The Risk of Nuclear Incident

The Risk of Nuclear Incident

Nuclear power is often considered the cleanest form of energy [1].  And many credit nuclear bombs for ending Japan’s efforts in World War II.  In order to use nuclear technology, though, we are relying on the integrity of our governments to act responsibly.  Let us take a moment to examine some of humanity’s track record with nuclear technology.  (This is not a comprehensive summary; rather, it’s a small subset of nuclear incidents.)

In 1962, a Russian submarine was discovered in international waters by the American fleet [2].  The American navy began dropping signaling depth charges to force the submarine to surface.  Instead, the submarine’s Captain Savitsky thought that war had broken out between the US and Russia.  He ordered his nuclear bomb to be fired on a US aircraft carrier.  The firing of the bomb required the cooperation of two other officers on board; the political officer approved the firing.  But the flotilla commander, Vasili Arkhipov, did not provide his approval.  Arkhipov eventually won the commander over and suggested that he surface and communicate with Moscow to confirm his suspicions.  It is very probable that the missile’s firing would have ignited a nuclear war.

On March 11, 2011, a Tsunami hit the Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan.  The Tsunami destroyed the back up cooling system of the plant, which led to the meltdown of three nuclear reactors.  On October 12, 2012, TEPCO (the company in charge of the plant) admitted that the failure was predictable and preventable [3].  Even though the company had predicted a Tsunami of that caliber, it failed to defend against it.  The plant was built on the coast so that water from the ocean could be used to cool the reactors.  Normally, there is a barrier between the radioactive material and the cooling water so that the water doesn’t get irradiated. Water is still used to cool the reactor, but now the barrier is broken, so that water is getting radiated.  Since it would be environmentally disastrous to let this water return to the ocean, TEPCO is building large tanks to store this water.  The image of this article is an image of this farm of tanks [4].  Japan is literally building endless tanks to keep water flowing over the reactors and cooling them.  I contacted TEPCO by email and asked their public relations department what the long term plan was for these tanks; I did not get a response.  Many of these tanks have already leaked radioactive water [5]; the radiation levels from these leaks are enough to cause radiation poisoning.  On February 3, 2017, radiation levels in one of the reactors at the Fukushima plant reached 530 Sieverts per hour (1 Sievert would result in loss of hair, cataracts, and infertility) [6].  This was a much higher amount than previously thought.  Two robots have been sent in to observe the reactors; both have failed and are unrecoverable [7].  I suspect that we are living on borrowed time.  If a second Tsunami were to hit Fukushima now, I think that much of the radiation in the reactors and the tanks of water (already leaking) would spill into the Pacific Ocean.

It is currently estimated that Russia has 7300 nuclear weapons, and the US has 6970.  Other countries, which have smaller numbers, include France, China, the UK, Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea [8].  In 1945, Los Alamos scientists estimated that it would take between 10 and 100 nuclear bombs to destroy humanity [9].  If we accept their highest estimate, then humans have produced enough nuclear weapons to destroy humanity 150 times.  Martin Hellman, a Stanford engineering professor who developed public key cryptography, has used quantitative risk analysis to determine the probability of nuclear war [10,11].  He estimated that there is a 10% chance of failure of nuclear deterrence in any decade.  Equivalently, the chance of a baby born today experiencing a nuclear war by the time he/she is 30 is about 1/3.

I have reviewed a small subset of nuclear incidents in this article.  There are many more (nuclear weapons lost by the US air force, Russian soldier who denied an order to launch a nuclear weapon, a nuclear arsenal run on 5 inch floppy disks, low morale and performance of our nuclear operators, Chernobyl, and many others).  In the end, nuclear is a useful technology only if we (humans) are able to handle it responsibly.  Our track record shows that we aren’t.


[1]  Lassiter, Joseph.  “We Need Nuclear Power to Solve Climate Change.”  TED Talk, 2016

[2]  Wilson, Edward. “Thank you Vasili Arkhipov, the man who stopped nuclear war.”  The Guardian, 10/27/2012,

[3]  “Japan Power Company Admits Failings on Plant Precautions.” Oct. 12, 2012.


[5]  “Wrecked Fukushima Storage Tank Leaking Radioactive Water.”




[9]  “Here’s How Many Super Nukes American Scientists Thought it Would Take to Destroy the World in 1945.”

[10]  Hellman, Martin.  “The Wisdom of Foolishness”, 2013,

[11]  Hellman, Martin.  “How Risky is Nuclear Optimism”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 2011,


One thought on “The Risk of Nuclear Incident

  1. A comment from a reader:

    At last you are writing about something I have experience with.

    You’re argument that someday, someone is bound to release a nuclear weapon is hard to refute. But your nuclear weapons argument gets tangled up with nuclear power. Completely different purpose, risks, benefits, and solutions.

    The risks of nuclear power really can be engineered out. The risk can be reduced to infinitesimal levels. Even with the worst recorded nuclear disaster—Chernobyl–the environmental and human cost was insignificant compared to a nuclear weapon explosion. And they had virtually no safeguards, standards, protection systems, containments. Daiichi wasn’t much better. Contrast that with an equally severe nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island. The operators did everything wrong but the accident was completely contained by much better engineering. In all the nuclear power plants across the United States and operating in oceans around the world since the mid-50s not one person has ever been killed. That’s a better record than any other method of power generation or any other industry for that matter. Safety in nuclear power is a matter of spending the money, doing the accident analyses, and mitigating the risk with excellent engineering. The plants are built for the purpose of peacefully generating energy. And with the right calculations, design, and build you can assure their safety.

    Nuclear weapons are entirely different. Built to destroy. Not engineered to be safe. Quite the contrary. They are engineered to inflict maximum damage. To be always ready for the human decision to launch. You can’t make intentions safe through engineering. You may be able to prevent unintentional release through engineering, but you can’t prevent the humans from using them if that’s what they decide to do. That argument is unassailable. Unfortunately the answers are tough. Most everyone would like to eliminate all nuclear weapons from the face of the earth. Presidents have tried through arms control talks with the Russians since the 60s. And now we’ve got dozens of other countries with nucs, including wildcards like Pakistan and North Korea. Getting a worldwide agreement will never happen in my view. Short of that, you better make sure that you have an arsenal that deters anyone else from shooting first. And you’d better be working on a missile defense that could at least shoot down a single missile coming from someone like Iran that could wipe out an entire city.


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