Counting Down to Zero

It's impossible to walk out of the film Countdown to Zero without having a strong opinion on whether the United States should continue to develop and warehouse nuclear weapons. Produced by the World Security Institute in concert with Lawrence Bender (An Inconvenient Truth), the film is engineered to elicit a "no nukes" response. It presents a zero-sum scenario in which nuclear weapons must either be eradicated gradually over a few decades under the leadership of the United States with the full cooperation of the global community, or else a nuclear attack will inevitably cause mass annihilation. Either "drain the swamp" or face the consequences.

President Kennedy's 1961 speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations provided three scenarios under which a nuclear attack could take place: "by accident, or miscalculation, or by madness." We all know that nukes haven't been used in war since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but Countdown to Zero convincingly illustrates that there have been a lot of close calls. The Russians almost bombed us in 1995 as a result of a false alarm, but Yeltsin suspected the alert wasn't legitimate, and sought further verification. The threat today isn't so much that one state would bomb another but rather that a terrorist would get hold of a bomb. The movie argues that building a nuclear weapon is relatively easy. Terrorists can smuggle fissile material to a target city without much chance of detection, and a football-sized amount of enriched uranium is enough to kill millions in a densely populated city like New York. They even go so far as to dramatize such a scenario on New Year's Eve in Manhattan. Nice to know that I would likely vaporize in the blast, but if it didn't reach my Brooklyn neighborhood, 10 miles from Times Square, I would probably be blinded, crushed, or die of radiation poisoning.

If you've seen any footage of the destruction caused by the bombings and fallout in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, you would agree that nuclear weapons should never be used again. It can be argued that the U.S. decision to unleash Little Boy and Fat Man on the people of Japan, 65 years ago this week, secured their surrender in World War II, thereby saving millions of lives. But as Mikhail Gorbachev is fond of saying, "a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought." Still, I initially walked away from Countdown feeling deeply skeptical of the nuclear-eradication movement. I wanted to believe that a world free of nuclear weapons was possible, but I couldn't sign on to the premise without addressing three major concerns. I spoke to some nuclear experts to see if they could help me overcome my unbelief.

With the Cold War still in the rear view mirror, isn't it dangerously naive to suggest that the world's armies denuclearize, with the U.S. in the lead? Isn't it the threat of mutual destruction that has been keeping us safe from a preemptive strike all these years? Well actually no, says Scott Ritter, a former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq and author of the book Dangerous Ground: America's Failed Arms Control Policy, From FDR to Obama. "Deterrence is a myth that was hyped from the beginning by an American military complex looking for justification to exist," Ritter says. Bruce Blair, president of the World Security Institute, argues that the deterrent value of nuclear weapons is diminishing as more powerful conventional weapons are being developed to take their place. He says, "Nuclear weapons are taboo, and while they're a hypothetical threat, they're not really credible for military use." Blair points out that even a country like Israel has little need for nukes from a deterrence standpoint. "In 1967, they needed the bomb because they were surrounded by enemies on all sides who did not accept Israel's right to exist and had conventional weapons superiority. Today, no Arab state denies the right of Israel to exist, and Israel has superior conventional weapons."

The Global Zero initiative, an international consortium of scientists and senior policymakers, has sketched out a plan to reduce nuclear weapons over a span of about 20 years. The negotiations would begin with the United States and Russia, which each have about 10,000 nuclear weapons in their arsenals. After their caches are reduced, gradually and bilaterally to a few hundred weapons, the other nuclear countries would join in the race to zero. Of course, there is a danger that a rogue country could claim to be reducing its nukes, only to be hoarding them to sell to terrorists or to fuel its own sinister quest for world domination. It sounds like the plot to Despicable Me, but, hey, it could happen, right? "I could design an inspections program that would give us as close to 100 percent certainty as possible that the provisions of a nuclear eradication treaty were being implemented," says Ritter. "It would require a willingness on the part of signatory nations to forego elements of sovereignty." Ritter says that the U.S. would probably be the most reluctant to sign on. "We're quick to ask others to forego sovereignty but loath to do it ourselves." But in countries like Iran where their nuclear program is developed in massive underground facilities, isn't it possible that they could be beefing up their nukes while the rest of the world is reducing? "I don't accept the hypothetical that a state could break out with an arsenal," says Blair. "Verification monitoring would be stronger in a nuke-free world. Even if North Korea, for example, had 10 bombs and the rest of the world were nuke-free, we could deter it using nonnuclear weapons."

Energy Without Weapons
As Countdown indicates, the technology used to produce nuclear fuel and nuclear energy are based on the same concept, so it wouldn't be a stretch for a country like Iran to go from producing nuclear energy to nuclear weapons. Would the eradication of nuclear weapons still leave room for nuclear energy? Is there a risk that a nuclear energy plant could be hijacked for violent means? There is no longer a need to advocate for the use and development of nuclear energy in the U.S., says James Mahaffey, a former senior research scientist at Georgia Tech Research Institute and author of Atomic Awakening: A New Look At The History and Future of Nuclear Power. "It has become inevitable. It's the most efficient form of energy available. We're going to need it as the population grows and energy demand increases." Mahaffey explains that the uranium used for energy must be enriched to about 3 percent, while uranium for a bomb must be enriched to about 80 percent. The discrepancy would be detectable by any inspections regime. He also points out that preliminary research into the element thorium indicates that it would be a more ideal fuel to use in nuclear reactors than uranium or plutonium. It is more plentiful, does not require labor-intensive enrichment, and it can't be used in a bomb.

After long conversations with Ritter, Blair, and Mahaffey, I am ready to surrender my reservations and sign on to the initiative to eradicate nuclear weapons in the world. It is not impossible if done slowly and with comprehensive safeguards. My only remaining question is how to create the political and public will to eliminate nukes. The creators of Countdown to Zero hope that the film will push the public and the president to take action. After all, the eradication of nuclear weapons is something American presidents have been talking about since JFK was in office. Now it's time to do more than talk.