As a child of the 1970s and 80s I pretty much took it as read that the world would at some point in the near future be obliterated by nuclear weapons. The USA and the Soviet Union seemed locked into a patently insane arms race, the government was issuing straight-faced pamphlets about how to survive an atom bomb by hiding under a cupboard door and there would periodically be cheery stuff like Threads or The Day After on television to reassure you of your mortality. I remember going on a CND march through London circa 1983 when, unbelievably as it may sound these days, the police allowed thousands of people to walk directly past 10 Downing Street and chant abuse at the Prime Minister for maintaining the UK’s so-called deterrent. Unexpectedly however one day the Berlin Wall came down, shortly to be followed by the fragmentation of the USSR and the demise of Communism in Eastern Europe and the nuclear threat seemed to go away. We were issued new disasters like AIDS, global warming and genocidal civil wars to worry about and that kept us busy until Al-Qaeda turned up and kickstarted a fresh cycle of insanity.
It turns out, as Lucy Walker’s excellent documentary Countdown To Zero makes clear, that the bombs never went away, and that the danger they represent is very possibly greater than ever. America and Russia still have launch-ready missiles pointed at each other, and plenty of other countries have got in on the act, including celebrated wild cards like North Korea, Pakistan and Iran. It’s impossible to conceive of any conflict arising between the two former super-power rivals severe enough for a nuclear response to be justified, but as recently as 1995 Boris Yeltsin was handed a red button and told he had five minutes to decide whether to initiate an assault when a US meteorological rocket investigating the Northern Lights was launched off Norway and misinterpreted by the Russians as a hostile overture. The security surrounding the highly enriched Uranium essential to the manufacture of atomic bombs is worryingly lax – a petty thief interviewed in the documentary reveals that he was able to easily break into outhouses on nuclear sites in former Soviet republics and just walk away with supplies of the elements. The thefts weren’t even noticed by the authorities. Any determined terrorist group with a few million dollars and a bit of expertise could knock together a functioning warhead efficient enough to level a large city once they’d secured a surprisingly small amount of this Uranium. It seems building a Doomsday Machine is not as complicated as you might think.
Walker has rounded up some impressive talking heads for her film, including Mikhail Gorbachev, Jimmy Carter, Tony Blair and many military, strategic and scientific experts and the consensus is clear: it’s madness to still be keeping nuclear weapons in a state of readiness when there are so many unpredictable variables in the world that might cause them to be deployed in error, or by terrorist intervention. One former lieutenant reveals that he and his assistant had all the information and authority necessary to trigger a Dr Strangelove style global confrontation on their own had they so desired.
The documentary is put together in a clear, non-hysterical style with elegant graphics and editing and no narration, other than that provided by the interviewees. There’s some effective montages of big city street scenes, some chilling archive footage of atom bomb originator Robert Oppenheimer candidly confessing to the appalling implications of his life’s work and a few shocking sequences of test flights and rocket launches that end in disaster. I hadn’t really thought about nukes for years before seeing this – anyone got a copy of Threads I can watch to cheer myself up now?