Countdown to Zero traces the history of the atomic bomb from its origin to the present state of affairs, and argues that despite the fact that nuclear war has receded from the public mind since the end of the Cold War
Countdown to Zero traces the history of the atomic bomb from its origin to the present state of affairs, and argues that despite the fact that nuclear war has receded from the public mind since the end of the Cold War, the dangers of nuclear disaster are as prominent as ever before.
This documentary is like a crash course in nuclear awareness: all the main issues are raised and explored, leaving the viewer with a good overview of the dangers. Nothing in this feature is particularly original, not that Director Lucy Walker is trying to to say something new, but to bring all the facts together to produce a definitive account of all of the possible ways nuclear war could, and eventually likely will, come about. In this, she is certainly successful, and the breadth of opinion from experts and political leaders we receive in this film is remarkable
The film is hinged around a speech by then US president John F Kennedy at the UN in 1961. He said, “Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderist of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident, or miscalculation or by madness.”
The film systematically explores the dangers, starting with the poorly secured supplies in Russia. Stories abound from the 1990s of people literally walking into nuclear facilities and walking out with highly enriched uranium. While security has improved – in large part due to US funds – the danger of nuclear smuggling is still present.
We move on to learn about the various terrorist groups have previously, and could still be trying to buy, build or steal bombs, and many experts think it is only a matter of time before a group acquires one and uses it.
However, almost as terrifying is the ever present risk of nuclear disaster by accident. Despite the fact that the Cold War has been over for 20 years, both American and Russian nuclear systems are still on the alert, and a nuclear bomb could be launched within 15 minutes. This has nearly happened numerous times: we learn about a case in 1995 when the US and Norway were collecting atmospheric data with a sounding rocket. To the Russians, however, it looked like a nuclear Trident rocket, and Russia nearly launched a full-scale nuclear attack on America. Only the cool-head of Boris Yeltsin (an unlikely statement, no doubt), saved the world from nuclear catastrophe.
As this film argues, nuclear war is no longer at the forefront of the public memory, but we are still standing at the brink. Those states with weapons need to take the first step to getting rid of their deterrents, international fuel banks in neutral countries need to be set up, and we need to realign our political system so that those with nukes are no longer rewarded with power (and a place on the UN Security Council), but are isolated.
When asked in the film, Tony Blair said the ideal number of nuclear weapons in the world was zero. And yet he oversaw Britain’s plans to renew Trident, our nuclear deterrent. Films like Countdown to Zero are important because they can help spread the message that it is only a matter of time before a nuclear weapon gets used, and makes a powerful call to action. As a physicist in the film says ‘What isn’t forbidden is compulsory’: nuclear weapons must be banned or else our countdown to world destruction will continue.
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