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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Practical Power Beaming Gets Real

A century later, Nikola Tesla’s dream comes true

8 min read
This nighttime outdoor image, with city lights in the background, shows a narrow beam of light shining on a circular receiver that is positioned on the top of a pole.

A power-beaming system developed by PowerLight Technologies conveyed hundreds of watts of power during a 2019 demonstration at the Port of Seattle.

PowerLight Technologies
Yellow

Wires have a lot going for them when it comes to moving electric power around, but they have their drawbacks too. Who, after all, hasn’t tired of having to plug in and unplug their phone and other rechargeable gizmos? It’s a nuisance.

Wires also challenge electric utilities: These companies must take pains to boost the voltage they apply to their transmission cables to very high values to avoid dissipating most of the power along the way. And when it comes to powering public transportation, including electric trains and trams, wires need to be used in tandem with rolling or sliding contacts, which are troublesome to maintain, can spark, and in some settings will generate problematic contaminants.

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