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A 'nuclear sword of Damocles'

"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 by madness. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us." --President John F. Kennedy

Lawrence Bender, the Academy Award-winning producer of "An Inconvenient Truth," uses Kennedy's words at the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 25, 1961 as the foundation of his new anti-nuclear proliferation documentary "Countdown to Zero." The film doesn't hit theaters nationwide until July 9, but I was able to catch a screening of it last week. My hope is that "Countdown to Zero" will do for nuclear proliferation what "An Inconvenient Truth" did for climate change. Americans, particularly those born after the fall of the Berlin Wall, need to understand how close we've come to and how close we remain to nuclear annihilation.

After seeing the film, I pray that the New START treaty between the United States and Russia gets ratified by the Senate and that the nuclear security summit that kicks off today in Washington leads to meaningful measures to keep materials for weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of terrorists. In a post-9/11 world, where enemies of the West are actively trying to acquire them, that sword of Damocles is closer to our necks than we want to admit.

"Countdown to Zero" employs Kennedy's "accident," "miscalculation" and "madness" formulation to look at the three separate yet interlocking dangers posed by nuclear weapons. One potential "accident" occurred in August 2007 when a B-52 bomber flew from North Dakota to Louisiana with six warheads on its wing that apparently no one, including the pilots, knew were there.

A frightening potential "miscalculation" happened in 1995 when a U.S.-Norwegian research rocket was detected by Russian early-warning radars and had then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin handling his nation's nuclear football for the first time. Former CIA officer Peter Pry, who wrote about this incident in "War Scare," called it "the single most dangerous moment of the nuclear missile age."

And the film is replete with details on how vulnerable we are to a devastating attack by those hellbent on "madness." What's saved us thus far has been their inability to create or get their hands on highly enriched uranium needed to make a nuclear bomb. But former CIA operations officer Rolff Mowatt-Larssen delivers this bit of disquieting news in the film. "All the black market seizures that I'm aware of were caught by luck," he said.

Let's hope our luck doesn't run out.

By Jonathan Capehart  | April 12, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Capehart  | Tags:  Jonathan Capehart  
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Hopefully, Mr. Obama's treaty can make the USA as safe as the District of Columbia was when its gun control laws were in place.

Posted by: willdd | April 12, 2010 9:23 AM | Report abuse

Lawrence Bender, the Academy Award-winning producer of "An Inconvenient Truth,"

And the rest just lost any credibility.

Yeah, nuclear accidents are scary. Both military and civilian, like Cherbobyl. Somehow the controls on military nuclear devices proved to be solid.

In general, any reduction in nukes that does not impact our defense capacity should be welcomed. No need be apocalyptic about the nukes though. The nukes kept global peace in the second half if XX century. And I mean not only Europe but for example USSR-China relations.

Posted by: pihto999 | April 12, 2010 10:50 AM | Report abuse

A proliferation of Israeli Art Students copied all dual America's military secrets while Rumsfeld talked knowns and unknowns.

Posted by: Uoughtano | April 12, 2010 3:24 PM | Report abuse

A proliferation of Israeli Art Students copied all dual America's military secrets while Rumsfeld talked knowns and unknowns.

Posted by: Uoughtano | April 12, 2010 3:27 PM | Report abuse

How many boomers carry mirv or single warheads? How many B2s? How many cruise missiles? How many ICBMs? How many short range in Europe and Japan? The under 1550 tells me somethings got to go. The European and Japan defenses seem most likely with Ukraine giving up it's material. Beefing up S. Korea is sensible at this time anyway.

Posted by: jameschirico | April 12, 2010 5:33 PM | Report abuse

In the mid seventies Indian nationalists began demanding that India develop a nuclear weapons system, so that they would be one of the big boys. Pakistan then said, unequivocally, that when India announced that it had a bomb, Pakistan would announce that it too had a bomb.

Eventually the Hindu nationalist movement got enough control of India to push India to develop nuclear weapons, and immediately upon India's first nuclear demonstration, Pakistan also demonstrated its own bomb. SO, what has India got to show for having nukes in her arsenal?

Consider what damage a Hiroshima sized nuke, strapped to the bottom of a small coastal freighter in full sand ballast, and detonated just of Mumbai, in enough depth of water to send a 300 ft high base surge across that city. Is a guess of several million dead about right? EVERY coastal city in India is in just such peril, and India has no particular systems in place to deal with the eradication of big segments of its population.

How likely is this scenario? well, it is a lot more
possible, and therefor a lot more likely then Iran developing the bomb. There are more than sufficient fanatics in Pakistan, with more than enough access to assembled nuclear weapons for some son of Osama Bin Laden to get one and try it.

Should India be worrying about this particular scenario?


So then how much more secure is India due to her unthinking development of nuclear weapons?

EVERY weapon the U.S. owns must be maintained, stored, and guarded, and the maintenance isn't cheap. So anything we can do that permits us to dismantle and burn up as fuel a few more weapons is a good thing for us and our posterity.

Note that Russia seems to be making exactly this calculation.

The recent SALT agreement is a nice mile marker on the road to sanity again, and as we begin to show some nuclear maturity may the rest of the nuclearized world develop maturity with us.

Especially India and Pakistan, who between them can probably reduce the population of the world by about 1.6 billion souls whenever they feel froggy.

Posted by: ceflynline | April 12, 2010 10:33 PM | Report abuse

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