Sunday, January 9, 2011

Review: Countdown to Zero - the need for Nuclear Fearism didn't end in the 1980's

How many nuclear weapons are there in the world? How many nuclear weapons should there be in the world? Is there a safe level of use of nuclear material in the world? Can you put toothpaste back in the tube after you've squeezed it out?

That last question is more a great analogy than a random tangent. Really.

The knowledge to make and use nuclear weapons is known, and construction of nuclear weapons an engineering exercise. They are incredibly dangerous and an unfortunate string of accidents could leave us with hundreds of millions dead and a burning planet that's barely habitable. Much as we want to stop use of nuclear weapons, just as it's impossible to put toothpaste back in the tube, it's not possible to put that knowledge out of our collective minds and stop having them around.

Movie: Countdown to Zero

The recent movie, Countdown to Zero, goes into the nuclear threat very well. It's a scary movie and expect to come away from it highly alarmed by the threats - either of those evil dirty rotten terrorists getting their hands on some material, or an accidental launch of nuclear missiles, or proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, or... gosh, when fear is on the table any crazy scenario can be imagined, eh?

Part of this is about engendering fear. The movie lays out a laundry list of information, stories and scenarios to make anybody get scared. The people in the movie are top notch experts in the field, from Valerie Plame (the former CIA agent outed by Dick Cheney in one of his many acts of treason) to Jimmy Carter, to Mikhail Gorbachev and plenty of other top level people who were in positions of decision making on nuclear security or terrorism.

Real Dangers portrayed in Cowntdown to Zero

Highly enriched uranium is within the reach of any reasonably advanced country - and once you have the uranium, a bomb is relatively easy.

The movie showed, getting highly enriched uranium is simply a logistical problem of acquiring and running centrifuges long enough to enrich uranium to a high enough purity to be weapons grade. With high purity uranium, constructing it into a bomb is relatively simple 1950's era technology.

The movie pointed at a long laundry list of terrible scenarios that could result in nuclear weapons being used. Either in an isolated incident (a terrorist group constructs a weapon and blows up a city) or in an all out nuclear exchange.

One main threat was those dirty evil terrorists getting their hands on nuclear material, sneaking it into the U.S., and constructing a bomb. They showed rusting ships that presumably are the former Soviet Union's former nuclear powered naval fleet, rusting industrial complexes which were part of Russias former nuclear industry, and talked about nonexistent security at nuclear facilities in the former Soviet Union. The message one was to take is getting highly enriched uranium is relatively easy within Russia, and that the Republic of Georgia routinely catches smugglers with uranium headed to the West. Then once uranium is outside Russia, it would be straightforward to put it in lead pipes, then package it deep within a shipping container, and send it to the U.S. The volume of shipping containers arriving in the U.S. makes it impossible to ensure no contraband (much less uranium) sneaks into the country.

The other main threat is proliferation in the Middle East, especially due to Iran.

The movie frequently showed aerial photos of cities with circles marking different blast radius's. I can imagine being a resident of one of those cities, and having a sinking feeling recognizing that you're within the blast zone of a target city. I had the same sinking feeling while watching An Inconvenient Truth and realizing I live in a neighborhood due to be inundated by rising waters if the sea level rises as expected.

The environment of fearism

Those of us old enough grew up with the nuclear threat being hung over us. Young people today are growing up with a different threat being hung over us, terrorism. But just because some terrorists used airplanes to destroy a few buildings does not make us safe from the threat of nuclear weapons. The previous situation with nuclear weapons has not changed, and in fact it has gotten horribly worse.

While these threats have some truth, both threats are hung over our whole society in a way that makes everyone afraid. One wonders to what extent these threats are pushed on society, to make society afraid, to facilitate implementation of policies friendly to the military-industrial complex.

Fearism

Fearism is the policy of political leadership to spread fear stories to cause a fearfilled populace to fall in line with the agenda of that leadership.

There is fearism where they show you a cockamamie story, but in a way that makes you very very afraid. Then there is fearism where the threat is real and highly dangerous. This threat of nuclear war falls in the second category of real and highly dangerous. But still the movie is in the format of fearism, and is geared to shock the viewer into demanding some action or another.

For example the movie contains a lot of information about the nuclear proliferation network operated from Pakistan by AQ Khan. He was their chief Nuclear Scientist, and also operated an extensive network of selling nuclear technology around the world.

One of his clients was Iran, and there is a lot of concern about nuclear proliferation in Iran. If Iran were to achieve nuclear weapons, the movie contends that Syria, Saudi Arabia, etc will also work to achieve nuclear weapons. The result will be a Middle East with more nuclear states than the one already there - Israel.

Conclusion

There are a zillion threats facing our society. Some of them are real and justified. Some of them are cockamamie. Our political leaders are using fears for political gain.

It pays to not take the fearism stories at face value, but to stay in ones position of internal clear choice and stability. Rather than be sucked in - consciously evaluating the stories should help one see the truth more clearly.

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