The biggest risk with nuclear weapons is the risk of accidental nuclear war

The Top 10 Reasons to Reduce the Risk of Accidental Nuclear War, Huffington Post,  02/26/2016 Max Tegmark MIT physicist, author of “Our Mathematical Universe”

What’s the number one military threat to the U.S.?

  1. Terrorism
  2. A deliberate nuclear attack
  3. Accidental nuclear war with Russia

Based on the recent political debates, you’d think it would be 1 or 2, but if you do the numbers, 3 wins hands down. Here’s why. Let’s compare the expected number of Americans killed during the year ahead, i.e., the number of Americans who’d get killed if the threat comes true times the probability of this happening during the coming year. For terrorism, one of the worst-case scenarios is a nuclear explosion in downtown New York killing millions of people. If we very pessimistically multiply this by a 10% chance of happening in 2016 (it’s probably much less likely), the expected number of casualties is a few hundred thousand per year.

For an all-out nuclear war with Russia, there’s a huge uncertainty in casualties. If nuclear winter is as severe as some modern forecasts and ruins global food production with freezing summers for years, then it’s plausible that over 5 billion of the 7.4 people on Earth will perish. If for some poorly understood reason there’s no nuclear winter at all, we can use a 1979 report by the U.S. Government from before nuclear winter was discovered, estimating that 28%-88% of Americans and 22%-50% of Soviets (150-450 million people with today’s populations) would die.

What’s the chance of this happening during the year ahead? Before answering, please check out this timeline of near-misses when it almost happened by mistake (highlights below). John F. Kennedy estimated the probability of the Cuban Missile Crisis escalating to nuclear war between 33% and 50%, and near-misses keep occurring regularly. Even if the risk of accidental nuclear war is as low at 1% per year, the expected deaths are 1.5-50 million people per year depending on your nuclear winter assumptions, way more than for terrorism. It’s likely that the chance of a deliberate unprovoked all-out nuclear attack by the U.S. or Russia is much smaller than 1%, given that this entails national suicide with over 7,000 nuclear weapons on the opposing side, many on hair-trigger alert.

A robust defense against terrorism and belligerent adversaries is clearly crucial, but U.S. military strategy can’t afford to be soft against the greatest threat of all: accidental nuclear war. When you hear about the U.S. plan to spend about $1 trillion modernizing and upgrading our nuclear arsenal, it at first sounds like a step in the right direction, reducing this risk. Unfortunately, looking at what the money is actually for reveals that it instead increases the risk. Please check out the disturbing incidents below: Which of these risks would be reduced by the planned more accurate missile targeting, improving first-strike incentive? By the new nuclear-tipped cruise missile? By the new gravity bomb? None! We’re spending money to make ourselves less safe by fueling a destabilizing arms race. We’ll be safer if those 1 trillion dollars were spent on non-nuclear parts of the U.S. military and on strengthening our society in other ways.

Top-10 list of near-misses

(Sources and more incidents here.)

10) January 1, 1961: H-bombs Dropped on North Carolina…….. 

9) October 24, 1962: Soviet Satellite Explodes During Cuban Missile Crisis………

8) January 25 1995: Norwegian Rocket Mistaken for ICBM…….

7) October 26, 1962: US F102A Fighters vs. Soviet MIG interceptors……

6) June 6, 1980: Faulty Chip Signals Soviet Attack……..

5) November 11, 1983: Soviets Misinterpret U.S. Nuclear War Games ……..

4) November 9, 1979: Simulated Soviet Attack Mistaken for Real…….

3) September 9, 1983: Soviet Union Detects Incoming Missiles……

2) October 27, 1962: Soviet Sub Captain Decides to Fire Nuclear Torpedo During Cuban Missile Crisis……..

1) The incidents that keep happening
These are only a sample of over two dozen close calls that we’ve catalogued in this timeline, and there are almost certainly more, since some have been revealed only decades later. Also, although most nuclear incidents were reported by U.S. sources, there’s no reason to believe that the opposing superpower had fewer incidents, or that there have been zero incidents in China, the UK, France, Israel, India, Pakistan or North Korea. Moreover, near-misses keep happening. Although some argue that the superpowers should keep their current nuclear arsenals forever, simple mathematics shows that nuclear deterrence isn’t a viable long-term strategy unless the risk of accidental nuclear war can be reduced to zero: Even if the annual risk of global nuclear war is as low as 1%, we’ll probably have one within a century and almost certainly within a few hundred years. This future nuclear war would almost certainly take more lives than nuclear deterrence ever saved. If you want to reduce the risk of accidental nuclear war, please help raise awareness by sharing this timeline.

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2 Responses to “The biggest risk with nuclear weapons is the risk of accidental nuclear war”

  1. A Green Road Project Says:

    20+ Nuclear Doom Close Calls; Why MAD Total Nuclear Global World War III Almost Happened 20 Times So Far, What Happens AFTER A Global Nuclear War? Global Zero Nuclear Weapons Project
    http://agreenroad.blogspot.com/2014/05/13-close-calls-why-mad-total-nuclear.html

  2. A Green Road Project Says:

    Reblogged this on A Green Road Daily News.

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