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Countdown to Zero

August 7, 2010

Quick quiz:

  1. How many nations have nuclear weapons?
  2. How much highly enriched uranium has been stolen?
  3. What was the access code to the minute man missile launch site?
  4. If the order were given for the currently online nuclear weapons to be fired, how long would it take for 500,000 people to die?                        (Answers at end)

In observation of the 65th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the film Countdown to Zero is currently playing at the Harris Theater. The film is a documentary about the current status of nuclear weapons around the world today and consists of three main parts: it describes how easily nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of nongovernmental terrorist organizations, how the weapons still on ready-alert since the cold war could easily fire by accident or miscalculation, and how many nations around the world are developing, or have recently developed, nuclear weapons or the capacity to produce nuclear weapons.

countdown to zeroThe message of the film is that the common sense of the people, the majority of whom want to see nonproliferation and the dismantling of nuclear weapons, should be heeded. The film describes the dangers of nuclear proliferation and non-disarmament using facts about accidents, miscalculations, the commonplace occurrence of theft of highly enriched uranium. Interviewees in the documentary include Mikhail Gorbachev, Valerie Plame, and Jimmy Carter. Historical footage of Robert Oppenheimer, Ronald Reagan, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Before the showing on Friday night, Dr. Dan Fein spoke about nuclear proliferation. He referred to the US as the “avatar of nuclear militarism,” and cited that nuclear weapons are often seen as “the poor man’s deterrent against imperialism.” Indeed, in the film, Kim Il Jung is cited as saying that North Korea was not invaded by the United States on account of her nuclear weapons. Pakistan’s former prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto once stated, “we’ll eat grass, but we’ll make a nuclear bomb.” (On a side note, it has been much in the press that Pakistan, in theory a United States ally, has been providing weapons and training to the Taliban in Afghanistan.)

minute man missileThe film also discusses MAD, mutual assured destruction. This situation is known in mathematics as the prisoner’s dilemma, a situation where, when everyone works in what he sees to be his best interest, the worst possible situation for everyone comes to pass. When nations choose to build nuclear weapons as a deterrent to being invaded, or to having similar weapons used on them, then every nation eventually has nuclear weapons. And then we’re all in big trouble. Whether on purpose or by accident, an existent nuclear weapon is one that could be activated.

Because the probability of a nuclear accident is above zero, the inevitability of a nuclear accident is ensured. Given infinite time, that which can happen will happen. The questions then become: how probable is a nuclear accident, and how much time will nuclear weapons be around? As for the first question, there have already been a series of near-nuclear accidents, including planes taking off unknowingly carrying nuclear missiles, and the subsequent accidental dropping of nuclear missiles, once with five of six safety mechanisms malfunctioning. (That particular one fell in the Carolinas.) A number of planes and submarines carrying missiles have crashed and sunk in the oceans, the weapons of which have never been recovered. So, let’s go ahead and say the probability is not astronomically small. To reduce an accident, it is thus necessary to reduce the amount of time nuclear weapons are around, i.e, they should be dismantled.

The showing on Friday was sponsored by Remembering Hiroshima 2010 www.rememberinghiroshim2010.org, who promoted the signing of START, a disarmament treaty that is up for renewal. Before the film, Jo Schlesinger described the organization and its mission. She also invited Jasiri X to perform, and he wrote a piece especially for the occasion. The song was a conversation between a mother and her son taking place on the morning of August 6th, 1945 in Hiroshima, the son questioning what was happening and why. Before he performed, he stated that he wanted to “humanize individuals.” We often speak of war in the abstract, as I have done for this article, and don’t look at what war means for the individual people who are the victims of it. I highly recommend his work, which can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/user/jasirix

Countdown to Zero will be playing through August twelfth at the Harris Theater.

Answers to quiz:

  1. 9 nations, with a combined total of over 23,000 nuclear weapons on Earth.
  2. It is unknown how much has been stolen. In all cases that uranium has been confiscated from thieves, it was originally unknown that the uranium had gone missing.
  3. 0000000000 – All employees at the facility were aware of this code.
  4. Half an hour.
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