Countdown to Zero: Nuclear Weapons ‘Inconvenient Truth’

Today, Countdown to Zero – a new documentary from Lawrence Bender and Participant Media – opens in many cities throughout the country. The documentary has gotten rave reviews and may be for nuclear weapons what Bender’s other documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” was for climate change – a massive national wake up call.

The film is in many ways a real-life horror movie. One reviewer described it as “smart, swift and scary as hell.” Sometimes the truth is terrifying and being awoken to it is unsettling. Nuclear weapons issues have faded from national consciousness. The Cold War is two decades gone and now many college students were actually borne after the Berlin Wall fell. Yet the dangers from nuclear weapons and nuclear materials remains.

Watch the trailer:

The film effectively goes through each of the four baskets of nuclear dangers – nuclear terrorism, nuclear proliferation, nuclear war and a nuclear accident. On nuclear terrorism it walks the viewer through how easy it is to acquire nuclear materials and how easy it is to smuggle into the US – acclaimed Harvard national security expert Graham Allison mockingly notes that a terrorist could hide it in smuggled shipments of marijuana. On nuclear proliferation, it explains that there no longer is any “magic” to developing a nuclear weapon and that should the nuclear non-proliferation regime collapse their could be a cascade of nuclear proliferation.

But the threat of a nuclear accident is perhaps the most unsettling due to its inherent randomness. As the movie so vividly exposes, accidents happen. Mistakes happen. And most troubling these things have happened in the past, but fortunately we as a world have gotten lucky. While a nuclear incident caused by accident is unlikely, who would have thought that the biggest news story of this year would be a massive catastrophic oil spill. Well you might say environmentalists have for years been warning of the potential dangers of oil extraction but no one paid attention. The same applies to nuclear weapons. Experts for years have been warning of the dangers of a nuclear accident and nuclear terrorism yet the sense of urgency has been lacking – until perhaps now.

President Obama outlined the visionary goal of eliminating nuclear weapons. Thus far he has gotten the US back in the arms-control business with the New START treaty and has worked to strengthen and bolster the nuclear non-proliferation regime at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference. He has also vitally prioritized the issue of securing loose nuclear materials and stopping nuclear terrorism and held the largest numbers of head of states in Washington since the founding of the UN at the Nuclear Security Summit in April.

Yet there is much much more to do and this agenda has fierce opponents some who are stuck in their attachment to the nuclear bureaucratic legacies of the Cold War and others who want to build and test more nuclear weapons, are clueless when it comes to addressing the transnational challenge of nuclear terrorism and securing loose nuclear materials, and even want to rekindle a new arms race with Russia. Countdown to Zero exposes the absurdity of such views and demonstrates that the status quo as it exists today is immensely horrifying.