July 31, 2010

by Robert M. Gould, MD

Dear PSR Friends and Colleagues,

By now many of you may have heard about PSR’s promotion of the cinematic release of “Countdown to Zero.” This new film, with the stated aim of rekindling a mass movement to eliminate nuclear weapons, offers graphic evidence about the manifold dangers posed by the continued presence of thousands of missiles on hair-trigger alert, global stockpiles of poorly secured nuclear materials, and the potential horizontal proliferation of weapons and weapons-grade materials to states and non-state actors (i.e., terrorists).

However, while wrapped in the high-end gloss of a major Hollywood production, the film delivers a muddled message regarding how to move toward abolition, choosing to place an inordinate focus on the threat posed by terrorists and countries like Iran, while giving relatively short shrift to the long-standing Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations of the nuclear weapons states (NWS) to eliminate their arsenals. Moreover, it completely ignores the hazards posed by the accelerated promotion of nuclear power in providing the materials, methods and scientific cadre critical for continued global proliferation of weapons programs.

To its credit, the film does provide some incredible footage that expands on prior revelations of classics such as “Atomic Café,” including clips of the French “limited” detonation of a nuclear bomb in Algeria to keep it out of hands of French generals trying to overthrow President De Gaulle 50-odd years ago. There is abundant documentation of numerous nuclear weapons accidents that provide a vivid reminder of how the “best and brightest” nuclear strategists relying on complex “fail-safe” systems have placed the world too often and too close to disastrous outcomes.

In one segment, Bruce Blair of the World Security Institute gives chilling testimony about the dangers of accidental nuclear war, relating the story of how close we came in 1995 to the Russians “retaliating” to a weather rocket confused for an incoming attack. This episode provided the context for PSR’s 1998 New England Journal of Medicine article documenting the projected toll of a solitary Russian submarine firing all of its nuclear missiles at multiple U.S cities, whether by miscommunication or a terrorist takeover of the sub. At a time when even the Obama Administration has resisted the relatively simple steps of taking missiles off of “launch on warning” posture, this is indeed a cautionary tale that needs to be shared broadly.

Towards the end of the movie, PSR’s Dr. Ira Helfand gives grim testimony about the human health toll of the detonation of a nuclear weapon due to the heat, blast and radiation , and understood since the time when the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki led to the deaths of approximately 210,000 human beings by the end of 1945.

This information, familiar to those of us who saw PSR’s “The Final Epidemic” almost 30 years ago, remains mostly unknown to younger people unconnected to the Cold War world of “duck and cover,” and is of undoubted importance in raising awareness among a new generation that will need to provide the political will and capacity to get rid of the over 23,000 remaining nuclear weapons, over 90% of which reside in the stockpiles of the U.S. and Russia.

Unfortunately, rather than providing clear and concrete steps for reducing the existing arsenals of the NWS, the film concentrates on the potential dangers of nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists or “nuclear wannabe” states. In much of the first half of the movie, and in many points throughout the entire film, the viewer is flooded with information and images related to the threats posed by “them”— the bad actors personified by Al Qaeda and other terrorists, the current “rogue state” gallery personified by Iran and North Korea, and the variety of folks who are hustling in ex-Soviet states and elsewhere peddling nuclear materials to make a buck.

There is no question that this is indeed very scary stuff that underscores the real potential dangers of nuclear terrorism, but I think the general effect of all of this is to exculpate the responsibility of the NWS, including our own country, in continuing to set the wrong example by spending billions of dollars annually to improve the capability of existent (not theoretical) weapons and maintaining nuclear weapons at the heart of military strategic doctrines, all issues virtually unexplored in the movie.

I found the movie’s concentration on the terrorist threat somewhat puzzling, especially since PSR and fraternal disarmament organizations last year in DC engaged in an intensive “messaging” process that concluded that leading with the terrorist threat to mobilize people about the dangers of nuclear weapons was counterproductive. This conclusion was based on the collective opinion that by invoking the scary “Other,” people were inclined to support, however irrationally, the continued reliance on nuclear weapons, and related enormous military and nuclear weapons budgets as protection against such perceived threats.

In addition, by repeatedly focusing on Iran and its potential nuclear arsenal, the film implicitly provides justification for the recent push by the U.S. and its allies throughout the recent Non Proliferation Treaty Review Conference (NPT RevCon) to garner consensus for strong sanctions on Iran, and opposition to the Turkish-Brazilian nuclear deal with Iran that could defuse current tensions. This all has, in my view, played out in the ensuing period as increasing the chance for a military attack by Israel and/or the U.S. on Iran. It is notable in this regard that the film utilizes the testimony of the noted prevaricator ex-UK Prime Minister Tony Blair to hype the threat of Iran, eerily reminiscent of his previous prominent role in making the case for the disastrous war on Iraq.

While concentrating on the latent proliferation hazards of the Iranian nuclear power program, the film is completely silent on the impact of NWS active support of nuclear power programs throughout the world. For example, there is no discussion about the recent U.S.-India deal that allows India, a non-NPT state, to access new nuclear technologies, free up resources for nuclear weapons programs that do not allow international inspection, and permit proliferation-friendly reprocessing technologies.

This deal, and similar accords reached between India and other NWS, has most recently led to a parallel proposed China-Pakistan deal, which although apparently less extensive than the India deal, could also expedite the spread of nuclear materials to the same non-state actors we are warned about so often in the film.

While the film indicates at the end that the viewer can consider working on support for New START or sending a text message for abolition, the concrete, mutually reinforcing steps that could support stockpile reductions beyond New START and provide a verifiable path towards abolition are not covered in any clear and comprehensive way. As such, the viewer is not prepared for effectively opposing the well-organized rightwing push for aggressive nuclear rearmament that has been used to oppose ratification of New START, and all ensuing disarmament efforts. Equally disturbing is the omission of coverage of Obama Administration plans to provide tens of billions of dollars to Department of Energy (DOE) weapons programs far in excess of the annual budgets of the Cold War, proposals that should surely be countered by any viewer truly interested in making the President’s stated goal of a “world without nuclear weapons” a reality.

Countdown to Zero certainly contains important information about the extreme dangers of nuclear weapons and war. However, after multiple screenings, I remain personally conflicted on the up- and downsides of the mixed message counterposing the fear of weapons in the hands of the “other” versus fear of the real, primary threat to global survival – nuclear weapons in the hands of anyone, including ourselves. Our planet has a long-history of how fears of the “other” have served to manipulate people to embrace war and massive related expenditures epitomized by proposed DOE modernization programs. All of this robs our resources and diminishes our capacity to construct a truly cooperative system of global security supportive of nuclear abolition that could at the same time allow us to quickly respond as a planet to urgent issues such as global warming and attendant toxic degradation of our environment. It remains to be seen if, on balance, this film can help open up a public conversation about nuclear weapons that gives us the space to fundamentally challenge business as usual, starting here at home with our own weapons programs.

SFPSR is promoting the movie to help spur such a conversation and will couple our efforts with renewed attention on calling-out and bringing to an end our own nation’s double-standard and paramount contribution to the global nuclear threat. While supporting incipient promising disarmament measures such as New START, we must transcend the rhetoric of abolition promoted in the movie to stop the concrete plans of the Obama Administration and the weapons labs to usher in a new generation of weapons of mass annihilation.

As a first step please consider joining PSR and our coalition partners in demanding real movement towards Zero—a good first step would be joining us at Livermore on Hiroshima Day, Friday August 6th to register your personal protest in helping all of us, in this 65th anniversary of that very dark cloud, to “Retire the Bomb.” Hope to see you there, and look forward to hearing your own reactions to the film and its message.