Defusing the Nuclear Threat
You Are the Key

Martin E. Hellman
Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering

The Main Idea

Audacious as it might sound, you could play a key role in saving the world from nuclear destruction by creating a "pocket of nuclear awareness" within groups to which you belong, and which then could spread nationally. As applied to the Stanford campus, this approach has received support from prominent members of the Stanford community, including a letter from former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor that encourages Stanford students to entertain "the audacious concept that their involvement could be the catalyst for [ending] ... the threat posed by nuclear weapons," and "to take leadership roles in this effort to make society's actions consistent with the realities of the nuclear age."

This same approach applies to any other interconnected group, such as other schools, churches and civic organizations. Therefore, while the following description uses Stanford as its model, if you are not a Stanford student, please read on and consider using a similar approach within a group to which you belong.


A 2005 survey by Senator Richard Lugar of national security experts (500 kB PDF) estimated a 30% risk for a terrorist nuclear attack in the next ten years. That same survey estimated that two more nations would join the nuclear club by 2010. North Korea has since done so, and Iran is close. My research has shown that relying on nuclear weapons is as risky as living in a town surrounded by thousands of nuclear power plants. In spite of these highly unacceptable risks from nuclear terrorism, nuclear proliferation and nuclear war, most people ignore the issue, lulled by repeated claims that, because nuclear deterrence has worked to date, the risk is minimal to non-existent. A viable plan is needed to raise societal awareness to a high enough level to allow societal action for eliminating this highly unacceptable risk.

Spring 2010 Lecture Series

Given society's misperceptions, getting the facts straight is a necessary first step. To that end, we've arranged an exciting series of talks by some of the world's leading experts on different aspects of the nuclear issue. (Click HERE for details.) They will present new, often surprising perspectives on nuclear proliferation, nuclear abolition, the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program and prospects for expanding peace. Consider inviting friends to these talks as a way to broach this subject with them. The first step in the process is to get people to give the issue of nuclear weapons the respect it deserves, and most people require multiple exposures before they will consider a new idea. Thus, even your conversations with those who reject the need for change serve a useful purpose. You are laying the foundation for them to reconsider when next approached.

The Plan

No matter how good our lecture series is, just offering talks is not enough. Effecting concrete change in our nuclear posture requires 50% of the population to change their thinking about the relationship between nuclear weapons and national security. In contrast, today well under 1% are concerned. The task of achieving such a large increase in awareness is made more manageable by recognizing that a key milestone, often referred to as a tipping point, but which I prefer to call critical mass, is reached much sooner, potentially as early as the 5% mark.

Critical mass is the point at which a typical person hears about the issue repeatedly, from different sources. The first time most people hear it brought up, they tend to dismiss the issue as just one more topic of possible interest. But, after multiple exposures, a significant fraction start to pay attention and join the effort to produce change. Most people don't want to be the first to question conventional wisdom. But they also don't want to be the last.

Once critical mass is reached, concern for reducing the risk gains a life of its own in a self-sustaining chain reaction. Until that point, we also fight a chicken-and-egg problem with media coverage. Mass media only cover issues of mass interest, yet mass interest requires mass awareness. Once critical mass is achieved, chickens start laying eggs, which hatch into yet more chickens, accelerating the process.

Reducing the problem from reaching 50% of Americans to 5% helps, but still requires millions of people – a daunting task in light of our limited resources. When confronted with a similar problem in the introduction of a new product, businesses resort to "market segmentation" in which they initially target a much smaller, niche market that is consistent with their initial resources. Only after achieving success within that segment and thereby creating significantly greater resources, do they tackle the larger market. Stanford is an attractive market segment for this issue for a number of reasons:

  • With 6,500 undergraduates, critical mass is only several hundred students, a much more achievable initial goal than trying to reach millions of Americans.
  • Six prominent members of the Stanford faculty (a former Secretary of Defense, a former Secretary of State, two Nobel Laureates, a former president of the university, and a former Dean of Engineering) along with former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor support this project. Having these opinion leaders question the conventional wisdom about nuclear weapons removes a major barrier to students doing the same – the fear of appearing foolish.
  • Some of the supporters mentioned above are prominently associated with the Republican party and some with the Democratic party, clearly illustrating that this issue is non-partisan.
  • Students tend to be more open to new ideas that question conventional wisdom.
  • Stanford is at the heart of the Silicon Valley culture, which does not shrink from important, but seemingly impossible tasks. Rather, it asks how the inconceivable might be transformed into the possible.

If the urgent need to re-examine our nuclear posture can reach critical mass on campus and become a self-sustaining chain reaction, some of that energy can be used for replicating the process at other universities and within other groups. It may also be possible to garner national interest in the issue based on Stanford's reputation as a source of valuable, new ideas. Here's the initial plan of action:

  • Recruit a core group of students to seed the process. This step started with our January 20 kick-off meeting and is proceeding well.
  • Hold a sequence of educational seminars. The initial goal is not nuclear abolition, world peace or any other proposed remedy. Rather we first seek to create an informed, motivated public that can then choose among those goals and others based on what they have learned. Arguing about later steps is counter-productive when the first one has not yet been taken. Also, some later steps that may appear impossible from our current vantage point will become more clearly feasible in the changed environment produced by those earlier steps.
  • Ask those who come to a seminar to consider bringing at least one friend, and preferably more, to the next seminar. That will require discussing the issue with a much larger number of people, but every such conversation is important to the process – even with those who choose not to attend – because most people will need to be approached several times before seriously reconsidering the issue.
  • Create relations with campus media and living groups to increase awareness.
  • Distill what has been learned to aid participants in their efforts. It is highly recommended that you read those suggestions at an early stage in your efforts.
  • Compile a list of courses that relate to nuclear weapons so that interested students can integrate this effort into their normal studies. (Expected completion during Spring 2010.)



Our project has received support from seven prominent members of the Stanford community.

Be sure to read our Suggestions for Increasing Your Effectiveness before talking to others about this issue. Based on decades of experience, it can greatly simplify the process of discussing this issue with friends.

Check out our exciting Spring quarter lecture series, attend as many as you can, and invite others to attend with you. If each person who sees the urgent need to change our approach to nuclear weapons will talk to enough friends to bring just one additional person to the next lecture, we can reach critical mass relatively quickly.


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