“I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” Robert Oppenheimer [ ‘father’ of the atomic bomb]
Nuclear annihilation is something that most of us, as a species, are in complete denial of. Armageddon is just too horrific a concept; since the end of the Cold War, many optimistically believe it’s an unlikely prospect . This could well be humanity’s hubris, and the team behind ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ have produced another high quality documentary in ‘Countdown to Zero’; they consider the hard and terrifying realities of nuclear proliferation and destruction. It makes for discomforting viewing.
‘Countdown to Zero’s theme and refrain is a JFK quote when he warned that the dangers of global nuclear self-immolation stem from ‘accident, miscalculation, or by madness’. The Cuban Missile Crisis was an example of all three. We were then at a minute to midnight and the filmmakers say we will come close to, or horrifyingly go beyond, that time in the near future.
In the Palomares Incident (1966) – an actual event, not a Jason Bourne film, a B52 carrying four nukes crashed with a refuelling plane; three bombs fell to earth in Spain, one dropped into the Mediterranean. Two years later, another B52 and another crash, in Thule, Greenland. A cover up was immediately enacted to disguise the seriousness of the event. ‘Broken Arrow’ isn’t just a more than passable John Woo movie, it happened. Accidents, being what they are, will always happen.
The madness is all around for us to see – the twin menaces of terrorism and proliferation were amply aided and abetted by Pakistan’s AQ Khan. Khan is a national hero is his homeland after building a ‘Muslim Bomb’. He also had a successful career in supplying nuclear weapon technology and equipment to North Korea and Iran. He was eventually banged to rights, rumbled after trying to sell off-the-shelf nuclear bomb secrets to Libya. A latter day Prometheus Unbound, the actions of Khan’s international nuclear supply chain ripped much of the Non Proliferation Treaty to pieces. On the terrorism front Al Qaeda would have gone nuclear if they could. As long as enriched uranium is being smuggled out of the former USSR, terrorist/non-national agents will seek to acquire a ‘primitive’ nuclear bomb.
Miscalculation? We have come very close to nuclear war on several occasions – the most alarming being comparatively recently in 1995. A small non-military rocket launched in Norway led to a real life ‘War Games’ scenario in the Kremlin. Boris Yeltsin was less than ten minutes from launching Russian ICBMs in response to a supposed NATO attack. As the film sardonically and chillingly notes, the human race was fortunate that Yeltsin wasn’t drunk; we have never been definitively informed as to what transpired in those moments. Testimony from a former ‘Minuteman’ turnkey (the NORAD Officers who would launch their missiles within one minute of the balloon going up) highlights how it was down to sheer luck that war never broke out because of ‘hairtrigger’ controls being activated in error. ‘Dr Strangelove’ was more real than we thought.
The documentary has a string of talking heads interviews – Tony Blair, Jimmy Carter, Robert McNamara and former CIA agent Valerie Plame to name but a few. Mikhail Gorbachev gives a powerful and emotional account of the Reykjavik Summit and provides a reminder of how transitory political power can be.
Some slight criticism of an otherwise excellent documentary; Osama Bin Laden is still alive (the film was released in the US in 2010), there’s no interview with Mohamed ElBaradei or indeed any current IAEA official and, as such, it’s very American-centred. There’s only a passing mention of Israel, the only country in the Middle East to have the Bomb.
The filmmakers end with a rallying call to arms (pun intended) for muscular non-proliferation protocols and regulation. They advocate an increase in the multilateral governance of nuclear arms and material leading aiming towards containment and destruction (and sooner rather than later). Barack Obama spoke in Prague of the need for a nuclear weapon-free world: ‘I’m not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly –- perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence’. The alternative is to continue playing Russian roulette with the lives of billions until we do not live to survive the consequences of our folly; Oppenheimer’s words could prove all too prophetic.