What with the economy, the still-bleeding ulcer of wars in the Middle East, the horrific Gulf oil spill, and the ongoing crisis of global warming, it's tough to make room on one's plate for any more urgent issues. But instead of trying to scrape open a little wedge on that plate, you might as well grab an ice cream scoop and plop the issue of nuclear disarmament smack on top of all the others, according to Lucy Walker's profoundly disturbing and persuasive documentary, Countdown To Zero.
Even global warming still needs a little time (although not much) to wipe us out. But the issue of nuclear weapons is so volatile, one mishap (intentional or otherwise) could destroy upward of tens of millions of human lives in minutes, and render most of the remaining real estate uninhabitable. Walker saves the scary statistics until the end of her film: everything within a two-to-five-mile radius vaporized in temperatures "hotter than the sun," oxygen-consuming fire raging outward in all directions, asphyxiating and incinerating everything in its path, toxic atomic clouds polluting the atmosphere. Imagine if the epicenter is in, say, San Francisco (as the graphics in Walker's film often do) and consider the devastation. But Walker assumes her audience already knows what a nuclear holocaust would be like. Most of her film is devoted to telling the much more frightening story of the global proliferation of nuclear weapons and materials, and the ease with which they can be stolen, smuggled, and/or built—by anyone with a grudge against anyone else. Her reference point is a speech given by President John F. Kennedy in the early '60s about the "sword of Damocles" of nuclear weaponry hanging over the earth's population that might be triggered at any moment by "accident, miscalculation or madness." Things have not improved much since then. Most of us perceive that the nuclear arms race has been downsized since the fall of the Berlin Wall, but 23,000 nuclear weapons still exist in the world, and the potential to build more increases every day. In the "madness" category of JFK's warning fall the new generation of virulent terrorist extremists, who have wrought plenty of destruction with non-nuke bombs over the last decade in places like Madrid, Bali, London, Mumbai, Oklahoma City, and New York City. Says outed ex-CIA op Valerie Plame Wilson, "If terrorists could acquire nuclear weapons, there's no doubt they would use them."
Thank heavens nukes are secure, right? As if. Harvard grad students can build a nuclear bomb out of spare parts, lacking only the highly enriched uranium (HEU) to detonate them. Materials like HEU and plutonium, stockpiled in Russia since the Cold War, are warehoused under lax security ("Potatoes are better guarded," we're told), accessible to any factory worker who wants to make a few rubles on the black market to buy a new refrigerator—or a Lamborghini. Smuggling nuclear materials across the Russian border into Georgia is the express route to markets in Afghanistan and Iran.
Smuggling uranium is disturbingly easy; a simple lead pipe will shield it, while expensive monitors erected at all U. S. ports of entry are more likely to detect kitty litter than nuclear material. The only way to stop the traffic in uranium, Robert Oppenheimer once said, is "with a screwdriver"—to open every container that comes into a city. And, as one of the crew of nuclear physicists, political scientists, investigative reporters, military personnel, intelligence ops, and politicians interviewed by Walker opines, "If you can get hold of nuclear material, it doesn't take a Manhattan Project to make a bomb." It doesn't take malicious intent to explode one, either. Walker trots out a dismaying roster of near-catastrophes: nukes mistakenly loaded onto the wrong plane, aircraft lost or downed with nukes aboard, ships lost or sunk to the bottom of the sea, their nukes never recovered. Government "safeguards" often go awry; in 1995, a U.S. research plane launched from Norway nearly triggered an armed response from Russia. At command central at NORAD, other "false alarms" have been triggered by a flock of geese, and the moon. Embracing a no-nukes-is-good-nukes philosophy, Walker's experts advocate phased reductions (as were used to eradicate chemical weapons), and the film steers viewers toward the Demand Zero movement and website. Walker's lucid film resurrects a critical issue many of us complacently assumed was as dead as the bomb-throwing anarchists of old.
COUNTDOWN TO ZERO ★★★ (out of four) A film by Lucy Walker. A Magnolia Pictures release. Rated PG. 90 minutes. Watch film trailer >>>
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