them since they do not view their destruction as a reason NOT to attack. There are instances where infrastructure has failed and was ONLY dettered through insubordnation of foriegn policy (see Petroc's case). Is it science...no. Is it politics, clearly.

Re:Junk Science (3, Insightful)

vrmlguy (120854) | about 6 years ago | (#22979754)

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. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_Shuttle_Challenger_disaster [wikipedia.org]

Re:Junk Science (1)

Dun Malg (230075) | about 6 years ago | (#22980732)

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.
Not comparable. They weren't warning of a "shuttle failure", they were warning specifically of an "O-ring failure". The data on O-ring failure at low temperature is quite extensive.

The new Library of Congress-like unit for danger (3, Funny)

4D6963 (933028) | about 6 years ago | (#22979270)

and found the risk to be 'equivalent to having your home surrounded by thousands of nuclear power plants.'

So if one of these nuclear power plants exploded (that's the risk being talked about here?), how large would the crater be, expressed in Libraries of Congress? Also, how likely would such an event be, expressed in chances of successfully dropping a penny from the top of the Empire State Building into someone's pocket?

Re:The new Library of Congress-like unit for dange (2, Informative)

CrimsonAvenger (580665) | about 6 years ago | (#22979322)

So if one of these nuclear power plants exploded

The only way to make a nuclear power plant explode is to fill it with dynamite and light the fuse - the fissionables have zero chance of exploding.

The only threat from surrounding your house with thousands of nuclear power plants is that the cooling towers would affect the wind patterns around your house....

Re:The new Library of Congress-like unit for dange (1)

Waffle Iron (339739) | about 6 years ago | (#22979592)

The only way to make a nuclear power plant explode is to fill it with dynamite and light the fuse


The Chernobyl plant exploded, and the biggest fear during the TMI incident was of an explosion. Explosions can include chemical and/or pressure driven events, not just fission chain reactions.

The only threat from surrounding your house with thousands of nuclear power plants is that the cooling towers would affect the wind patterns around your house....


That's patently false, especially if you consider the risks of sabotage or terrorist attacks, which are probably higher than the risk of technical failure. Shit happens.


Of course, after shit happens, you'll still probably claim that nuclear plants are perfectly safe because the incident was an anomaly, just like Chernobyl didn't count because it was "stupid design run by idiots" and TMI didn't count because it was due to problems in the nuclear industry that "have since been fixed". Well, life includes anomalies, and they will happen.

Re:The new Library of Congress-like unit for dange (1)

AdamHaun (43173) | about 6 years ago | (#22980356)


Of course, after shit happens, you'll still probably claim that nuclear plants are perfectly safe because the incident was an anomaly, just like Chernobyl didn't count because it was "stupid design run by idiots" and TMI didn't count because it was due to problems in the nuclear industry that "have since been fixed". Well, life includes anomalies, and they will happen.

People make those claims because they're good arguments. When you find a problem in something you've built, do you fix it, or give up and scrap the whole project? By your logic, we shouldn't be building houses, much less anything more complex. Chernobyl *was* poorly-designed and (at the time of the accident) run by a skeleton screw of incompetents. TMI *was* due to fixable problems, and injured, let's see, *nobody*.

The Bhopal chemical plant accident has killed 20,000 people and injured over 120,000. Chemical plant accidents are much more common than nuclear plant accidents and are often much more dangerous. Do a search for "United States refinery accidents". Several of the links on the first page are for lawyers -- that's how much worse it is. Does that mean we should shut down all chemical plants? No, because the problems are correctly recognized to be with the design and operation of the plants, which (despite what you seem to think) are not "anomalies" but systemic problems that can be fixed. Plants with good safety systems and procedures still have accidents, but few to no people are killed. Look at the history of nuclear power accidents and you'll see that almost all of them are like this. A reactor goes critical, but is contained. A worker doesn't follow procedure when replacing a part -- he's killed, but nobody else is.

Chernobyl was 22 years ago. TMI was 29 years ago. If nuclear power is so dangerous, why do the same two (bad) examples keep getting talked about over and over? Why do we have to turn to the Soviet Union (hardly a world leader in safety) for an example of a real disaster? The answer is that fear of nuclear power, like fear of terrorism, is largely a modern-day bogeyman created by a failure to understand the scale of the risks involved.

Re:The new Library of Congress-like unit for dange (1)

Waffle Iron (339739) | about 6 years ago | (#22980758)

If nuclear power is so dangerous, why do the same two (bad) examples keep getting talked about over and over?

The reason is the effects of an accident: ruining the real estate values of the area of a small US state for almost a century. It doesn't matter that the radiation effects wouldn't actually be all that dangerous or that not all that many people would be killed. The way people perceive the accident would cause a huge disruption to a large area, and it would have negative affects hugely disproportionate to the actual damages.

Chernobyl was a big factor in the disintegration of the Soviet Union, a country which had survived Stalinism and utter devastation in WWII. Rightly or wrongly, a major nuclear power accident is extremely traumatic. People just don't get that worked up over diffuse threats such as how many people die from coal soot. Your complaints won't change the psychology of the population at large, nor will it make the risks of an accident or attack exactly zero. And that was the reason I made my post: the GP post was essentially claiming that the risks are zero. They aren't, and the characteristics of a nuclear incident make its effects much more damaging to society than chemical plant accidents or mundane threats that routinely kill thousands of people per year.

Re:The new Library of Congress-like unit for dange (1)

CrimsonAvenger (580665) | about 6 years ago | (#22980362)

That's patently false, especially if you consider the risks of sabotage or terrorist attacks, which are probably higher than the risk of technical failure. Shit happens.

So, how many nuclear reactors in this country have been sabotaged or the object of terrorist attacks? Zero? There is little basis for the assumption that they are especially vulnerable (I'd worry more about being in the local Mall when someone with a dynamite vest decided to REALLY terrorize us).

Of course, after shit happens, you'll still probably claim that nuclear plants are perfectly safe because the incident was an anomaly, just like Chernobyl didn't count because it was "stupid design run by idiots" and TMI didn't count because it was due to problems in the nuclear industry that "have since been fixed". Well, life includes anomalies, and they will happen.

Yah, too bad the only "anomalies" that nuclear power suffered under were Chernobyl (not a stupid design, but the test being run there that caused the problem was definitely an idiotic test) and TMI (where, basically, noone was injured, or even exposed to enough radioactivity to be harmed - I could wish the four traffic accidents I've seen so far this AM had produced so few injuries).

Fact is, nuclear power is still safe as houses (safer, if New Orleans is any guideline - did you know that there are two reactors within the area of effect of Katrina? Nothing happened to them, they didn't even bother shutting down).

Re:The new Library of Congress-like unit for dange (1)

dbIII (701233) | about 6 years ago | (#22980054)

So if one of these nuclear power plants exploded (that's the risk being talked about here?)

I'm old enough to remember being told it would never happen and not be smug about it like the earlier poster. The risk is pretty low but a relatively minor accident in the Ukrane (steam explosion in only one of several units) had major consequences.

They are different issues anyway. Extreme secrecy combined with declining resources to look after existing weapons and people chosen for reasons other than competance create one set of problems and increasing proliferation create others. There were treaties to prevent furthur weapons development but ironicly the end of the cold war changed that and there are new nuclear weapons being developed in the USA as well as the places we all like to complain about. Perhaps there is also a new weapons program in Russia but it just hasn't got anything in the press yet.

If somebody could convince those old idiots that think the cold war was the good old days to retire we could be part of the solution instead of a major addition to the problem.

Well then I feel pretty safe.... (1, Informative)

isa-kuruption (317695) | about 6 years ago | (#22979300)

If having all these nuclear weapons is "equivalent to having your home surrounded by thousands of nuclear power plants.", then I feel pretty safe... I mean, despite all the hype around "nuclear disasters" at these power plants, they have proven very safe when managed properly. Most nuclear plants have been running in the U.S. and France for more than 30 years without issues.

But I doubt this is where Mr Hellman was coming from. Instead, he was using the hype of the nuclear power plants being bad and dangerous to (unsuccessfully) draw a comparison to try to scare people, making him just another alarmist (sorta like Al Gore is for Global Warming).

Instead of trying to scare people with such silly hype and alarmist speech, could we an intelligent conversation? Thanks.

Re:Well then I feel pretty safe.... (0)

betterunixthanunix (980855) | about 6 years ago | (#22979428)

The danger in nuclear power plants is not limited to the Chernobyl-type events. The real danger is the transport of nuclear fuel and nuclear waste, which are extremely hazardous and, in the wrong hands, could be used to kill or severely injure thousands of people. There was a report (ahref=http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/tm_objectid=17422378&method=full&siteid=94762&headline=we-plant--bomb--on-nuke-train-name_page.htmlrel=url2html-15191 [slashdot.org] http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/tm_objectid=17422378&method=full&siteid=94762&headline=we-plant--bomb--on-nuke-train-name_page.html>recently about trains carrying nuclear waste in the UK, and a report did nothing more than put on a safety vest and walk right up to a boxcar with a nuclear transport container inside, even planting a bomb-sized device on the train car. These casks were tested to withstand a typical railroad crash, but they are not indestructible and a powerful enough explosion could cause a breach.

People need to examine the ENTIRE picture when it comes to nuclear power. Yes, within the power plant, you are safe, and the chance of an explosion is small. But the fuel and exhaust from these plants is very hazardous, and represents an attack vector for someone wishing to cause a nuclear disaster. Simply put, nuclear power is not "clean and safe," it is just "cleaner and safer than certain other forms of power." I'd feel a hell of a safer with a thousand windmills surrounding my home, personally.

Re:Well then I feel pretty safe.... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#22979938)

Simply put, nuclear power is not "clean and safe," it is just "cleaner and safer than certain other forms of power." I'd feel a hell of a safer with a thousand windmills surrounding my home, personally.


Yeah, too bad for you wind and solar power fanbois that the density isn't there.

Nuclear power is coming in a big way.. deal with it.

Re:Well then I feel pretty safe.... (1)

NeverVotedBush (1041088) | about 6 years ago | (#22980352)

You know, though, the interesting thing about the users of energy -- in a whole lot of cases, the density isn't there either.

Sure, a wind farm gets spread of a big area while a power plant is just a big building. But that big building is generally located far from where the energy is actually used for safety, aesthetic, land cost, fuel transport, or other reasons. That distance leads to inefficiency with resistive losses over the power lines. The greater the distance, the bigger the loss. And the more current you try to push over those lines, the loss goes up by the square of the current.

But wind and solar can be located much closer to the point of use and basically get a free 10-15% benefit in terms of energy not wasted as heat during transport to the end users. Solar cell arrays can be mounted on rooftops of the buildings that will use the energy.

And when you are talking about the energy use of a single building, that low density you get from the sun pretty much works out to cover most, if not all, of the building's needs. Obviously we're not talking about skyscrapers and such. But for houses and other single/two story buildings, the roof area can substitute for a lot of energy derived from coal, oil, nuclear, or other means.

Some intelligent conversation (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 years ago | (#22980162)

Most nuclear plants have been running in the U.S. and France for more than 30 years without issues.

Most, without issues?. Not all? What does most mean to us?

  1. 1. -- There is NO safe dose of ionizing radiation, and also economic viability
  2. 2. -- Nuclear power plant incidents at home and abroad
  3. 3. -- Nuclear power plant incident preparedness documents
  4. 4. -- A little alarmist media, because sometimes we should be alarmed

1. -- Some exerpts from "The Politics of Power: Risks and Costs of Nuclear Power Plants": http://www.garynull.com/The%20Politics%20of%20Power%20Final%20&%20Final%20Footnotes.pdf [garynull.com]

The NAS (The National Academies of Science (NAS) report, Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation,) finding had long ago been discovered and presented by John Gofman, M.D., Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California and Chairman of the Committee for Nuclear Responsibility (CNR). Dr. Gofman said the following in 1994:

The lowest dose of ionizing radiation is one nuclear track through one cell...Either a track goes through the nucleus and affects it, or it doesn't...I came up with nine studies of cancer being produced where we're dealing with up to maybe eight or 10 tracks per cell. Four involved breast cancer ... it's not a question of 'We don't know.' The DOE has never refuted this evidence. They just ignore it, because it's inconvenient. We can now say, there cannot be a safe dose of radiation. There is no safe threshold. If this truth is known, then any permitted radiation is a permit to commit murder.

and

Critics complain that nuclear energy is expensive because of (1) the time and resources it takes to build and decommission nuclear power plants and other nuclear facilities; (2) the hidden costs of mining the uranium ores, reprocessing and storing the waste, and purging the environment of radioactive pollution; and (3) costly health problems from exposure to low level radiation. The Department of Energy (DOE) has admitted that, "economic viability for a nuclear plant is difficult to demonstrate."

Thomas Cochran, a nuclear physicist and Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) says that nuclear power is "uneconomical, it has a safety problem, it has a horrendous proliferation problem on the global level, and it has a long-term waste problem that hasn't been solved."iii He notes that "nuclear power would be a great solution to greenhouse gases" that cause global warming, were it not for those four problems!

2. -- http://www.atomicarchive.com/Reports/Japan/Accidents.shtml [atomicarchive.com] This link is a list of "Major Nuclear Power Plant Incidents" from around the world, including the US.

Here's another one from last year in Michigan: http://blog.mlive.com/grpress/2008/02/palisades_nuclear_power_plant.html [mlive.com]

3. -- http://www.redcross.org/images/pdfs/code/nuclear_power_plant.pdf [redcross.org] and http://www.fema.gov/areyouready/nuclear_power_plants.shtm [fema.gov] are links to the Red Cross and FEMA nuclear power plant incident preparedness documents.

4. -- http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=7553564094124690254 [google.com]

Begetting another question (1)

Peaker (72084) | about 6 years ago | (#22979334)

Hellman therefore did a preliminary analysis and found the risk to be 'equivalent to having your home surrounded by thousands of nuclear power plants.
Which begets the question: How risky is it to have thousands of nuclear power plants around your home?

Re:Begetting another question (1)

john.r.strohm (586791) | about 6 years ago | (#22979744)

Very risky, actually.

The antinuke protest people flooding your neighborhood would make it very hard for you to go to work in the morning.

Re:Begetting another question (1)

mortonda (5175) | about 6 years ago | (#22980502)

Very risky, actually.

The antinuke protest people flooding your neighborhood would make it very hard for you to go to work in the morning.
Ha, I was getting ready to flame until I read the rest of you post. Good one. ;)

Seriously, I would love for a lot of nuke plants to spring up around here. I think making more would lower the cost in the long run, and provide far cleaner energy.

My subscription finally pays off (1)

vrmlguy (120854) | about 6 years ago | (#22979476)

I got inducted as a Tau Bate in college, when I was studying EE. A lifetime subscription to 'The Bent' was one of the two biggest benefits (the other being the special ring that gets you free sodas from vending machines).

The Bent usually has great cover articles. Sometimes you get an article of the multi-cnetury history of global position determination, sometimes an explaination of the LIGO project. On rare occasion, you get a Libertarian discussing how things could be changed for the better in modern America; I generally agree with the articles, but realisticly they have as much chance of implementation as Ron Paul has of getting elected. Getting an article into The Bent is a great way to get it in front of some of the brightest people in the world, so I can see why Hellman used it.

Oh no! (4, Funny)

danwesnor (896499) | about 6 years ago | (#22979640)

Hellman therefore did a preliminary analysis and found the risk to be 'equivalent to having your home surrounded by thousands of nuclear power plants.'
I can't think of one plausible reason why all the nuclear power plants in the world would come down here and surround my house. I doubt if I have anything they want, and wouldn't even know what to offer them. Do you suppose they drink sweet tea?

Mister President, I can't buy this malarkey... (1)

NeverVotedBush (1041088) | about 6 years ago | (#22980178)

AMBASSADOR DE SADE:

It was to have been announced at the party congress next week. I did not know the fools would make it operational until then.

GENERAL TURGEDSON:

Well, what the hell is a Doomsday Machine?

AMBASSADOR DE SADE:

Well, it has been explained to me that, if you add a thick Cobalt-Thorium-G jacket to a nuclear device, the radioactivity resulting from such a nuclear explosion will retain its lethal power for a hundred years.

Our scientists calculated that the detonation of fifty of our biggest nuclear devices, jacketed in Cobalt-Thorium-G would enshroud the earth in a hundred years of lethal radioactivity from which no human life could escape. In ten months the Earth would be as dead as the Moon.

'Crypto-analyst'? Come on, editors (2, Insightful)

Logic and Reason (952833) | about 6 years ago | (#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.

Hellmans primer flawed? (1)

epiteo (1229176) | about 6 years ago | (#22980400)

While his probabilities look ok to me, he seems to have made a mistake about the 2007 russian-estonian cyber attack in his http://nuclearrisk.org/1why_now.php [nuclearrisk.org] primer:

This attack is believed to have emanated from within Russia, with some believing the government to be responsible.
It is contradicted by http://politics.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=08/01/25/0120221 [slashdot.org] this slashdot article. If he had written "was believed" instead it would have been more correct. Also, I didn't find any contact information on his website. Maybe http://www.thebulletin.org/minutes-to-midnight/ [thebulletin.org] though less focused, would be a better place to go?

Assumptions (1)

fermion (181285) | about 6 years ago | (#22980560)

Here is the thing about nuclear missiles. They are mass manufactured and never meant to be used. So how reliable are they? I mean if you were making something, and the product was never going to be tested, and if they ever were used the last of your problem was getting sued over a faulty product, how reliable would you make? The unfounded assumption we make will most nuclear warhead is that they work at all. Remember that every nuclear warhead used so far has been custom manufactured and custom built and custom checked for the test. I doubt any general warhead or launch vehicle has been real world tested. I mean in the way that other products are test. A random missile is pulled out a batch and used.

Many will sy we manufacture many complex things, like planes and cars, but these have real world legal consequences if they do not work. What about the launch vehicle? How many launch vehicle blow up on the pad during launch? And those has been carefully build and tested. How many components on space shuttle fail? How many caps or resisters are put in wrong? How many space craft, built we assume with more care than warheads, have failed immediately after deployment due to failure of compenents?

Without RTFA, I don't know what the threat is, but the greatest threat is upon launch some significant percentage of out nukes will just blow up over the US, or in the silos, leeching fissionable material across the heartland. I think the trigger mechanism are reliable enough that once detonated, most will work, and there is little risk of unintented detonation.

As far as the risk of others making nukes, I don't know. The fissionable material has been quite available for 15-20 years, and most parties do not seem interested. There are just so many other safer and more reliable ways to massacre huge number of people. A nuclear missile is a weapon of war, not a weapon of terror, and mostly even the first world countries seem to prefer the violence of the later to the relative order of the former. No one likes to be regulated, i guess. Then there is the sheer technical difficulty. There is a reason why we use conventional bombs rather than biological agents, nuclear materal, or magical binary liquid bombs. Because other than being useful in writing fantasy novels to start and continue offensives that bankrupt countries, anything else than conventional weapons are really more complicate they need be.

What instruction manual? (1)

Rockin'Robert (997471) | about 6 years ago | (#22980672)

Whenever the next generation cannot read,
and/or forgets how to maintain nuclear power plants like Chernobyl
or, say, Minuteman missiles in their silos,
it is time to get worried.
VERY WORRIED!
RR

People underestimate the risk of nuclear war (1, Insightful)

Conspicuous Coward (938979) | about 6 years ago | (#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.

He means well, but... (2, Interesting)

PeterPiper (167721) | about 6 years ago | (#22980824)

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.

security is in the mind of the reader of such (1)

Almost-Retired (637760) | about 6 years ago | (#22981152)

Security seems to refer to this from a distance. And, while it may have changed in the 25 years since, too many times the folks running things and allocating resources for security, completely miss the main point of the word security.

To give you a furinstance, I was out riding on my motorcycle one Sunday afternoon, basically touring the areas back roads to see what might be around over the next hill. I won't name the area although it can be found on google maps if you know where to look. Anyway, I came across a side road, with an open wire gate laying in the weeds, and both the road and the fence looked as if they had had very little traffic or maintenance since they had been erected decades back. Turning in and puttering along, smelling the roses, the trail went over a small rise & then descended a hundred feet or so into a valley about half a mile across, and I could see at the top of the rise on the other side where this road seemed to continue to, what looked like a small building not much bigger than one of the outhouses we had when I was a child. Getting to the bottom of the valley I was able to see that it was covered with long piles of dirt. Approaching close there was a heavy door, and a rad sign on it. Then it went ding as to where I was, so I left back up that trail just as slowly as I came in since I didn't want to raise a dust cloud. Knowing where it was on the main road, I drove the bike down there the next sunday to check my memory of the little building and found it occupied by 2 guards whose eyes were carefully scanning the traffic. And never, ever, looking behind them at what it was they were supposed to be guarding. I would have thought that our repositories would have had more sophisticated alarm systems than what they obviously didn't have, and which allowed me to ride into the place from the backside, apparently completely un-observed.

I don't call that security, in fact I'd call it totally incompetant on the part of whomever was in charge.

I should have been spreadeagled with a few carbines cocked and locked while they 'checked me out'.
I have been that scene too since I use to do maintenance at a few of our titan sites back in the day. Sometimes whoever requested my services at the site would forget to tell the guards I was coming...
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