Re: Nuclear war is not an existential threat

From: J. Andrew Rogers (
Date: Tue Sep 27 2005 - 15:14:20 MDT

On 9/27/05 12:33 PM, "Eliezer S. Yudkowsky" <> wrote:
> J. Andrew Rogers wrote:
>> - The US has ~1500 MT of nuclear weapons. The Russians have a fair bit
>> more. Most of these are airburst weapons, with the greatly reduced
>> environmental impact implied. This is a relatively small aggregate yield in
>> comparison to many things.
> Do we trust the Russian estimates? I've heard that their nuclear
> weapons are, perhaps, not quite as reliable as the US's - i.e. they may
> have built them and certainly trumpeted that fact back in the Cold War
> days, but they wouldn't necessarily launch successfully, or go off, or
> go off with the estimated yield.

Both of these estimates are inflated in any case -- what either the US or
the Russians could actually deliver would be substantially less. As you
mention, it is widely believed that a substantial fraction of the Russian
nuclear force is non-operable due to lack of maintenance and general decay.
They have gobs of fissile material, but it would probably have to be
recycled in many cases to perform as intended. A lot of the Russian fissile
material is sitting around rotting, since they do not have money to either
destroy it or keep it fresh. The US has been actively destroying nuclear
weapons and recycling the material or converting it into reactor fuel.

The aggregate yield numbers that are commonly used were guesstimated by
people and organizations with an ideological interest in making the arsenals
seem as large as possible. Neither country publishes precise data, and the
disarmament negotiations were based on third-party data for what both
countries had. IIRC, the US has already achieved the goals of the nuclear
disarmament terms it agreed to, but Russia is behind on its obligation and
its nuclear disarmament is being funded primarily by the US government.

Rather than producing more deployed nuclear weapons, the US has been
recycling the fissile material from decommissioned nukes into tiny plutonium
triggers which are put into storage (which are normally counted as a nuclear
weapon for accounting purposes). If the US wanted to make a nuclear weapon,
they install the trigger on an otherwise inert thermonuclear device. The
yield of a plutonium trigger is on the scale of a large conventional
explosion, making the broader nuclear arsenal much safer and cleaner since
most of the "nuclear weapons" in the US arsenal are inert with the triggers
stored elsewhere and in a fashion that an accidental nuclear event won't
cause major damage. Very similar to how detonators are kept separate from
high explosives to minimize the damage possible in an accident and to allow
much more flexibility in the actual usage.

For this reason, in a surprise attack scenario only a fraction of the US
nuclear arsenal could be deployed, as many of the nukes the US nominally
possesses are trigger assemblies that have not been installed and could not
be with only a few minutes notice. On the upside, the US has been reducing
the amount of plutonium it keeps around to the bare minimum required to
function as triggers, which reduces several types of risk.

>> Get off the nuclear weapons fixation already. It is a relatively minor
>> threat to your survival -- you are far more likely to be killed by a nasty
>> virus than a nuke.
> How bad does a virus need to be to have the same effect on the world
> economy as a nuclear exchange?

Any virus bad enough that physical human-to-human interaction and travel
dwindles will put a significant damper on the economy. One of the nice
things about nuclear weapons is that the real damage is pretty localized.
Look at what SARS did to the Asian economies in a matter of weeks, and that
was an insignificant virus in the big scheme of things. Something nasty and
global, like a particularly bad influenza variant, could hinder the free
flow of goods and services on a spectacular scale.

J. Andrew Rogers

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