Posted tagged ‘nuclear risk’

The likelihood of a nuclear attack on U.S. soil – part 1

June 18, 2008

Before I make the decision to start nuclear survival preparations—and, perhaps, make lifestyle changes–I need to know: What’s the probability of a nuke attack on U.S. soil?

Many people have qualitative opinions but I’ve found little quantitative analysis. Perhaps the risk can’t be calculated; or perhaps the numbers have been crunched and classified, I don’t know. But I’m looking for more than vague commentary with language like “serious threat” or “vanishingly small.”

The challenge is to decipher the misinformation and conflicting information. Some initial observations:

  1. There’s stuff from experts on both sides, pro and con (pro, it’s a serious threat; con, it’s not a serious threat).
  2. There may be people with extreme positions on both sides–alarmists and naysayers–and it’s hard to know who’s reasonable and who’s extreme.
  3. Voices in the debate may have an agenda, pro or con. After all, the Iraqi nuclear threat was one of the primary reasons President Bush took the U.S. to war.
  4. Short of a pro-agenda (that there’s a serious threat), I wonder if there’s a simple bias. When I think of everyone involved in securing the safety of America, from government to private security firms to equipment suppliers, I think of the old Mark Twain saying: “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” This would be unfortunate because the people involved in securing our lives know the most about the threat.

Another issue to consider as I weigh the threat is a passive mindset, an out-of-sight out-of-mind thing. Does the low frequency of domestic terrorist incidents–and a zero-incidence of nuclear terrorism worldwide–make it underrated as a risk? It’s easy to dismiss the absurd. As journalist Mark Steyn said recently on Fox News, “Every jihadist is a joke if you catch them in time. If those September 11th guys had been caught on September 10th, they would have seemed like jokes too.”

Does the headline “Nukes Kill 100,000!” sound absurd? It sounds like science fiction except it would have been an accurate headline in 1945 after the bombings in Japan. Didn’t the 9/11 Commission accuse the CIA and the FBI of a passive mindset when the Commission said that a “failure of imagination” contributed to the success of the 9/11 attack?

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Warren Buffet on a nuclear “incident” – part 2

May 8, 2008

I’m researching the probability of a nuke attack and I want to revisit my post of 1/21/08 regarding Warren Buffet’s remark that a nuclear incident on U.S. soil is a “virtual certainty.”

According to a footnote on page two of a paper by political scientist John Mueller (pdf file), who argues the risk of an atomic bomb is “vanishingly small” and has been “substantially exaggerated,” Mr. Buffet is worried about any nuclear event, including reactor accidents, and he had a time frame of 100 years. The footnote states: “…Contacted by the Wall Street Journal, however, Buffett says he was worrying about any nuclear explosion, not just one set off by terrorists, and that he was talking about something that might come about over the next century, not within a ten-year period…”

Even if Mr. Buffet’s comments are based on a time frame of 100 years and includes Chernoyble-like disasters, there seems to be no doubt that he believes nuclear terrorism is a threat. As I noted earlier, he’s concerned enough to be an Advisor to the Board of Directors of the The Nuclear Threat Initiative. He told his Berkshire Hathaway shareholders to watch the movie, Last Best Chance, which dramatizes terrorists obtaining unsecured Russian nuclear material. Here are additional excerpts from the 6/19/05 interview Mr. Buffet gave CNN’s Lou Dobbs, which I cited in my 1/21/08 post:

“…And, you know, thousands of years ago we had psychotics and we had religious fanatics and we had megalomaniacs. But about the most they could do was throw a stone at somebody if they wished evil on them.

“Today, since 1945, the ability to inflict evil, or harm, on other people in huge numbers has grown exponentially. And right now there’s the knowledge around to use nuclear material. And we’ve got to hope that the wrong people don’t get their hands on it.

“… there are lots of loose nukes around the world. We’ve got multiple governments that have the capability. We have lots of chemical and biological agents that are ill guarded around the world and it should be at the top of the list for our government.

“… There are people out there that would like to do a lot more than the World Trade Center or the Spanish trains or that sort of thing.

“… The nuclear, chemical and biological threat is real. And it’s one we should attack.”

Two side notes:

1) When I read something in the press and I’ve known the inside story, there are often mistakes. I don’t have 100% faith in the press to accurately quote and get a story straight. Apropos to this post, recently there was a misunderstanding with Mr. Buffet. The press quoted him saying that the dollar will soon be “worthless.” He actually said it will soon be “worth less.”
2) In the “irony department”—in this case, nuclear power plants may be the only practical solution to global warming so nuclear energy has the potential to both destroy the earth and to save the earth—The Wall Street Journal reported on 12/7/07 that Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway was interested in nuclear power: “MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co., controlled by investor Warren Buffett, notified the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Wednesday that it is pursuing the possibility of building a nuclear power plant in Payette County, Idaho…”

Warren Buffet on Nuclear Bombs

January 21, 2008

[Go to a 5/8/08 UPDATE on this post]

“It’s inevitable.” A quote by Warren Buffet.

This is old news but worth reviewing to get it in the record of this blog. It’s important because if I needed just one person to make the case that a nuclear attack on U.S. soil was a slam-dunk, it would be Warren Buffet. He thinks it’s inevitable.

Warren Buffet is the second richest person in the world and the most respected investor on Wall Street. He’s cautious and self-effacing; he’s the opposite of flamboyant and not prone to hyperbole. His company, Berkshire Hathaway, owns not just insurance companies (like GEICO), but it owns at least one reinsurance company, which means Warren Buffet insures other insurance companies. His business is to predict, plan and pay for the cleanup of disasters (in fact, he lost $2.4 billion from 9/11; see the last quote below for his take on covering nuclear disasters). He also serves as Advisor to the Board of Directors of The Nuclear Threat Initiative, a group working to reduce the risk of nuclear terrorism.

From the lips of Warren Buffet regarding a nuclear bomb in the U.S.:

In a CNN interview with Lou Dobbs on 6/19/05, Warren Buffet said, “It’s the number one problem of our time.”

Both CNN and the BBC News on 5/6/02 quote Warren Buffet with this: “We’re going to have something in the way of a major nuclear event in this country… It will happen. Whether it will happen in 10 years or 10 minutes, or 50 years … it’s virtually a certainty.”

A Slate piece on 6/18/02 quotes Warren Buffet with this: “I don’t know anything [about potential threats to U.S. security] but I know basic probabilities. … I understand how things that seem very unlikely happen when time passes. … There’s just plenty of people out there who hate us … more psychotics, more megalomaniacs, more religious fanatics today than 50 years ago.”

A Fortune piece on 11/11/02 quotes Warren Buffet with this: “…the ultimate depressing thing. It will happen. It’s inevitable. I don’t see any way that it won’t happen. But we can reduce the probabilities. If there’s a 10% probability of something happening in a given year–and I don’t know if that’s the right probability; nobody knows–then the chances that it will happen in 50 years are 99.5%. If you get it down to 3%, there is about a 78% chance. If you get it down to 1% per year, there’s like a 40% chance, so reducing the probabilities per annum of anything happening obviously increases the chance significantly that your kids will get through their lifetimes without this happening. You can’t get rid of the knowledge [how to make a bomb]. You can try to control the materials [enriched uranium and loose nukes]. You’ll never get rid of the intent. It is the ultimate problem of mankind.”

Finally, the UK’s Guardian on 5/6/02 quotes the “Oracle of Omaha” on whether he’ll offer nuclear terrorism insurance. I’m confused by the last sentence in the quote below. Perhaps he believes financial institutions are willing to insure themselves for small disasters but not large disasters, even if the probability of a large disaster were the same or greater. Or perhaps he believes these companies are worried about terrorism but they’re not willing to pay the high premiums, especially for nuclear events. I give up, you decide:

“…It could make the World Trade Centre loss look like nothing. We are excluding nuclear, chemical and biological events in terrorism insurance. The twin towers came close to the limit of what we can do. We cannot do nuclear, chemical and biological. We will take an occasional nuclear risk if they’ll pay us enough. It’s strange that financial institutions want terrorism insurance but they’re not willing to buy what I’m worried about.”

Mr. Buffet, I’d like a clarification on that last sentence. Please call me.