Review of Countdown to Zero

Jul 28, 2010
By Sarah Bulley and Anna Newby
Yesterday the Planetary Security Foundation held their organization’s inaugural public event with a screening of the new documentary, Countdown to Zero, at E Street Cinema. Eric Anderson, founder and executive director of Planetary Security Foundation, opened the screening with a few brief comments about the danger posed by existing nuclear stockpiles, the urgency of contemporary nonproliferation efforts, and the organization’s goal of securing our world’s nuclear materials.
Countdown to Zero was written and directed by Lucy Walker. The film begins with an overview of the history of nuclear weapons and builds upon a quote from President John F. Kennedy
Every man woman and child, lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment: by accident, or miscalculation, or by madness.
Throughout the film, average people on the streets of the world’s major cities are asked various questions throughout the film. Are nuclear weapons relevant today? Which countries have nuclear weapons? How many nuclear weapons are there? How many nuclear weapons should there be? Their answers at times demonstrate a general apathy in the public about the threat of nuclear terrorism that Countdown to Zero attempts to correct.
The documentary focuses on the arms race that developed following the start of the Cold War and the emergence of new nuclear weapons states. From Great Britain to Pakistan, footage and images of the national pride that followed accession to the nuclear club revealed the prestige that is often associated with nuclear arms.
The film also played on notions of our own U.S. arsenal being free from accident and error. In a striking montage depicting failed missile launches, B-52 crashes, and newsreel footage of frightening military “bloopers”, a string of historical examples demonstrate the danger that a single error can pose to nuclear security.
One thread that ran through the film outlined the seemingly simple steps that a terrorist group would have to undertake to conduct a nuclear attack in the United States. From acquiring weapons-grade fissile material from a poorly-secured facility, to sneaking a relatively small amount of enriched uranium into the country in a shipping container, to the construction of a rudimentary gun assembly method to detonate the device, the film suggested that all of the components are within the reach of someone who intends to strike any of the world’s major cities.
Experts interviewed in Countdown to Zero, including Valerie Plame Wilson, Scott Sagan, Joseph Cirincione, nuclear physicists, and a number of former heads of state, say today’s greatest nuclear threat is not an attack from another state, but from a terrorist group that acquires nuclear material and technology. Whether from a rogue state, or through other illicit means, the film’s resident experts agree that the world must tighten its control of nuclear material to prevent such an outcome.
Overall, Countdown to Zero is full of the flashy graphics and poignant footage that could make it a success in mainstream audiences. As a film meant to educate the public on the dangers of nuclear weapons and rally support for arms control efforts, it occasionally simplifies complex issues. Moreover, while the film thoroughly outlines the potential threats posed by nuclear weapons and materials, it does not highlight many nonproliferation successes – such as improvements in the security of nuclear facilities in the former Soviet Union or advancements in radiation detection equipment.
Nevertheless, Countdown to Zero offers something for more seasoned nuclear thinkers to ponder as well, such as questions about how well U.S. officials communicate (internally and with adversaries) during crisis situations, how to further international cooperation to secure and track nuclear material, and how best to educate the public about the role of nuclear weapons in contemporary international security. The film is obviously designed to convince an audience of the filmmakers’ position and does not shy away from the nightmare scenario of rogue nuclear threats and gives its audience a reason to further the nonproliferation debate. The documentary is worthwhile as a launching point for new audiences to start thinking critically about U.S. nuclear weapons policy.