Nuclear arms control talks start: there's a role for reliability engineering

The United States and Russia are scheduled to hold talks in Geneva starting today and lasting until 21 November to craft a new nuclear weapons treaty. The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (Start) was signed in Moscow in 1991 and expires in December 2009. There's much haggling over what should replace it, with complications coming from a U.S.-European missile shield. It would do for both sides to consider the real risks of nuclear war involved.

Earlier this year, Martin Hellman, the co-inventor of public key cryptography, tried just that. He applied reliability engineering methods to figure the rate of failure for nuclear deterrence. Though it's not the only possible trigger of a nuclear confrontation, Hellman focused on a "Cuban Missile Type Crisis" as the cause. See our story last April for Hellman's fascinatng equation for armageddon, but I've pasted the rather disturbing results here:

The result is a range from 2 chances in 10 000 per year to 5 chances in 1000 per year for just this one type of trigger mechanism. The values are valid only for the Cold War years, writes Hellman. But that doesnâ''t make them irrelevant at a time when relations between the United States and Russia are deteriorating; India and an unstable Pakistan have acquired atomic weaponry; and military planners from Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul worry about whether a nuclear-armed China would go to war to reclaim Taiwan.

Hellman's careful to say that he's not necessarily advocating complete disarmament. After all there is probably risk to not having a nuclear deterrent, too. Instead, like a true academic, he just wants somebody, such as the National Academy of Engineering, to do a far more nuanced analysis than his own; so that policy makers and the public have a real understanding of what the risks of nuclear strategies really are. Check out his website devoted to the cause here.

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