The Scariest Documentary of the Year

Lucy Walker’s Countdown to Zero reawakens fears of nuclear war

21 mins read

First, everything flammable would burn—paper, cardboard, wood and trees— up in one giant firestorm. All the oxygen would be devoured, fuelling the blast, and every-one nearby would die.

Farther away, other horrors, instantly. Everyone looking in that direction would be blinded. Those spared instant incineration would die in agony over minutes, or hours, slowly from blood loss and radiation poisoning. And still others would be covered in burns from head to toe— most would die slowly where they lay, but others might be lucky enough to find themselves taken to any hospital not blown apart in the blast. But there they would find themselves one of thousands in line for treatment by exhausted doctors, binding, swabbing and dabbing.

But what would the treatment matter anyway? Within half an hour the same scenario would play out halfway across the world, then in nearby nations, the earth blanketed with the pitter-patter of nuclear missiles. If the shower rained hard enough, most life on earth would end cockroaches might survive, but we at the very least would all die.

This scenario is a familiar but forgotten one. When was the last time you saw a film, fictional or factual, about the threat of nuclear war?

But according to Lucy Walker, director of Countdown To Zero, that threat is still very real. There are good reasons people are calling this the “scariest documentary of the year.”

“It’s hard to compete with big-budget, mainstream horror films, but this should be the scariest film you’ve ever seen,” she says.

There are still tens of thousands of nuclear warheads ready for launch—possibly up to 100,000—all around the world, from America and Russia to Pakistan and India. And those are just the weapons we know about.

Since the breakdown of the Soviet Union, there has been a slow leak of weapons-grade uranium from Russian reactors and military bases. Lax security (exacerbated by the breakdown of the Soviet Union), opportunistic smugglers and eager buyers in central Asia—notably terrorist cells operating in Afghanistan and neighbouring countries—have made for a most unfortunate combination. Unknown quantities, no doubt sufficient to kill almost all life on earth, sit in the hands of those most keen to use deadly force. As it is put in the film, Al Qaeda’s stated objective is to kill four million people; you don’t do that by flying planes into buildings.

Could Islamist terrorists set off a dirty bomb in an American (or Canadian) city? Without a doubt. Smuggling tiny amounts of uranium over national borders is laughably easy: shipping containers are not checked for fissile material at most ports, and even when they are in airports, the detectors are so easily set off by tiny amounts of radiation materials that they are worse than useless.

Want to get uranium into the U.S.? Hide it in kitty litter. A hundred pounds of uranium would fit into six beer cans.

The implications are terrifying beyond measure. “When I started making this film,” says Walker, “I thought we should be afraid of the potential for smuggling, but I didn’t realise that every single step that could lead to New York being blown up had already happened.”

A film that at first glance might be about security and terrorism is actually about a very different problem altogether: the continued existence and production of nuclear weapons in the first place.

“There is no credible alternative to zero: the only answer is zero,” asserts Walker.

As long as fissile material continues to exist anywhere in the world, we all remain in danger. Even without the threat of rogue terrorist attacks, the risk of a nuclear missile being launched by one of the armed nations is still very real. Theoretically, the probability of a launch is not zero; therefore, it is almost bound to happen. There is a first time in history for everything.

And in reality, it has almost happened on such a huge number of occasions it is almost sickening to consider. Both the Americans and the Russians have mistaken flocks of geese and rising moons for nuclear warheads, and retaliatory shots were almost fired. This happened as recently as—are you ready?—1995; Russian officials marched into Boris Yelstin’s office and asked him to fire missiles, and the Russian president— thankfully, “not drunk for a change”—broke with protocol and refused to do so.

Why so many mishaps? A big part of the problem is that efforts to make the system more reliable, by adding in larger safety nets and complex security measures to thicken the web, have made the system less reliable. A more complex system has more interactions that can be difficult to monitor. Simply put: complexity is the enemy of reliability.

Those stories revealing the giant holes in our safety net continue throughout Countdown to Zero. A training tape accidentally slipped into the computers at NORAD, and everyone there thought America was actually under attack. It was only after U.S. forces went through a frenzied checklist that the error was spotted. On another occasion, a single malfunctioning chip that costs less than a dollar was responsible for eight minutes of launch preparations that were only cut in the nick of time. Another time, a B-52 loaded with six nuclear warheads flew across the U.S. from South Carolina. The missiles weren’t logged as missing for 36 hours.

And nuclear material has gone missing, as well, while an ounce of gold has never gone missing from Fort Knox.

“You wouldn’t use a phone from the 1950s, and yet so much of the equipment pointing missiles from Russia to the U.S. and vice versa are just as old,” Lucy Walker says. “You would think the arsenal would be the most safely guarded equipment in the world.”

As the film puts it, “Every man woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident, or miscalculation, or madness.”

But perhaps what is so striking about Countdown to Zero is not that it covers terrifying subject matter, but that it stands alone in doing so.

The past five years have seen a torrent of films about climate change and other environmental issues. The tar sands (and Fort Chip alone) have taken centre stage in at least half a dozen films produced over just two years.

But how many documentaries have been made in the past two decades, let alone the past two years, about the threat of nuclear war? For a threat so massive, so staggeringly great that “it kills in numbers the human mind simply cannot comprehend,” as the narrator of Countdown to Zero says, why have we heard barely a word about such an unparalleled threat since Reagan and Trudeau were in power?

“People think this is yesterday’s issue, but it’s such an illusion to think that we are out of the woods,” Walker says. “That’s why the subtitle is ‘how I learned to start worrying and hate the bomb’. [It’s also a cheeky reference to the subtitle of Stanley Kubrick’s black comic satire on nuclear war, Dr. Strangelove.] Unfortunately, without giving people too much to worry about that they become paralysed with fear and passive, there is simply nothing not to worry about.”

This brings us to the obvious but unavoidable question: Why have we forgotten about the threat of nuclear war, if it never really went away?

“That’s exactly why I wanted to make this film. My childhood was haunted by the spectre of nuclear war,” recalls Walker. “My mother taught us that if it happened we wouldn’t need a shotgun to survive the aftermath, we’d want cyanide to end it all. Why did this issue fall off the radar?”

Interviews with random pedestrians throughout Walker’s film reveal a telling story: nearly all say they aren’t too concerned about weapons. Except for one man, an old man: “Isn’t everyone worried?”

It is undeniable that for activists and environmentalists, the issue is almost completely nonexistent. In Scotland, a sad, solitary protest camp sits next to the port holding the U.K.’s Trident nuclear submarine fleet. The few dozen campers have been there for decades, and almost all of them are over 40. Young activists have taken up climate change and other issues. Old greenies in the U.K. often say they long to put the ‘peace’ back in ‘Greenpeace.’

“But there is no point in worrying about global warming if we don’t live long enough to see it,” Lucy Walker says. “The advent of nuclear weapons changed everything, except our way of thinking. As human beings, we now have the ability to actually kill all life on earth but most people’s thinking hasn’t caught up with that game-changing discovery.”

Which is where Countdown to Zero comes in: to shock the audience into truly grasping how serious the threat is. Not merely to educate, the film—like all others made by Participant Media, such as Fast Food Nation, Syriana, Good Night and Good Luck)—aims to turn audience members from passive viewers into impassioned actors.

Making a documentary like this is obviously not easy: “Sleeping three hours a night for something that should have been done yesterday is not easy. I worry more about the impacts of stress on my health!” she says. “But money is not what I’m after. You know that line about supermodels who won’t get out of bed for less than $10,000? Well, I won’t get out of bed unless the idea is completely gripping. Making documentaries is just too hard financially—it’s such a slog. In this case, I was on a need-to-know basis: I wanted to know why nuclear weapons had fallen off the radar.”

The film is making big waves in Europe already, though, unfortunately, not simply for the subject matter. A feature on Walker in The London Times was titled “The Blonde’s Bombshell” (Walker is undeniably attractive), a tiresome label she refused to comment on. As to her gender, she does say that “it’s really interesting that there are lots of really cool women making amazing documentaries right now.”

Countdown to Zero is often compared to An Inconvenient Truth (naturally, given it was made by the same producer), but the aim is the same: to convince the audience of the urgency of a pervasively unappreciated threat, and to inspire them to actually do something about it.

“You couldn’t not see that movie and walk away thinking the reality of climate change was debatable,” she says of the Al Gore-narrated environmental feature-doc. And she hopes to do the same.

The making of Countdown to Zero is an incredible story in itself. “What you see in the film is just the tip of the iceberg of what we did,” she says.

Walker put herself in considerable danger countless times, bartering with Georgian prison officials to obtain an interview with an incarcerated Russian smuggler, riding trains with missiles on board, visiting old nuclear test sites in Kazakhstan where even a single radioactive particle entering her lungs would virtually guarantee lung cancer.

One of the most impressive features of the film is the cast of interviewees, including former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Valerie Plame (a former undercover CIA agent, famous now for being ‘outed’ in a notorious scandal), and a raft of high-ranking American nuclear specialists. “Absolutely none of these interviews was easy to get. Every single one was a giant pain in the ass,” she says.

Blair’s interview is particularly chilling: “The threat of this falling into other people’s hands kept me awake at night,” he says in the film.

“I thought it was really cool of him to do this interview with us after the whole WMD [weapons of mass destruction] issue being his downfall,” comments Walker.

One of her most striking interviews is with Oleg Khintsagov, a small-time hustler who was caught stealing several kilograms of uranium in small amounts, a crime for which he is serving time in Georgia, the corridor between Russia and Azerbaijan— the “highway for stolen uranium.” He wanted the money to buy a new fridge. Undercover agents posed as Islamist terrorists, and nabbed him trying to sell them weapons-grade plutonium. So if a small-time hustler can do this, imagine what real professionals with an ideology, brains and an agenda can do.

And it is not difficult in the slightest to create a nuclear device capable of killing millions of people once you have the uranium. The hard part was achieved more than half a century ago: doing it the first time. Once Oppenheimer and the rest of the Manhattan Project scientists cracked the secrets of splitting the atom, the rest was easy. The genie, once out of the bottle, cannot easily be put back in.

What makes the launch of weapons truly foolproof? Nothing. As long as there is one weapon, there will always be that slim chance.

So the argument and the solution are quite clear, and thankfully Obama and the other leaders of armed countries right now do seem to understand that the only solution is zero, and are working to achieve that goal. Simple story, good news, the end is nigh—wrapped up, done deal, right? Something we can finally feel good about, as though humanity has fixed one of its errors?

If only. Unfortunately, particle physicists have been busy working toward the developing of thermobaric nuclear weapons (an issue Walker did not have space for in the film), which would harness the power of nuclear fusion—the fusing of hydrogen atoms to produce incredible bursts of heat and energy (the same reaction that takes place inside the stars and our sun). Sadly, most members of the public are not aware of the development of these weapons. If they are aware at all, they might know of the friendly PR face for laboratories like the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in California. The NIF is working toward nuclear fusion using lasers inside giant mirrored domes, ostensibly under the guise of developing clean energy—but only 15 per cent of the facility’s time is used for peaceful research; the rest is geared for weapons.

The only credible solution for nuclear weapons—or any weapon of such lethal scale—is zero.

Will we learn the lesson soon enough before new, even more sophisticated and more destructive weapons are produced, proliferated, and even used? We can only hope.

“I just want to wake people up to what is going on—people haven’t debated this issue in film for so long,” Walker says. “Part of the problem is that nuclear weapons are just so difficult to talk about: the scale of human horror is on such a scale that it defies the imagination. We need to change our way of thinking and eliminate these from the face of the earth, before they do the same to us.”

Zoe Cormier is a science journalist from Toronto, now in London, England, who has covered environmental issues including microplastic pollution for 20 years, including a regular column as the “green expert” for The Globe and Mail. Her work has appeared in The Times, The Guardian, Wired, New Scientist, Scientific American, Nature, The Nation, the BBC, and much more.

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