Sakharov, the H-bomb, and "fall out"

Andrei Sakharov (1921-1989) was a Soviet physicist regarded as the most important contributor to the Soviet project to develop an H-bomb. However, he ended up regretting that.

Sakharov estimated in 1957 that for each megaton worth of nuclear bomb testing, we ended up with 10000 extra human deaths due to cancers and birth defects (visible or invisible) from radioactive "fall out."

Note that necessarily this "10000 per megaton" estimate was inexact. Frank von Hippel, at Princeton, later independently estimated 1000-25000. Sakharov based his numbers on estimates from the USA's Atomic Energy Commission's 1953 "black book" which in turn wrongly assumed fallout would be uniformly distributed over the Earth. Actually it experimentally is concentrated in the Northern Temperate Zone where most humans live, causing the AEC harm-estimates to be about 5 times too small – as they acknowledged in the later 1962 edition. The AEC also got it very wrong about strontium-90. In 1953 they said about the only way humans would ingest strontium-90 would be from bone splinters accidentally left in meat by butchers. They totally ignored people drinking milk, and biological concentration processes concentrating it in milk. Oops.

For this reason Sakharov sought, ultimately successfully, to have nuclear bomb testing (or at least above-ground testing) banned by treaty. At first, he was successful – he got Premier N.Khruschev to announce Moscow's unilateral cessation of nuclear tests. However, the USA and England refused to follow suit, falsely claiming this was merely a Soviet ruse designed to catch them at an unready moment. The USA tested over 70 nuclear bombs in that year alone. Khruschev then announced (in the summer of 1958) that since other nations had refused to follow suit, the USSR would resume tests.

So far, over 2000 nukes have been tested worldwide. The total megatonnage of above-ground tests so far has been about 440 megatons, i.e. 4.4 million deaths according to Sakharov's estimate. (That's over 10 times as many as all the US deaths in World War II.)

Sakharov made the point that these deaths were the perfect crime. That is because, almost always, it was impossible to be sure that any particular death was caused by any particular bomb (or by any bomb). The body count could only be estimated statistically.

Sakharov was particularly frantic about the 1961 Soviet "Tsar bomba" test of the world's largest bomb (50 megatons – equivalent to about all the explosives used in World War II combined and then multiplied by 10). Actually certain enhancements to this bomb which would have made it attain over 100 megatons were not tested because the Soviets could not figure out how to do it without destroying the airplane dropping the bomb. There was absolutely no good reason for this explosion, which alone killed half a million people according to Sakharov's estimate. Sakharov desperately contacted Soviet officials trying to stop the test but was spurned.

Ultimately most nations signed the 1963 "limited test ban treaty" banning above-ground testing. (Israel, which was caught by US satellites secretly testing a nuke in the Indian Ocean in 1979, apparently was one of the exceptional nations that did not agree.) The USA never ratified the "comprehensive" test ban treaty, though. Sakharov was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1975.

Comparison with Range Voting

We similarly can make estimates of the number of lives that are being lost because the world is using poorer forms of decision-making and democracy than range voting.

Like Sakharov's estimate, they are necessarily inexact, but clearly large. Also, like Sakharov's "perfect crime," it can be difficult or impossible to decide, for any particular casualty, whether bad voting systems were really the cause.

But that's no reason not to act. Should we have told Sakharov "Your estimate might be too high by a factor as large as 10. Then it'd really be only 1000 deaths per megaton. And maybe your cancer was really caused by something else. Therefore to hell with you."? I don't think so. The point is, the death toll clearly is very high. And it could be your death.

But our (apparently conservative) estimate of deaths caused by not having range voting for just 3 years, is larger than the death toll (4.4 million) from Nuclear Testing for all time. So if you thought a nuclear test ban was a good idea (and apparently somebody did, which was why it got a Nobel Peace Prize)... then surely you should think adopting range voting is an even better idea? And to get range voting, your country doesn't have to sacrifice anything, or engage in any treaty negotiations. By adopting range voting, it actually gains a competitive advantage versus all other countries!

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