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Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2023. Risk Analysis Methods for Nuclear War and Nuclear Terrorism. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26609.
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1

Introduction

This report was mandated by the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 (P.L. 116-92), which directed the Department of Defense (DoD) to contract with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (the National Academies) to explore the nature and the use of risk analysis methods in assessing nuclear war and nuclear terrorism risks. The National Academies appointed the Committee on Risk Analysis Methods for Nuclear War and Nuclear Terrorism to carry out this work.

COMMITTEE TASK AND SCOPE OF WORK

The formal task for the committee is shown in Box 1-1. The request required the committee to address the work in two phases. Phase I of the study is to develop an unclassified report based on access to unclassified information and primarily focuses on the nature and the use of analytical methods to assess the risks of nuclear terrorism and nuclear war. Phase II expands the focus to include an analysis of the role that the methods and assumptions in risk analysis may play in U.S. security strategy1; this phase is expected to produce a classified report along with an unclassified summary. The current report is the product of Phase I.

To carry out the Phase I assessment, the National Academies appointed a committee of 14 members with expertise covering risk analysis, decision analysis,

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1 Phase II may also require the committee to revisit tasks addressed in Phase I, as needed and after the committee has access to classified information.

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2023. Risk Analysis Methods for Nuclear War and Nuclear Terrorism. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26609.
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system modeling, strategy development, risk perception, social and behavioral science, and the analysis of nuclear war and nuclear terrorism. Committee biographies are provided in Appendix E.2

The committee held several data-gathering meetings in support of Phase I: their agendas are shown in Appendix D. At its first meeting, the committee was briefed on the origin of the study and expectations for its use by staff from the Armed Services Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, the DoD Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, and the U.S. Strategic Command. In later meetings the committee learned about methods of risk analysis related to nuclear war and nuclear terrorism that have been used previously or are currently used in the U.S. government and academia. The committee also heard from some U.S. government decision makers on how they use the output of risk analysis to inform

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2 A subset of the committee and National Academies staff with appropriate clearances will conduct the classified Phase II part of the study.

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2023. Risk Analysis Methods for Nuclear War and Nuclear Terrorism. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26609.
×

their decisions. Details on current U.S. government risk analysis methods and the assumptions made in these analyses were not available for Phase I of the study and limited the committee’s review of those methods.

In the unclassified domain of its Phase I study, the committee did not find a clearly defined U.S. government-wide program assessing the risks of nuclear terrorism or nuclear war. Therefore, as the consequences of nuclear catastrophe affect virtually all aspects of society and government, from medical care, food supply, energy, and communications to economic, psychological, and political responses, the committee instead provides examples of various risk analysis techniques that could support different risk management efforts. In principle, these methods could be applied to analyzing the risks of nuclear war and nuclear terrorism. One of the committee’s objectives was to highlight the applicability and limitations of relevant risk analysis methods.

It is essential to note that the statement of task does not require the committee to perform a risk analysis,3 but to focus on the methods of risk analysis. To describe these methods, the committee presents examples in this report—for instance, of risk scenarios—but these should not be considered an exhaustive description of the possibilities.

It is also important to note that the statement of task focuses on risk analysis. Risk analysis and risk assessment are often used interchangeably, as they are in this report.

AUDIENCE FOR THIS REPORT

This report was written with the intention of informing Congress, DoD, decision makers, policy makers, risk analysts in U.S. government departments and agencies, and the interested public on how risk analysis is or could be performed and how complex problems—such as the risks of nuclear war or nuclear terrorism—might be better understood through careful analysis. It is also intended to highlight the limitations of these approaches. In addition, the committee hopes to inform those conducting nuclear risk analyses on challenges and best practices to follow and on potential improvements of these practices.

COMMITTEE INTERPRETATION OF THE STATEMENT OF TASK

The committee viewed its overarching task as determining whether analytical methods or techniques are applicable to assessing the potential risks of nuclear terrorism and nuclear war. In Phase I, the committee focused on Tasks 1 through

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3 This is especially important to note as this report was being written during the war between Russia and Ukraine, which led to questions about the use of nuclear weapons.

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2023. Risk Analysis Methods for Nuclear War and Nuclear Terrorism. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26609.
×

4 in Box 1-1, described here in detail along with the committee’s approach to addressing each. Phase II will provide an opportunity for further analysis of Tasks 1 through 4, as well as the committee’s examination of Task 5, supported by classified information. This report will not address current geopolitical events, such as Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, although these events illustrate the importance of understanding nuclear risks before and during international conflicts.

Task 1 calls for the committee to identify risks associated with nuclear terrorism and nuclear war in both the United States and the rest of the world. The committee did not attempt to develop an exhaustive list of risks associated with nuclear war or terrorism. Rather, in Chapter 2, the committee describes the current geopolitical context, some illustrative classes of scenarios, and what is known about the consequences of the use of nuclear weapons.

The committee decided to treat “nuclear war” and “nuclear terrorism” as two separate topics, although the committee recognized that some scenarios and cases involve both nuclear war and nuclear terrorism and that there is an overlap in analytical methods to examine issues in both terrorism and war. When appropriate, the committee has identified techniques that are relevant to questions and decisions related to both nuclear terrorism and nuclear war. Chapter 2 separately lists classes of scenarios for nuclear terrorism and for nuclear war, as an example of the types of risks that could be explored. These examples are intended as one organizing principle that might be applied, but a comprehensive analysis of relevant scenarios is the task of risk analysts. As noted above, the committee’s statement of task did not call for an attempt to estimate the risks of nuclear war or the risks of nuclear terrorism but, rather, the methods that can be used to do so. The committee offers these general classes of scenarios as one possible approach to analyzing the risks related to nuclear war and nuclear terrorism; some questions and decisions will be amenable to other organizing principles.

Task 2 asks the committee to explore prior literature relevant to assessing the risks of nuclear terrorism and nuclear war. Key insights from this literature are presented in Chapter 3.

Task 3 calls for the committee to assess the role that quantitative and nonquantitative analytical methods can play in estimating the risks of nuclear war and nuclear terrorism, including the potential insights and limitations of risk analysis techniques. This task is central to Phase I of the report. To address this task, Chapter 4 describes the major challenges and sources of uncertainty relevant to assessing the overall risks of nuclear war and nuclear terrorism. This chapter also describes what is currently known about the consequences of nuclear weapons use related to the scenarios described, ranging from the detonation of a single small weapon to large-scale nuclear war.

In Chapter 5, the committee addresses the use of risk analysis methods to support specific decisions related to the management of the risks of nuclear war and

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2023. Risk Analysis Methods for Nuclear War and Nuclear Terrorism. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26609.
×

nuclear terrorism. Chapter 6 details the applicability and limitations of methods of risk analysis. Chapter 7 discusses the role of decision makers in risk and decision analyses, as well as the importance of communication of risk analysis results. Chapter 8 provides a summary of the key conclusions throughout the report. Several appendixes offer additional information.

Task 4 directs the committee to identify and examine the assumptions about nuclear risks that underlie the national security strategy of the United States. To address this task, the committee identified text within publicly available U.S. documents related to nuclear security strategy that included stated assumptions about risks: a sample of them are shown in Appendix A. This list is neither complete nor definitive, and it may not fully reflect U.S. government capabilities and positions. The representative set of nuclear risk assumptions underlying U.S. government strategy will be revisited during Phase II of the committee’s work. Appendix B offers a short discussion of uncertainties both aleatory (randomness) and epistemic (systematic, due to limited knowledge). Appendix C summarizes U.S. government policy-making structure as it relates to nuclear war and nuclear terrorism.

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2023. Risk Analysis Methods for Nuclear War and Nuclear Terrorism. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26609.
×
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Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2023. Risk Analysis Methods for Nuclear War and Nuclear Terrorism. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26609.
×
Page 10
Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2023. Risk Analysis Methods for Nuclear War and Nuclear Terrorism. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26609.
×
Page 11
Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2023. Risk Analysis Methods for Nuclear War and Nuclear Terrorism. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26609.
×
Page 12
Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2023. Risk Analysis Methods for Nuclear War and Nuclear Terrorism. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26609.
×
Page 13
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The assessment of risk is complex and often controversial. It is derived from the existence of a hazard, and it is characterized by the uncertainty of possible undesirable events and their outcomes. Few outcomes are as undesirable as nuclear war and nuclear terrorism. Over the decades, much has been written about particular situations, policies, and weapons that might affect the risks of nuclear war and nuclear terrorism. The nature of the concerns and the risk analysis methods used to evaluate them have evolved considerably over time.

At the request of the Department of Defense, Risk Analysis Methods for Nuclear War and Nuclear Terrorism discusses risks, explores the risk assessment literature, highlights the strengths and weaknesses of risk assessment approaches, and discusses some publicly available assumptions that underpin U.S. security strategies, all in the context of nuclear war and nuclear terrorism.

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