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.