Saturday, July 31, 2010

Countdown to Zero, Nukes, Loose and Otherwise

It's difficult to convey to those born after the 1970s the existential menace of nuclear war that subtlety pervaded American, if not, world life. Growing up in Winnipeg in the late 1950s it was difficult to ignore the night time air force maneuvers to the Arctic Circle. Unfortunately the nuclear threat never went away but merely morphed into newer and more diverse forms.

The film "Countdown to Zero" explores these new manifestations of potential doom. The Toronto Star elaborates:

"First conceived by Democratic politician Matt Brown and Bruce Blair of the World Security Institute, and directed by Britain’s Lucy Walker, the film features a critical mass of former world leaders, experts, spies, officials, activists — and one of the most cold-blooded weapons smugglers in history.

Its message is meant to put a new generation of anti-nuclear campaigners back on the peace path their grandparents pioneered as Cold War protesters in the days when grade schoolers had to “duck and cover” in anticipation of a Soviet nuclear attack.

Now things have changed — and not altogether in a good way.

“There’s pretty broad agreement that the No. 1 threat the world faces is nuclear terrorism,” says Joseph Cirincione a non-proliferation expert with the Ploughshares Fund who is among more than 80 people interviewed for the film. “There are apocalyptic groups who wouldn’t hesitate to build, and use, an atomic bomb.”

And Cirincione is not just talking about a homegrown “dirty bomb” combining low-level nuclear material with ordinary explosives — which would cause alarm and confusion but few casualties. Increasingly likely is a crude, Hiroshima-style weapon that could devastate a city, melt down an economy and throw the world into nuclear chaos...

“There are three ways to acquire a nuclear weapon,” says former CIA operative Rolf Mowatt-Larssen. “You can steal a bomb. You can buy a bomb. And you can build a bomb.”

To underscore the point, there’s Oleg Khinsagov, a jailed Russian black marketer from the northern Caucasus who cheered for the 9/11 hijackers and told Walker his stated goal “was to kill 4 million Americans using a nuclear device.”

Khinsagov’s attempt to sell weapons-grade uranium to Al Qaeda was foiled by a Georgian sting operation, and his 2006 arrest made few headlines worldwide.

But while they often slip below the media radar, reports of nuclear smuggling are far from rare. Since 1991, numerous plots have been tracked and halted — and those are only the incidents we know about.

In one of the biggest, three St. Petersburg men were arrested for trying to sell three kilograms of highly enriched uranium stolen from a Russian nuclear production facility in 1994. Some of the hazardous stuff was stashed in a refrigerator.

Two years earlier, a Russian research lab worker spent months stockpiling 1.5 kilos of highly enriched uranium in hopes a wealthy buyer would come along. Scientists say about 10 times that amount is needed for a small atomic bomb."

Hopefully this film can provoke interest in a threat to humanity that makes some of our other existential concerns pale in comparison.

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