1 March 2011

How risky is nuclear optimism?

Martin E. Hellman

Martin E. Hellman is Professor Emeritus of electrical engineering at Stanford University, a member of the National Academy of Engineering, a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics...

Society’s resistance to even minor changes in our nuclear posture demonstrates that it sees little or no risk in the nuclear status quo. This article proposes using an engineering discipline known as risk analysis for determining whether society’s nuclear optimism is justified. If requested by Congress and performed by the National Academies, a risk analysis of nuclear deterrence could bring greater objectivity to the debate over our nuclear posture. The National Academies have frequently been called on by the government to provide objective, impartial advice on similar matters, as exemplified by a current study of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The major difference is that, in the case of nuclear deterrence, it is essential to mitigate the risk before disaster strikes, not afterward.