What are the odds of a local or global nuclear conflict?

I can remember very well that in the eighties of the twentieth century I used to have nightmarish dreams of nuclear devices exploding on the horizon after which I woke up realizing that luckily it was just a dream. These dreams have come back to me, so I guess something is going on.

Is there a new cold war going on? Is it that Russia and the U.S.A. are taking opposite sides on something? But then again, I read that Trump had a friendly personal telephone call with Putin.

I also heard that the chances of an atomic bomb being dropped have increased since Trump is president of the U.S.A. but who can know that for sure? Maybe in the case of the provocations of North Korea, this may be the case.

The number of nuclear warheads in an alert state is about 14900 (look here), of which there are about 1800 in the U.S.A. and Russia together.

There is the situation in Syria/Near East, and many more hot spots. Take your pick.

Can anybody address this question (approximately)? Maybe it can make those dreams disappear.

I'm not in need of a psychologist. The dreams don't affect my daily functioning, which is, strangely enough, better than ever before (coming to think about it I even like these dreams: the wakening up after having had these dreams feels rather good, and an exploding nuclear bomb, especially a thermonuclear one, is great to see). I'm just curious.

  • This is going to be primarily opinion-based by nature, but I'll answer best I can
    – Gramatik
    Dec 29 '17 at 19:22
  • I think you have two distinct questions here. Global nuclear war, very close to zero. Local nuclear war is a possiblilty, though. Kim Jong Un goes totally insane, launches a few nuclear missiles, US anti-missile defenses miss one...
    – jamesqf
    Dec 29 '17 at 20:15
  • 1
    Complex geopolitical situation? Try 1962 instead. Dec 29 '17 at 21:30
  • 2
    I've voted to close this for the extensive amount of speculation required. Dec 29 '17 at 21:58
  • Yeah, you're right. I already thought this would happen, so I'll vote too for closing it. But where is the closing tag? Dec 29 '17 at 23:54

According to the Doomsday Clock timeline, the only time we were closer to the use of nuclear weapons was in 1953:


1953: After much debate, the United States decides to pursue the hydrogen bomb, a weapon far more powerful than any atomic bomb. In October 1952, the United States tests its first thermonuclear device, obliterating a Pacific Ocean islet in the process; nine months later, the Soviets test an H-bomb of their own. "The hands of the Clock of Doom have moved again," the Bulletin announces. "Only a few more swings of the pendulum, and, from Moscow to Chicago, atomic explosions will strike midnight for Western civilization."

They currently have things at 2.5 minutes (PDF). For contrast, in the 1980s, it was never worse than 3 minutes. The farthest the clock has been since it was created was 17 minutes in 1991.

You can also read more at Wikipedia. Or at Tsar Bomba to read more about the Soviet test.

I don't want to set the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists as having absolute knowledge. They have their own ideological biases. But they already had the clock at 3 minutes during the Barack Obama administration. In general, they have seventy years of history setting relative dangers. It is noteworthy that they considered the danger in 2015 to be similar to that of 1984 (towards the end of the Cold War) or 1949 (near the beginning).

  • 5
    "They have seventy years of history setting relative dangers" -- of an event that has never happened. Their clock is essentially meaningless.
    – Deolater
    Dec 29 '17 at 22:00

Since the cold war, and especially the Cuban Missile Crisis, I believe the geopolitical scene has accepted and understood Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) and that all the nuclear powers save for possibly North Korea have Second Strike capability. Russia and the US may be politically at odds, but they are not currently military enemies. Russia has even offered to mediate US-DPRK talks.

The most prominent fear on most peoples minds right now appears to be North Korea launching nukes at the US, as most see Kim as some level of crazy. On the contrary, his provocative actions are consistent and sensible, though unacceptable on a world stage. Given this I do not believe he would knowingly throw away his regime by launching unprovoked nuclear missiles, and has in fact shown he may be ready to come to the negotiating table.

Given MAD, the only country that would purposefully strike first with a nuclear weapon against another nuclear nation would have to have a suicidal leader at the helm. Therefore one could argue the only "rational" use of a nuke would be against a country without equal retaliation possibility. This is why the only nuclear attack I believe has any probability of materializing in current times is Israel's Samson Option, but some level of conventional war would have to happen prior to this.

  • 2
    I think, though, that you have to see Kim's being "ready to come to the negotiating table" in historical context. In the North Korean vocabulary, "negotiation" means "the rest of the world gives us stuff in return for promises that we never intend to keep".
    – jamesqf
    Dec 29 '17 at 20:18

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