Countdown proceeding, but not noticed: a review of Countdown to Zero

Reading the line-up of interviewees in the new documentary Countdown to Zero, I was not at first encouraged. Tony Blair was one, but he was the only interviewee who was an out-front advocate of the Iraq invasion. I suspected a typical anti-Bush pile on. Frank von Hippel was another; he is an anti-nuke academic at Princeton. This led me to worry the film might be just another uncritical from-the-left indictment of anything with the word “nuclear” in front of it. So I was pleasantly surprised when Blair’s comments about the danger of nuclear terrorism were allowed to stand on their own without Michael Moore–esque twisting by the film-maker, and that von Hippel’s only comment was not on what appears to be his favourite subject, which is how easy it is for a terrorist with a glove-box in his basement to make a nuclear bomb with reactor-grade plutonium.

Those who are looking to tongue their anti-Bush canker will be disappointed to learn that another interviewee, Valerie Plame, did not mention the word Bush or even refer to the incident that made her famous: her “outing” as a CIA operative by somebody in the Bush Administration. This is surprising. Plame was a casualty, possibly intended, in a very bitter and very public dispute between her husband and the administration over Bush’s allegation—during his 2003 State of the Union address—that Saddam Hussein had attempted to buy uranium in Niger. (For a rather anti-administration view of this affair, click here.) Her career as a CIA agent was ruined as a result.

In view of this, Plame could have been forgiven for using her interview as a soap-box to assail the Bush administration. Instead, she kept her comments on the topic about which she was interviewed: the biggest nuclear proliferation threat today.

That the allegation about Saddam and Niger proved to be false is often cited as evidence that Bush essentially made up the whole case for war against Saddam. The truth is much more complicated. Saddam had had two major nuclear weapons efforts during his regime. The first, based on plutonium, ended when Israeli warplanes destroyed his reactor at the al Tuwaitha Research Center south-east of Baghdad in 1981. The second, based on enrichment of uranium, could have been successful if only he had refrained from invading Kuwait in 1990: UN weapons inspectors, looking for chemical and biological weapons as part of the armistice agreement Saddam was forced to sign after his army was expelled from Kuwait and then routed, discovered Saddam’s early Manhattan Project–era calutrons literally by accident. Hans Blix, who led the UN inspections, never fails to mention how surprised he and his colleagues were when they stumbled upon the calutrons. Everybody had just assumed Saddam had abandoned his nuclear ambitions after 1981.

Were it not for the extreme partisanship that has poisoned the debate over the origins of the Iraq invasion, I think that more people might acknowledge that it really was not a stretch for Bush to wonder in 2003 if Saddam, who had expelled weapons inspectors from Iraq in 1998, might have reconstituted his nuclear program in the interim. Given Saddam’s known pursuit of nuclear weapons, and his use—twice—of chemical weapons, would it have been responsible to assume not? It is now widely known that the A.Q. Khan network had offered uranium enrichment technology and expertise to Saddam in 1990; this is mentioned in Countdown to Zero. Khan specialized in centrifuges, which are much more compact and easily concealed than the bulky calutrons. Western intelligence agencies knew Khan was active during the 1990s. Should anybody have just assumed Saddam had really abandoned his nuclear ambitions?

Besides the U.S., U.K., and a handful of others, there is another country that was firmly convinced that Iraq had continued to pursue nuclear weapons. That country is Iran. Countdown to Zero spends a lot of time on Iran’s own nuclear program, which is based also on enrichment of uranium, in centrifuges, the designs of which were purchased also from A.Q. Khan. Unfortunately, the film does not delve into the impetus behind Iran’s nuclear ambition: Saddam’s Iraq. A lot of people forget that the first Gulf War was between Iran and Iraq. Over a million people lost their lives during that conflict. Each side was gripped by existential fear, on the very same level as that experienced by the combatants in the First and Second World Wars. That fear fuelled their respective nuclear desires.

I have always wondered if western diplomacy aimed at persuading Iran to give up its enrichment program would be served by acknowledging Iran’s perfectly legitimate original impetus for wanting nuclear weapons. However, Iran’s current anti-Israel rhetoric does not appear to have left much opening for a breakthrough from such a gambit. And the fashionable and facile moral equivalence arguments put forth by some in the west do not help either.

The film—or rather the interviewees in the film, and especially Valerie Plame—points out that the greatest proliferation danger today is a terrorist getting ahold of nuclear explosive from the former U.S.S.R. It is disappointing that none of the interviewees specifies the actual means by which the film’s Demand Zero exhortation would be fulfilled. The only peaceful way to destroy fissile uranium or plutonium is to burn it in a reactor.

Which brings me to my biggest complaint. Watching the film, you’d never know that the countdown to zero is actually in  progress. It began in 1993, when the U.S. and Russia agreed to destroy 15,000 uranium-armed Russian warheads by removing the uranium warheads and turning the explosive into fuel for reactors that generate electricity. The agreement is popularly known as Megatons to Megawatts. According to the U.S. government’s agent in this agreement, the United States Enrichment Company (USEC), 15,633 weapons have been destroyed so far. One in ten American homes is running on this electricity.

The U.S. and Russia have a similar agreement regarding surplus weapons plutonium. Each side has agreed to destroy 34 metric tons of the stuff. In the U.S., it will be turned into mixed oxide fuel at the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility and burned in conventional reactors.

But you take the good with the bad. Overall, this was a very interesting and refreshing film. I only hope there is a sequel, in which these major steps toward the goal of zero nuclear weapons are given the attention they deserve.

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A “calutron” is a mass spectrograph with macroscopic throughput. Ions of different masses end up in different places after having their paths bent by a magnetic field. Very hard to make; all the silver in Fort … was it Fort Knox? … was once borrowed for low-resistance electromagnet coils for them.

As I recall the first Gulf War, what UN inspectors smashed with hammers were centrifuges. Not the same thing, and a much easier method in Y2K, although I suppose not in 1940, or they wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of turning silver bullion into wire, etc.

— G.R.L. Cowan (‘How fire can be domesticated’)

… and now I see you also talk about centrifuges, so by calutron, you must have meant calutron. OK, Saddam’s calutrons are a new one on me, but lots of things are.

13 years ago

GRL, I think the inspectors uncovered evidence that Saddam was pursuing enrichment not just with calutrons but also gaseous diffusion and centrifuges. Have a look at Spying on the Bomb by Jeffrey Richelson. Or, for what appears to be a good web resource, see this article by the Federation of American Scientists.

13 years ago

Steve – one additional key point that people neglect to remember about the initial impetus for Iran’s nuclear program was the fact that the politics of the time also encouraged the program’s secrecy.

If you recall, the US had thrown its weight and support behind Iraq in that conflict. We were still harboring a grudge based on 444 days of embarrassment during the end of the Carter Administration. When Iran reported to the international community that Iraq had violated international law and begun using chemical weapons, they were essentially ignored.

That was the scenario in effect when Iran began developing its response to the fear that Hussein might succeed in developing nuclear weapons. Iran had a legitimate concern about its own survival as a nation, it had been rebuffed already by the international community, and it had an aggressor on its borders killing hundreds of thousands of its young people.

No wonder they did not tell anyone what they were doing.

13 years ago

Rod, you are right and your mention of the 444 days is further reinforcement of the important fact that Iran was isolated and felt totally justified in fearing for its survival. Iran was of course in large part the author of its own isolation, though even that is debatable (given America’s involvement in internal Iranian affairs going back to 1953). Regardless, its isolation in the dispute against Saddam is a simple fact of history and I’m glad you point that out.

And Saddam’s own fear of Iran is evidenced by the still-nearly-unbelievable gamesmanship he displayed in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion. This is one of the more remarkable stories in post-WWII diplomacy. There he is, with the world’s mightiest military on his doorstep poised to attack, deliberately fuelling Bush’s suspicion that he is WMD-capable—all to fool Iran. To Saddam, Iran was the real existential threat. America appears to have been more of a hypothetical threat.

I just wish there were some way for western diplomats to acknowledge the historical basis of Iran’s nuclear program without legitimizing Iran’s current dangerous and offensive rhetoric.

13 years ago


I have a different theory. Though fooling Iran might have been part of the motive, I also think that Hussein was trying to fool his own people. He had established a persona of a tough guy and let the ardent nationalists think that he was spending money on defense, including allowing them to think there was a secret weapon being developed.

Based on what I have seen from photos brought back by friends who spent some time in his palaces after 2003, what I expect was really going on was an incredible amount of ostentatious spending of money on his own personal enjoyment and vanity. He could not let his people see just how little of their money was going to defense compared to the amount going to keep Saddam and his boys living extremely LARGE.

I have seen opulence like you would not believe in those photos.

Like many dictators, Hussein was really just a selfish little man with a very large and fragile ego that needed constant stroking.

13 years ago

Rod, the spendthrift-dictator syndrome is common through history, and you are bang on about its psychological basis. Saddam of course had his own idiosyncrasies, which probably included sadism. I have seen videos of family outings apparently intended to show him as a typical family man, strolling around the countryside with family members who are obviously extremely uncomfortable in their roles as props in some all-is-well PR exercise. Almost as if they believe a death sentence awaits them if they perform poorly. Just bizarre.

In his maneuverings over the UN resolution 1441, he definitely was trying to fool somebody into wondering if he had WMDs. No doubt that includes internal constituents, and especially those members of the Shiite majority who might have worked with Iran. He had other ways of proving his strength to that constituency, as I have seen in some other, more infamous, videos (not for the faint of heart).

It is difficult to tell the run-of-the-mill showing off that a small man like Saddam would need to do from day to day from specific diplomatic messages aimed at specific audiences. But the reports of his interviews with U.S. interrogators, reported on 60 Minutes and Charlie Rose (for an account of the latter click here) indicate he had Iran uppermost in mind. Perhaps he also mentioned internal audiences, but his mention of Iran has gotten all the press.