“Countdown to Zero” Eclipses Those on the Frontlines of Disarmament

The acclaimed new film Countdown to Zero may serve the purpose of alerting neophytes to the full extent of the danger of nuclear weapons. But for others, it’s best viewed while wearing a hazmat suit. Activist and cutting-edge disarmament commentator Darwin BondGraham explains at Monthly Review’s MRZine:

On its surface Countdown to Zero is about nuclear disarmament, but deeper down the film . . . is actually an alarmist portrayal of dark-skinned men, Muslims, “terrorists,” and other racial or ethnic bogeymen who we are told, over the span of 90 minutes, are seeking nuclear weapons to use against the American people. A related theme in the film is the demonization of Iran and North Korea which are portrayed as dangerous rogue states with ties to terrorist organizations . . . against whom military action may be warranted — or else.

If it’s not the likes of filmmaker Lucy Walker or, by implication, the Global Zero project of the World Security Institute, which is behind Countdown to Zero, that (wo)mans the frontlines of disarmament, then who or what is? Is it? How about Ploughshares and its president Joseph Cirincione?

BondGraham’s piece kind of spoiled them for me: “In a promotional video attached to the START ratification effort, Cirincione urges viewers to ‘join this patriotic consensus’ toward zero.” Then, in an op-ed Cirincione wrote, “The statesmanship demonstrated by the Consensus members today could help break the partisan blockade in the Senate and restore America’s leadership on this urgent security challenge.”

Wait, how did “consensus” go from lower-case “c” to capitalized? BondGraham writes: “The capital C Consensus he’s referring to is a newly formed NGO, created to translate the groundswell of public response they expect from” Countdown to Zero, among other things, into policies such as “aggressive military action against would-be nuclear states, much of it in the name of nonproliferation.” Funded by Ploughshares, the Consensus for American Security calls for “‘strengthening and modernizing America’s nuclear security,’ because it ‘is a vital element of protecting the United States and its allies.’”

Modernizing, BondGraham points out, “is not an arbitrary word. [It] means a very specific thing . . . approving the Obama administration’s program to build a pit factory, a uranium processing facility,” rebuilding “warheads and bombs” and “acquiring new, very expensive platforms like subs, bombers, and missiles.”

That’s Darwin BondGraham — never one to shy away from the task of turning the world of nuclear disarmament on its head.

If the frontlines of disarmament be not there, perhaps they’re in Congress, to which the Obama administration is taking the battle for START ratification. In the New York Times Peter Baker reports: “With time running out . . . the White House is trying to reach an understanding with Senate Republicans to approve its new arms control treaty with Russia. … The critical player is Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, the Republican whip [who] has sought to modernize the nuclear force.” An analyst asked if the administration is “willing to pay the price he’s asking in light of what they want to do” in the area of disarmament. “So far, administration officials say they are willing to pay that price because they are also committed to modernization.”

You can be forgiven for wondering where the “dis” in disarmament is here. Perhaps then the frontlines of disarmament look more like the Plowshares Nuclear Resistance? Founded by, among others, the Berrigan brothers, it’s still active (however long in the tooth its members are).

In November of 2009, it approached the Kitsap-Bangor Trident submarine base near Seattle, Washington. Ranging in age from 60 to 83, five members entered through the perimeter fence and cut through two more fences, while splashing around animal blood. They also hammered on the roadways and fences as well as scattered sunflower seeds. Once apprehended, they were handcuffed, hooded, and kept on the ground face-down for four hours. Though eventually released, they were liable to charges of trespass and destruction of government property.

While it’s easy to write them off as throwbacks another time and poke fun at their idea of symbolism, in fact, such acts accomplish little. For starters, the public is notoriously disapproving of anything resembling vandalism.

Thus, even the perimeter fences of a submarine base aren’t the front lines of disarmament. The honor goes to the those groups that act as watchdogs on behalf of the public for U.S. national laboratories such as Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore.

For instance, Livermore watchdog Tri-Valley CAREs (Communities Against a Radioactive Environment) claims that the true plans of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) are significantly at variance with the agency’s public pronouncements, not to mention disarmament. Working with Tri-Valley CAREs, former Livermore official Roger Logan points to the difference it makes when the laboratories are run by a limited liability company (which includes the University of California and the Bechtel Corporation), as they are now, instead of the government, as once they were.

In a Tri-Valley CAREs press release, he said, “The people running the Livermore and Los Alamos management contracts have made careers out of inflating cost estimates, and NNSA either lacks the skill or the will to properly steward the billions of taxpayer dollars it requests each year.”

Meanwhile, Greg Mello of Los Alamos watchdog the Los Alamos Study Group tells us that $3.4 billion of the proposed $16 billion in new warhead spending is to be allotted to the construction of a Chemistry and Metallurgy Research facility. Its purpose is to construct new nuclear “pits” (where the chain reaction begins).

In a Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists piece, Mello writes that, at 270,000-square-feet, the new facility “would add only 22,500-square-feet of additional plutonium processing and lab space to [Los Alamos's] existing 59,600-square-feet of comparable space.” That “works out to $151,000 per square foot, or $1,049 per square inch.” Holy (watch your tax dollars go up in) smoke!

Especially since “there is already a surfeit of backup pits [which] will last for many decades to come.” The new facility “would increase production capacity to an even more absurd level.” In fact, he writes, every aspect of the project, “from the mission itself to the practicality of the building design, should be questioned far more deeply than Congress has done to date.”

To give you an idea of how the Los Alamos Study Group works as a watchdog, BondGraham (also with the Los Alamos Study Group) wrote in a press release, “Earlier this year we finally obtained enough information from [the Department of Energy] and its contractors to confidently determine that the increased cost, greatly expanded construction requirements, and qualitatively new environmental impacts that make the [Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement] different [from what] was originally analyzed.” Thus: “On July 1 we formally notified the U.S. Department of Energy of our intent to seek a new Environmental Impact Statement, and to pursue an injunction against [the] Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement [facility].”

This is what life on the frontlines looks like: poring over the books and seeking injunctions. It’s not an administration merrily conjuring up new concessions for the nuclear-industrial complex, nor is it disarmament groups of dubious provenance. Neither is it op-ed writers nor bloggers like this author. Instead, it’s those who, to cite Tri-Valley CAREs’ slogan, are engaged in “Stopping nuclear weapons where they start.”