Dying In a Nuclear Apocalypse Is Still a Pretty Likely Outcome

Mathematical modeling offers a bleak perspective on the nuclear-armed future.

Nov 30 2014, 10:37pm

​Image: Steve Jurvetson/Flickr

​Nowadays, some 23 years after the official end to the Cold War, families can tour decommissioned nuclear missile silos in around a dozen US states. Maybe more. A park service guide (at least at some of the sites) will explain that here, in this room, is where Air Force officers monitored missiles that each contained a 1.2 megaton warhead capable of incinerating everything within a 7 mile radius. At the Delta-01 facility in South Dakota, kids can become Minuteman Missile Junior Rangers, with a badge and everything.

A 2008 analysis done by Stanford engineering professor Martin E. Hellman estimated that those Junior Rangers currently live with a 10 percent probability of being incinerated or otherwise dying at the hands of a nuclear weapon. A 10-chambered game of Russian roulette, he said. Sure, many silos are empty now, which is great, but the world is still home to some 16,000 active nuclear weapons.

In a more recent analysis, Seth Baum, executive director of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute, looked specifically at the chances of an inadvertent (accidental) nuclear war between Russia and the United States occurring. Depending on the assumptions made, the odds were as high as 1-in-100. Overall, figure that the odds of a nuclear war, inadvertent or otherwise, between any number nuclear armed states should be much, much higher if the scope is expanded beyond the US and Russia.

So: the Junior Rangers won't die of heart disease or cancer or COPD, but instead of vaporization or burning alive or the relatively slow death of radiation poisoning, an agonizing and irreversible plunge marked by opportunistic infections, hemorrhaging and bleeding, and cognitive impairment. This nuke-death, according to Hellman's calculations, is vastly more likely than dying in a car accident (1 in 112) and just a bit less likely than dying of (regular, not radiation-induced) cancer (1 in 7).

Image: US Air Force

Baum's analysis, based on mathematical modeling frameworks built around fault trees and ​Poisson processes, uses as its inputs available information on nuclear near-misses, or "available information on early-warning systems, near-miss incidents, and other factors to estimate probabilities of a U.S.-Russia crisis, the rates of false alarms, and the probabilities that leaders will launch missiles in response to a false alarm." Based on data collected for the period between 1977 and 1983, there are 43 to 255 false alarm events per year, mostly classified.

Simple fault tree. Image: Baum

"The fact that no nuclear war has ever happened does not prove that deterrence works, but rather that we have been lucky," Baum ​writes in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. "What if the third officer on B-59 had felt differently about launching the submarine's nuclear weapons? What if the Norwegian rocket incident had happened during a US-Russia crisis? What if India and Pakistan could not resolve the Kargil conflict so readily? Accidents happen."

"In 2013, during the brief period when the United States was threatening military intervention in Syria, Israel launched missiles from the Mediterranean towards its own coast to test its missile defense systems," Baum continues. "Russian radar detected the launch. Israel cleared up the confusion before any damage was done, and no nuclear weapons are believed to have played any role in the incident. But it demonstrates the sorts of quirky perils we must still live with."

Hellman's 2008 analysis is linked from the anti-nuke advocacy site Defusing the Nuclear Threat, which comes with a petition for its suitably disturbed guests to sign encouraging Congress to fund a study examining the nuclear threat in still greater detail. He's on a mission.

Launch buttons are all over the world now, including both sides of the still-festering India/Pakistan conflict. And then there's North Korea, China, Israel, France, and the UK. All armed for doomsday. Then there are the non-state actors, the terrorists etc. The often-accepted odds of a terrorist-initiated nuclear attack within the next 10 years are 50-50.

Hellman's analysis uses probabilistic risk analysis to reach its unsettling conclusion, and that analysis in part informs Baum's more recent study. In particular, Hellman looks at the failure rate of nuclear deterrence. Basically, the whole structure of nuclear-armed stability rests on potential aggressors not wanting to get blown up themselves: fear of retaliation. But systems fail for many reasons—accidents, instability, sabotage, provocation—and the nuclear deterrence that's kept us all from annihilation is no exception.

Hellman allows a failure rate of .1 percent per year, or 1 percent per decade. This is where the 10 percent odds come from. As he notes in the study, he prefers a failure rate of 1 percent per year, though that's less supported. That would make for 10 percent in a decade and 50 percent in five decades. For comparison, the failure rate associated with an asteroid smashing into Earth is around .000001 percent per year.

Nuclear armament is in a perverse but real sense a facilitator of peace, but that doesn't make it inherently stable. Eric Schlosser did an admirable job of cataloging the nuclear world's history of near-misses in the Guardian just last week.

The situation now is much worse than when Hellman first released his report. There's Iran, sure, but US and Russian relations remain on edge, with the US deploying anti-missile defenses in Eastern Europe and Russia pursuing development/testing of next-generation nukes—on top of everything else. And, hey, if the US continues its rightward slide in 2016, maybe we'll have a fully batshit president-hawk to help guide the world through a newly-dangerous nuclear age.