Those of us working to eliminate the threat that nuclear weapons pose to human survival face three major barriers that a new approach attempts to overcome:

  • The public is more worried about the risk of modifying our nuclear posture than maintaining it. Even a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is criticized as too risky by guardians of the nuclear status quo. Larger steps such as the recent efforts by Shultz, Perry, Kissinger and Nunn to pose even the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons are derided as fantasy.
  • Public interest only approaches an appropriate level when the world is on the brink of a nuclear catastrophe and fades at the first partial success. When the Cold War ended, I was horrified that public concern evaporated in the mistaken belief that the nuclear threat had been extinguished. Without an ongoing effort, it was only a matter of time before the pendulum swung back, as it is now doing, and the threat of nuclear war reared its ugly head once more.
  • A true solution to the nuclear threat involves such far-reaching changes in human thought and behavior that most people discount their ever occuring. “You can’t change human nature,” is a phrase we all have heard far too often. What naysayers miss is that these changes do not occur in one fell swoop, but rather as a process. What is impossible early on becomes feasible in the new environment produced by the first steps. Abolishing slavery and women’s suffrage, both initially derided as fools’ errands, came to be in just this fashion.

Defusing the Nuclear Threat, as the new approach is called, is based on a simple, but surprising observation: People have a right to know the risk associated with locating a nuclear power plant near their homes and to object if they feel that risk is too high. Similarly, they should have a right to know the risk associated with nuclear deterrence and to object if they feel that risk is too high. But they cannot because that latter risk is largely unknown. The initial goal of the project is summarized in a statement endorsed by seven eminent individuals including two Nobel Laureates, a former president of Stanford University, a former Director of NSA and Deputy Director of the CIA, and which concludes:
“We, the undersigned, therefore urgently petition the international scientific community to undertake in-depth risk analyses of nuclear deterrence and, if the results so indicate, to raise an alarm alerting society to the unacceptable risk it faces as well as initiating a second phase effort to identify potential solutions.” How do these proposed studies overcome the three barriers we face?

  • They do not change our military posture one iota and therefore cannot be criticized as “too dangerous.”
  • My preliminary analysis indicates that the current risk is literally thousands of times greater than acceptable. If the proposed in-depth studies agree even approximately, it says that society cannot go back to sleep at the first partial success.
  • Reducing risk a thousand-fold clearly cannot be done in one instantaneous act. The long-term nature of the solution as a process is almost self-evident: First find ways to halve the threat. Then halve it again, and again, and again. Thus, without ever explicitly calling for the ultimate goal of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, the world can discover if that end state is required as it journeys through ever safer levels.

My paper “Risk Analysis of Nuclear Deterrence” has just appeared in the magazine of the national engineering honor society and provides more details. While it includes some higher mathematics, those sections can be skipped without losing the paper’s main thrust.

Martin Hellman is Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering at Stanford and previously taught at MIT. His invention of public key cryptography is the basis of secure financial transactions on the Internet and has been honored with numerous awards, most notably election to the National Academy of Engineering, election as a Fellow of the IEEE, and being named a Marconi International Fellow.