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Risk Analysis Finds Nuclear Deterrence Wanting

Engineering risk-analysis methods applied to the Cold War years point to a continuing threat, says Stanford professor

3 min read

31 March 2008—Modern nuclear reactors are designed to have a rate of failure, involving the release of significant radiation, of just 1 in 1 million per year per reactor. But what about that other potential source of lethal radiation—nuclear war? Martin E. Hellman, emeritus professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University and IEEE Fellow, applied engineering risk-analysis methods to the question of what the failure rate is for the strategy of nuclear deterrence. His conclusion? The failure rate of nuclear deterrence is a lot higher than you might think.

Hellman is probably best known for co-inventing public key cryptography, but he’s been working on the issue of nuclear deterrence since the 1980s. Nuclear deterrence could fail by a terrorist event, a command-and-control error, or a Cold War meltdown like the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, Hellman writes in the spring issue of The Bent of Tau Beta Pi , the magazine of the engineering honor society.

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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