Media

We Are In the Midst of the Second Nuclear Age: How Do We End It?

New documentary 'Countdown to Zero' explores just how much danger we are in.

It's been a long time since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, yet the horrors of the mushroom cloud still burn starkly in our collective memory. The threat of nuclear war may seem distant; a terrible prospect rendered impossible by the lessons of World War II, but the truth is that nuclear weapons still define much of the global geopolitical landscape.

Currently, nine nations possess nuclear capabilities and other states and entities are rushing to join that powerful club. In light of this Second Nuclear Age and the possibility for nuclear terrorism, Participant Media has released a moving, important film titled Countdown to Zero -- both a play on the launch countdown and a call for a world with precisely zero nuclear weapons.

I recently caught up with Lucy Walker, the film's director, to discuss what it means to live in a world with over 8,000 active nuclear warheads, increasingly easy methods for transporting and producing such weapons, and the chance for human error -- be it total accident or complete misjudgment.

Daniela Perdomo: In your film you spoke to a lot of people on the street, which I thought was a very effective way of gauging how regular people feel. But I was struck by how many of them do not think nuclear weapons are a real threat or problem. Why do you think that is?

Lucy Walker: Oh my, well, there are studies that said that more Americans thought that aliens could land than a nuclear bomb could go off. And, unfortunately, knowing what I know, that's just not true. I think that complacency has set in since the end of the Cold War, since we've had these things 65 years and nothing "that bad" has happened since 1945. And so I think, yeah, there's this idea that if it hasn't happened so far, why should it happen in the future? You get numb and learn to live with the threat. But unfortunately, I think that the opposite is true, which is that the longer that we have them, ultimately, these low risks actually accumulate and luck might not hold out. There have been some scary near-misses and horrible possibilities averted. Unfortunately just statistically, the risk isn't zero as time goes on.

DP: We're talking about how we've grown desensitized to this threat, but there's also the flip side. How can we be aware of the threat and effectively try to address it while not buying into the fear-mongering that, for example, led America into war with Iraq?

LW: I grapple with that a lot. And how I chose to proceed in the movie was to really go to the horse's mouth -- go to the most informed, hands-on people on the planet, to the insiders' insiders and the actual world leaders who have their fingers on the button and the actual heads of intelligence for WMD. It wasn't enough for me to say Al-Qaeda terrorism is scary. I wanted to talk to the guys who knew exactly what Al-Qaeda has to do with nuclear weapons. We have an actual nuclear smuggler in the movie, and the foremost experts on centrifuges and the future enrichment of uranium, which is the technology we have to be particularly concerned about.

Hopefully the movie doesn't ever fall into the empty threat category. And the movie is scary because the facts are scary. I didn't set out to make a scary movie, but it turned out that the real facts were scary.

The conclusion that came back time and time again is that we're in real trouble. The problem is going to get worse. We're at a tipping point now, the time to solve it is now. The only solution moving forward is zero [nuclear weapons], regardless of your position during the Cold War -- whether they were a helpful deterrent or a horrible scourge. And ultimately, that's why I think that across partisan divides around the world, that the course is overwhelmingly to eliminate nuclear weapons, which is actually the policy of the current administration -- President Obama called for a world free of nuclear weapons. And I agree with him.

DP: I do want to get back to the concept of zero and Obama but I wanted to first ask about the images that you used throughout your film. It was really interesting to see how in certain countries -- for example, Pakistan -- citizens rejoiced at the fact that their country had become a nuclear power. What does that say about society or about the way our international relations work that you need this ghastly bomb to feel safe or powerful?

LW: It's interesting, isn't it? And I think it's important to remember what a technical accomplishment it is to get a nuclear weapon. For [a nation] like Pakistan, there was just the mere fantastic accomplishment to be very proud of. And it certainly gets you a seat at the table. And you can see in North Korea, it's a heck of a bartering chip. So I think that's precisely why it's such a pinpoint now with what's going on with Iran. The movie is coming at such an urgent time in terms of dealing with this issue.

The time bomb is really ticking on the possibility of solving this without a catastrophe. My goal is for us to be focused on this issue before something horrible happens so that we don't have to sit around afterward and analyze how we could have ignored this threat or how we could have let these weapons get into the wrong hands. The time is now to make sure that we never have to have that conversation.

DP: Your film talks about a coming age of nuclear terrorism. Has the war on terror only aggravated this possibility? Or do you think we would have reached an age of nuclear terrorism regardless?

LW: To some extent, what you find in my movie is that this a real non-partisan issue. And it's sort of important actually to keep that united front because it's going to be really hard to eradicate nuclear weapons even though I think that's the stated goal of so many people. It's just not easy to achieve.

I think that the more we keep focused on the united desire to do that and less focused on my views on President Bush, for example, probably the better because as you see in the film, many people call for no nuclear weapons: Secretary James Baker, evangelical visionaries, Republicans, Democrats. Indeed, the best thing is that nobody I spoke to could make a sensible counter-argument. I wanted opposition. I wanted an argument. You know, I wanted people to say, "No. They're really what we need for the future." And nobody was saying that. Everyone was saying, "Even if they are used to keep us safe, we're in a lot of trouble moving forward because it's not a choice any longer between a few nation-states having secured arsenals and nobody else in the world having them."

A world in which there are a lot of nuclear weapons held by a lot of less-secured states or even non-state actors -- well, that's not a world that I want to live in. I just can't imagine a world filled with more fear and suffering than that world. Even just one nuclear weapon in the wrong hands would scare me so much that I'm not sure I could live in a city again. You know?

DP: Definitely.

LW: We'd be moving to rural New Zealand. Almost instantly, I would imagine.

DP: Right. This is actually a good segue for my next question. In the film, someone suggests that Pakistan is really the most dangerous place in the world right now, given how unstable it is and given that it is a nuclear power. Do you agree?

LW: If I had to give you my top 10 nightmare scenarios, Pakistan would be among them. It has a lot of nuclear weapons. It's in a hot war -- not even a cold war, with India. That's a really delicate relationship. It's not even like the U.S. and Russia, where you have a little bit of flight time between them. India and Pakistan share a border and the relations are very tense. We saw the incident in Mumbai last year. There's the instability of the state itself. There's all kinds of issues going on now with the tribal lands and so on. And you've got Al-Qaeda's world headquarters. You have Al-Qaeda actually recruiting members of the nuclear weapons establishment.

There are so many things to worry about in terms of that particular arsenal. You've got a [Pakistan-based] proliferation network that traded nuclear secrets with North Korea and with Libya. And Iran, of course -- the centrifuges from Iran actually came from Pakistan. So there's just so much to worry about with regards to Pakistan. And yet it's hard to come up with an answer for [former Pakistani] President Musharraf when he asks in the movie why Pakistan shouldn't have nuclear weapons if other countries are going to claim the need for their security needs. After all, Pakistan lives in a more dangerous neighborhood and has its own need for them. It's really increasingly hard to argue that some countries can have them and some can't.

DP: Let's go back to the idea of zero nuclear weapons. If the only solution is for every country to disable its nuclear weapons, how do we start? Who goes first? Should it be Russia and the United States because they have so many more than anyone else?

LW: That's a really good question. One of the sets of info we unfortunately had to leave out of the film was this narrative about these experts who've devoted their careers to figuring exactly how you get these arsenals down safely to zero. And it's not instant. It's not crazy. It's a really specific and sophisticated and scientific and political long-game. But it's doable -- and presumably the biggest nuclear powers should lead.

DP: Your film ends rather optimistically. You show Obama and Russian President Medvedev signing a treaty, promising to cut down their nuclear arsenals. And in speaking to you right now, it sounds like you are relatively hopeful about what we can achieve with new leadership.

LW: Well, I'm really frightened. I mean, I love good leadership, and I think it's really tough to be a leader. But I do think it's a really exciting moment. You know, back in the 1980s, I think Gorbachev actually did turn the arms race around. It's amazing to hear Gorbachev talking [in the film] about how in 1986, he and President Reagan sat down in Reykjavik and proposed all-out disarmament at a time when the populations were marching. Now they didn't manage to pull that one off. But I think that we are closer now, in a time when the president calls for a world free of nuclear weapons. I hope American citizens support him in this.

DP: What can regular, everyday people do? 

LW: We started a campaign at TakePart and there's also Global Zero. And hopefully, as the shelf life of the movie continues, the action and talking points are going evolve. Right now the START treaty is sort of at the top of the agenda. But as things move forward, hopefully, we'll be able to take steps forward and people are going to become galvanized on this issue. After all, it's just all too likely that a nuclear bomb can go off. In fact, the bomb is ticking and we want to make sure and switch that thing off now before it goes off.

Daniela Perdomo is a staff writer and editor at AlterNet. Follow Daniela on Twitter. Write her at danielaalternet [at] gmail [dot] com.