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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.