By Don Simpson | July 23, 2010
Director: Lucy Walker
“Every man woman and child, lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment, by accident, or miscalculation, or by madness. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us.” This quote from John F. Kennedy’s Address Before the General Assembly of the United Nations (New York City, September 25, 1961) provides the backbone for Countdown to Zero. Three key words – accident, miscalculation and madness – from that quote are used to break Countdown to Zero into three distinct chapters.
From the moment that Oppenheimer and his team discovered how to split the atom and harness the resulting energy, it was recognized that this process could serve two distinct purposes: to generate power and make bombs…really powerful bombs…you know, the type of bomb that could level an entire city. They also acknowledged that it would be impossible to keep this knowledge a secret (from the “bad guys” – which at the time meant the Soviet Union). That was 1945. Now, at least eight other countries possess nuclear weapons: USSR (1949), UK (1952), France (1960), China (1964), Israel (1967), India (1974), Pakistan (1990), North Korea (2006). There are over 23,000 nuclear weapons on planet earth – a majority are owned by the USA and Russia. During the Reykjavik Summit, President Reagan proposed a total elimination of nuclear weapons and Gorbachev agreed. Unfortunately, that plan was never implemented. (I wish Countdown to Zero would explain why. So, I did some research: Gorbachev requested that any U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative research – a.k.a. Star Wars – be restricted. Reagan argued that he pledged to his constituency to investigate whether SDI was viable. Reagan promised to share SDI technology with the Soviets, but Gorbachev did not trust that promise.)
After 9/11, the U.S. has become increasingly concerned about rogue elements with highly enriched uranium (HEU) because what if a terrorist organization like Al-Qaeda gets its hands on a nuclear bomb? There is a known black market for HEU – most if not all of it traces back to the old Soviet block nations – and Countdown to Zero points out just how easy it would be to smuggle HEU into the US via its shipping ports, especially if embedded in kitty litter. (Should we really be advertising this?) As far as making the actual bomb – well that’s even easier than smuggling HEU. (Should we really be advertising this?) From these facts, it seems inevitable that a nuclear bomb will fall into the wrong hands and will be used against the United States. Let’s just say that Countdown to Zero is enough to scare anyone shitless. (Used completely out of the context of the song itself, the closing lyric from The Cure’s “M” – “ready for the next attack” – is used quite effectively.)
The mere concept of a nuclear bomb – a single weapon that can kill millions of innocent people – scares me. Why would anyone want a bomb that could kill millions of people in a single blow? That is totally unfathomable to me. In the brief history of the U.S., we have dropped two of these bombs on Japan – yes, I understand that it was a means to the end of a horrible war – how could we not imagine that the same could be done to us? I am a strong believer that if killing is truly the only option, then it should be done face-to-face. Bombs – and worse yet, drones – are just plain cowardly. Warfare seems to have somehow evolved into a video game that is totally detached from reality.
I am a pacifist and I am all for the destruction of all nuclear weapons (this is one of the very few political concepts that I agreed with President Reagan on) and existing supplies of highly enriched uranium; but I find it extremely difficult to believe that we can permanently eradicate nuclear weapons from the human consciousness. I also do not believe there is enough trust and honesty in this world for that to actually happen. Call me a pessimist. But, really, who and what is going to stop someone from creating nuclear weapons in the future? Is it really possible to restrict the production of HEU forever? Just how on earth can we do that? And this seems like as good of an argument as any to discontinue nuclear power plants, but can the world actually agree that nuclear power is not safe? (That seems even less possible than nuclear disarmament.)
Written and directed by Lucy Walker, Countdown to Zero features an array of important international statesmen (President Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, Pervez Musharraf, F. W. de Klerk and Tony Blair) and provides many possible solutions: ban production of HEU; increase security and establish a verification system of existing supplies of HEU; strengthen police work and intelligence; begin phased reductions of – and destroy – existing stockpiles of HEU; establish international fuel banks, reprocessing centers and shared nuclear technology; take all nuclear missiles off of high alert status; establish an international warning center; improve international diplomacy and treaties. Most importantly, we should all demand zero!
But will the people who need to be convinced of the merits of nuclear disarmament (the deciders, if you will) even give Countdown to Zero the time of day? And, assuming that they do watch Countdown to Zero, will they choose to believe it or will they dismiss it as yet another liberal conspiracy theory (you know, like climate change)? There are many people who argue that nuclear weapons are integral to the national security of the United States – and unfortunately many of these knuckleheads are in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives (the deciders, if you will). How do we convince them to change their minds?