‘Countdown to Zero’

The inconvenient truths behind a nuclear world


The original “Planet of the Apes” movie in 1968 posited the demise of mankind and civilization as we know it from a nuclear exchange; the series’ reboot, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (opening in October), drops this premise in favor of a genetically modified virus. That makes sense: Virus scares are frequent, cropping up every other year or two (SARS, bird flu, Ebola), while nuclear bombs are, like, so last century.

Except, of course, that they’re not. Nothing has changed, and despite the end of the Cold War some two decades ago, the United States and Russia still have thousands of missiles pointed at each other for no real reason other than inertia. Worse yet, the number of hot-tempered nuclear states is rising steadily, with arch-rivals India and Pakistan joining the club, and Iran desperately racing to match Israel’s bomb. Even in Japan, the one country to have suffered an atomic bombing, there are now politicians (such as the LDP’s Shigeru Ishiba) speaking openly of acquiring nuclear weapons.

Then there are the nonstate players, such as al-Qaeda or the Aum Shinrikyo cult, who have actively pursued acquiring bombs of their own and who aren’t exactly well in the head. And what of accidents? As the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear reactor meltdowns proved, even “foolproof” safeguards can fail; imagine the consequences of that happening with a launch protocol, or a loaded B-52 crashlanding.

All this and more is presented concisely and clearly by the documentary “Countdown to Zero,” an illuminating piece of agit-prop by DJ-turned-director Lucy Walker. The film (which is finally opening in Japan after twice being pulled from release schedules) seeks to galvanize support for the Global Zero campaign, which aims to stop the spread of nuclear materials and phase out nuclear weapons entirely.

Pipe dream? Perhaps, but the film makes a very strong case that the current path will end in disaster, probably sooner than later. In the film’s most chilling sequence, it shows how ridiculously easy it would be to sneak a nuke the size of a shoebox through a cargo container into any major port. Even if detected by the rather inadequate security measures in place, it could easily be detonated on the spot. There goes much of Los Angeles, or Rotterdam, or Tokyo.

The greater risk by far is the specter of nuclear terrorism; interviews reveal that the breakdown in post-Soviet Russia over control of fissile material has led to lots of black-market smuggling of uranium and plutonium; while many of these attempts have been foiled, usually by sheer luck, a Georgian investigator laments that they may just be seeing the tip of the iceberg. “If a truck driver or small-time hustler can get hold of (enriched uranium),” he notes, referring to past events, “imagine what real professionals can do.”

If there’s one problem with the film, it’s that it is framed almost entirely around the issue of American security, when this is clearly a global problem. (Chechen rebels seek vengeance against Russians about as badly as al-Qaeda wants to kill Americans, to cite but one example.) Also, if America is not convinced of the need to reduce nuclear arsenals, no other country will. The reality is to the contrary: After looking at how George W. Bush went after the “axis of evil” — Iraq, without nukes, was invaded; North Korea, with nukes, was spared — more countries will seek to acquire them. As Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says in the film (talking sense for once), “If it’s a good thing, then we should have it too. If it’s a bad thing, then why do you have it?” Why, indeed.

Watching this film, I had a terrible image of Walker as a modern-day Cassandra warning the Trojans; humanity is not well equipped to deal with background-hum threats — just note the current head-in-the-sand response to the spread of Cesium-137 throughout Japan, or the inability to find consensus on actions to halt global warming. Just like the all-too-apparent threat of reactors built on fault lines, her clear warning will most likely be ignored until it is too late.