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Countdown to Zero – The Case for Nuclear Disarmament | Hand of Reason

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Countdown to Zero – The Case for Nuclear Disarmament

Countdown to Zero attempts to remind us that while most people may not perceive nuclear weapons to be as threatening as they once were, they still pose as grave a threat to the human race and world stability as they did during the Cold War. Using interviews with world leaders such as Jimmy Carter, Robert McNamara, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Joe Cirincione, the film goes through several scenarios in which a nuclear weapon could go off within a major city. The director views the ways in which such an event could happen through accident, miscalculation, or madness. They conclude that since a nuclear accident or attack cannot be avoided in the long run, the only reasonable possibility is to eliminate nuclear weapons altogether.

Our Notes

One of al-Qaeda’s stated goals is to kill four million Westerners to make up for Arab losses throughout history that they attribute to the West. The only realistic way they could achieve this is through the use of a nuclear bomb.

There are three ways terrorists can acquire a nuclear weapon: buy, steal, or build.

Getting nuclear grade material is the hardest part of making a bomb. One of the easiest places to acquire such material today would be the former Soviet Union states, due to such materials being poorly secured.

There are several instances in Russia of people being caught trying to sell nuclear material. While these threats have been intercepted, it is impossible to tell how many of these transactions have succeeded that were not caught.

Nuclear material would not be very difficult to ship into the U.S. One could simply put it into a lead pipe on a cargo ship, easily avoiding the majority of radiation detectors.

There are several instances of accidents on the part of the U.S. military involving nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons have been in aviation accidents or have been unintentionally transported cross-country without the flight crew’s knowledge.

Safety systems are put in place to prevent an unintentional detonation. However, as these systems become more complex the possibility of them failing increases. The only safe bomb is an unusable one.

There is a low probability that a nuclear bomb could accidentally go off, but low probability events do happen.

Nuclear technology has spread, in chronological order, to America, Russia (former U.S.S.R.), England, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. Though South Africa and some former Soviet states have had the weapons and technology, they have since decided to give up nuclear weapons ambitions.

A.Q. Khan, the father of the Pakistani bomb, has been responsible for the diffusion of nuclear production knowledge to several states through his commercial network.

Iran is almost certainly pursuing a nuclear bomb, partially with knowledge gained from Khan.

If Iran were to get a bomb, an arms race could ensue within the Middle East as other nations try and balance the threat posed by Iran.

North Korea has a history of selling conventional weapons and delivery systems to other countries, making the fact that they have nuclear weapons all the more unsettling.

Port detection systems are pointless. If a bomb were smuggled into a port, terrorists could simply detonate it from within and still cause major damage.

Radiation detectors are also useless since a bomb could be hidden in products that already give off radiation such as kitty litter.

If nuclear material were smuggled into the U.S., building a bomb would be relatively easy and could be done in the target city with a group of between 15 to 25 people.

An estimated six million dollars would be needed to carry out an attack, and five million of that alone would be for buying the nuclear material.

Pakistan is a very dangerous place considering the presence of nuclear weapons and materials, an unstable government, and insurgents/terrorists.

There are an estimated 23,000 nuclear weapons in the world today. That’s down from 60, 000 at the height of the Cold War.

The U.S. has around 1,500 hydrogen bombs on missiles ready to launch within fifteen minutes of receiving the command. Russia has around the same amount.

If Russians fired missiles at the U.S., a step-by-step procedure would follow in an incredibly short time period in order to reach a decision on how to respond :

  1. The missiles would be detected in well under a minute
  2. Whether or not it was an attack would have to be determined within sixty seconds
  3. The president would get a thirty second briefing on his response options
  4. He then would have anywhere between ten seconds to twelve minutes to make a decision on how to respond.

There have been several times in which a nuclear launch was almost initiated by miscalculation or confusion.

In 1995 Russia mistook a U.S. scientific missile launch for a nuclear attack and almost retaliated.

During the Cold War a flock of geese being mistaken for bombers and a training video accidentally being played at NORAD almost led to a nuclear exchange between the U.S. and U.S.S.R.

By banning the production of nuclear material, increasing security, working to better detect its illicit transfer, and eventually destroying it is the way to ensure safety.

There are 1700 tons of highly enriched uranium in the world today, enough for 50,000 to 100,000 weapons. There needs to be an international system to safeguard this material, such as international fuel banks and reprocessing centers.

Nuclear missiles need to be taken off high alert status, safeguard technology needs to be shared internationally, and a joint international warning center are necessary steps to make sure nuclear war cannot happen by mistake.

There needs to be diplomatic negotiations between states aimed at making treaties that achieve phased reductions of nuclear weapons and stockpiles around the globe.

Public support of these measures is needed to pressure political leaders into taking steps to eliminate nuclear weapons.

Bottom Line

Through excellent historic and original footage, the film is able to impress upon the viewer the very real threat that nuclear weapons still pose to the human race. However, while the documentary gives a good overview of the pro-nuclear disarmament camp, it neglects important counterpoints. In this way the film is one sided and should be viewed as such. The information in the film is also nothing new to anyone familiar with its subject matter. Therefore it is not recommendable to anyone in the field who is looking to gain a significant amount of knowledge from the piece. That being said, the film is still a very enjoyable and well-made look into one side of a major dilemma affecting our society.


While Countdown to Zero provides great examples and solid filmmaking to illustrate the danger of nuclear weapons, it ignores some of the primary counterarguments. Foremost of these would be the sobering effect that nuclear weapons have upon leaders and how these weapons tend (so far) to stop them from going to war. This is referred to as “deterrence” since it deters world powers from going to war. By not addressing the other theoretical side of the issue and simply implying that the use of nuclear weapons is inevitable without giving it a multi-angled view, the film detracts significantly from the validity of its arguments.

The assertion that states should give up nuclear arms entirely also neglects to take into account how that action would possibly increase the incentive for other states to pursue such weapons. As it currently stands, a non-nuclear state would have to produce a considerable amount of nuclear weapons and develop highly complex delivery systems if it were to try and match the capabilities of the U.S. or Russia. Therefore it is extremely difficulty and costly, both in terms of time and resources, for a state to try and increase its international standing by matching the capabilities of the current nuclear powers. However, if nuclear weapons were to be given up altogether then a rogue state would need only to produce a few weapons in order to drastically increase its influence.

Finally, the film seems to be aimed more at alarming the viewer rather than informing them. Scenes showing or implying the potential destructive power of nuclear weapons serve only to inspire fear in anyone watching rather than a better understanding of the capabilities of nuclear arms. The one sided viewpoints expressed by the interviewees also only allows us to see an apocalyptic aspect of the issue, thus masking the variety of discourse taking place on the spread and use of nuclear arms. In this way the documentary seems to be making a more concerted attempt at frightening people into action, which makes it very entertaining to watch but not as useful for someone looking to deepen their understanding.

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