How does one breathe new life into an issue that is sixty-five years old? How does one awaken the public to hear a warning that, like a car alarm that went off outside one’s window decades ago and never stopped screeching, is still disturbing the peace yet remains unheard? I am speaking, of course, of the nuclear peril, born in 1945, and still going strong. The comparatively new organization Global Zero, which was founded in 2007 and calls for the abolition of nuclear weapons by 2030, has been making the effort. In its attempt, it joins older organizations such as Peace Action, the Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, to name just a few. The group’s co-directors are Bruce Blair, a former missile control officer who became a world expert on nuclear command and control, and Matt Brown, formerly secretary of state for Rhode Island. They have won the support of a great number of the remarkable array of retired officials, including many of the two-thirds of former secretaries of state, former secretaries of defense and former national security advisers who have come out for nuclear abolition. Half a million people have signed the group’s statement calling for a nuclear-weapons-free world. (I am a signer.) Now Global Zero seeks to win wider public support. To this end, it has joined forces with Lawrence Bender, who produced the unexpectedly blockbusting movie An Inconvenient Truth, the film version of Al Gore’s famous slideshow about global warming, to make a film, Countdown to Zero, about the state of things nuclear today. The director is Lucy Walker, best known for her documentary Blindsight. The film opened on Friday in New York and Washington and will open in twenty more cities on July 30.
Global warming and nuclear danger of course have a great deal in common. In both, the biosphere is at stake. In the face of both, the public has shown a marked tendency to tune out. But other things are different. Worry about global warming is relatively new. By contrast, waves of concern about nuclear danger have come in and gone out many times—in the late 1940s, in the mid-’50s, in the early ’80s. The key facts have almost all been taught and retaught. And again and again they have been forgotten and re-forgotten. Those who teach the subject, as I do, find that the generation now coming of age, through no fault whatsoever of its own, has less fundamental knowledge about nuclear matters than any before it. In this field, it sometimes seems, the more that we learn, the less we know.
And yet the job of public education cannot be merely to re-stuff old minds with material that fell out of them since the end of the cold war. Venerable as nuclear danger is, it has changed shape, and some aspects are new. Proliferation has proceeded apace, and now there are nine nuclear powers and any number of others in the wings (especially in the Middle East). The fear that a terrorist group might steal or build and use a nuclear bomb in one of the world cities has rightly gripped the public imagination.
The job, therefore, of making a film that is neither just a howl of alarm (justified as that would be), nor just a classroom primer (indispensable as that would be), nor just a historical account (fascinating and revelatory as that would be in a time when historical findings have been especially interesting) is daunting indeed. In the face of these contradictory challenges, Countdown to Zero succeeds powerfully. It is an absorbing, deeply informative, often shocking yet completely reliable presentation of the fundamental architecture of the issue as it exists today. One important decision by the filmmakers was to proceed backwards through time. In a gesture that is more than a gimmick aimed at bringing novelty to over-familiar images, the film begins by showing in reverse motion the consequences of nuclear test explosions on sacrificial structures. A boiling cloud of smoke assembles a house. A sheet of fire creates a radio tower. Using dismaying interviews with captured smugglers of highly enriched uranium as well as scientists, the film marches through a sort of catechism on the availability of nuclear weapons. Can freelance scientists make nuclear weapons? Yes, if they can get nuclear weapon materials—highly enriched uranium or plutonium. (Scientists who appeared before a classified session in the Senate alleged that they could make the uranium variety of such a bomb, though sans the uranium—and, challenged by senators, did so, actually bringing the object to a later Senate session.) Can criminals obtain highly enriched uranium? Yes, and they have done it, by stealing it in Russia. (One thief explains that he wanted a refrigerator and a "gas stove." Another aimed higher: "I like Lamborghini, and Jaguar.") Can they smuggle it out of Russia? Yes. Can they smuggle it into the United States undetected? Certainly.