Future Nuclear Risks and Deterrence

By February 26, 2014

In his April 2009 Prague speech, President Obama stated “clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” but went on to note that, “as long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary.” Our nuclear weapons themselves are safe — meaning that one is highly unlikely to go off by accident — but how safe is nuclear deterrence — threatening to destroy civilization in an attempt to preserve peace?

An engineering discipline known as Quantitative Risk Analysis (QRA) has been applied successfully to improve safety in a number of other, potentially catastrophic situations. QRA uses historical data about partial excursions into the accident chain to estimate the overall risk and to highlight failure mechanisms requiring remediation.

Examples of QRA include:

  • Nuclear crisis at Fukushima: Had QRA been applied, it would have shown that the sea wall was far too low;
  • China and Japan are playing naval and aerial chicken over a small, uninhabited island chain known as the Senkakus which could lead to conflict.

Dr. Martin Hellman, FAS Senior Fellow for Nuclear Risk Analysis and Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering at Stanford University, discussed current nuclear risks and how QRA can be used to reduce these risks at a briefing held in Washington, DC on November 4, 2013.

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