The Fear Factor

A new film aims to be the Inconvenient Truth for the nuclear danger. But is terrifying people the only way to get the message across?

Photo Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Photo Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Just after 2:26 a.m., on June 3, 1980, computer screens at the command post of the Strategic Air Command in Nebraska suddenly indicated that two submarine-launched ballistic missiles were headed toward the United States. Eighteen seconds after the first signals, the displays showed even more launches. The duty commander ordered B-52 and FB-111 bomber pilots to their planes and told them to start their engines.

The duty officers checked with the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) in Colorado, which mans the satellites and radars that monitor North American airspace. At this moment, the NORAD command said the radars and satellites showed no incoming missiles. Then the Strategic Air Command screens also cleared, showing no threats. The pilots were told to shut down their engines, but remain in their planes.

After a brief period, the Strategic Air Command warning display again lit up, this time showing that intercontinental ballistic missiles had been launched toward the United States. And soon after that, a similar warning appeared on the screens of the Pentagon’s National Military Command Center in Washington, D.C. The duty officers in each location suspected the warning was in error. In the Pentagon command center, a threat assessment conference was called, and all locations were then assured that there were no real signs of missile attack. The pilots returned to their barracks. The alert was ended.

But what happened? Three days later, on June 6, 1980, at 3:38 p.m., the same error occurred again. Again, no missiles were seen by satellites and radar, only on the NORAD data link.

It turned out the false alarm had been caused by the failure of a computer chip in one of NORAD’s communications devices. The peacetime message was supposed to continuously broadcast the digits 000, indicating there were no attacking missiles. The failed chip began inserting random 2s into the message, so it came out showing that 200 or 2,000 missiles were in flight. The chip was about the size of a dime and cost 46 cents.

This is just one of the harrowing tales of the nuclear age thrust back into the limelight this summer in a new documentary film, Countdown to Zero, which opens in theaters July 23. The 91-minute film, written and directed by Lucy Walker and produced by Lawrence Bender, is intended to startle us out of complacency about nuclear dangers. It is a cauldron of stark, unsettling scenes, ending with an appeal for the Global Zero movement to eliminate all nuclear weapons.

The 1980 incident has long been known, but there is still something surprising about it, perhaps because it so vividly captures the tense, hair-trigger mentality of the Cold War. In the film, the episode is recalled by Bruce Blair, president of the World Security Institute in Washington, who served as a launch officer for Minuteman missiles in the 1970s and is an executive producer of the film. The false alarm, he says, led to "eight minutes of nuclear-launch preparations that were triggered by a malfunctioning computer chip that costs less than a dollar."

Countdown is full of such moments. Atomic bombs fall off airplanes by mistake; desperate men peddle uranium across borders; nuclear-weapons technology is spread by master proliferator A.Q. Khan of Pakistan. Perhaps the most unsettling and still little-understood episode was the launch of a four-stage rocket, Black Brant, from Norway as part of a scientific experiment on the morning of Jan. 25, 1995. The launch triggered confusion in the Kremlin about whether it was an intercontinental ballistic missile attack. The paperwork announcing the planned rocket launch got lost. When radars spotted the rocket and reported up the chain of command, it was considered serious enough to trigger the first-ever use of the nuclear briefcase by Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

Yeltsin was not at this point close to issuing a launch order; the most he could have done would have been to authorize a possible launch later if the attack proved real. We don’t know much about what Yeltsin said in those minutes when the briefcase was opened. Did he panic, or keep his cool? But it became evident soon enough that the rocket was headed toward the North Pole. It was not an intercontinental ballistic missile, nor was it aimed at Moscow. Twenty-two minutes after the launch, it splashed into the ocean. Yeltsin took no action.

Moments like this need no embellishment. The evidence of nuclear peril is, by itself, jolting enough. But Countdown adds a dose of hype. In the Norwegian rocket episode, for example, the audience is told that "according to Russian military doctrine, Boris Yeltsin should have launched all-out nuclear attack on the United States that morning. We don’t know what happened in the Kremlin. All we know is that he didn’t." True, during the Cold War, both the Soviet Union and the United States relied on a hair-trigger concept known as "launch on warning," which might have led to a decision to retaliate based on signs of an incoming attack. But the Norwegian rocket was launched three years after the Soviet collapse, and it is not at all certain that Yeltsin should have responded with an order to attack the United States. Whatever his other failings, Yeltsin did the right thing.

In making a film that seeks to galvanize support for a cause — the elimination of all nuclear weapons — the creators of Countdown realized that they needed to stimulate a sense of urgency and anxiety, and there is no hotter button today than the fear of terrorism. The film opens with familiar yet haunting images of terrorist attacks around the world in the last decade: buildings, glass, and concrete crumpled from New York to Mumbai. For all the emotional freight these images convey, however, none of the blasts involved a nuclear device. Having grabbed our attention, the film shifts immediately to the hypothetical. A voice says there is "no doubt in my mind that if terrorists had acquired a nuclear weapon they would not have hesitated to use it. So I guess the question is: Could they ever get one?"

Could they? The answer provided by Countdown is yes. The film argues that highly enriched uranium could be easily smuggled into the United States through seaports, shielded in a lead pipe and buried in a shipping container. The design of a crude bomb is no longer secret. The film suggests that building a bomb is not rocket science.

But audiences will surely wonder: If it is so easy, why have we been spared nuclear terror? Why have more than six decades passed since Hiroshima and Nagasaki without a nuclear weapon again being used in war? Countdown leaves us hanging on these questions. The documentary would have been stronger if it had faced them squarely, perhaps offering a tip of the hat to deterrence during the Cold War. Instead, the filmmakers have rung all the alarms without addressing why we have survived so long without catastrophe.

The strongest part of Countdown is the focus on individuals in the great drama of nuclear danger. Blair recalls how a 12-digit code was supposed to be set for the Minuteman nuclear missiles in the 1970s to prevent unauthorized fiddling with the launch controls. But, he says, the Strategic Air Command didn’t want the extra trouble, so they set all the codes at zero. Matthew Bunn of Harvard University, who annually compiles a detailed report on nuclear security around the globe, tells of Russians who broke into a toolshed on a naval base trying to steal nuclear fuel rods, and he quotes a military prosecutor as saying "potatoes were guarded better." We hear from two men accused of nuclear smuggling in Russia and Georgia. One of them, a worker at Luch, a fuel fabrication facility, skimmed off a kilo and a half of highly enriched uranium, taking small amounts each day so no one would notice. Why did he do it? He needed money for a new refrigerator and a gas stove. "I wanted to buy a few essentials, then work honestly," he says.

Perhaps the supreme example of individual vision and political daring came when Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan almost reached agreement on eliminating nuclear weapons at the Reykjavik summit in October 1986. Gorbachev says in the film that he looks back at this lost opportunity in sadness. "In Reykjavik, we truly opened the door and peeked beyond the horizon," he says.

The makers of this documentary hope to do for nuclear danger what An Inconvenient Truth did for global climate change. Bender also produced An Inconvenient Truth, and both films were backed by Participant Media, the production company founded by Jeff Skoll, which attempts to build social action around its films.

In Countdown, the imagery and soundtrack hammer relentlessly at nuclear peril. But the film only briefly touches upon remedies, at the very end: taking missiles off launch-ready alert, establishing a joint warning center with Moscow, sharing nuclear safeguards, and phased reductions in remaining arsenals. At the close, the audience is urged: "Demand zero."

It feels good, but is simplistic. There are still 23,000 nuclear weapons, 95 percent held by the United States and Russia. The film should have devoted a few more minutes to the complex and long-overdue business of reducing these arsenals. The U.S. Senate will soon have an important debate about one aspect of it: the new strategic arms treaty with Russia. Perhaps it is not the stuff of entertainment: nuclear doctrines, policy, negotiations, verification, science, and diplomacy. But those who feel a jolt from Countdown will realize, hopefully, that the answer to nuclear dangers is not as simple as just demanding zero. That’s the finish line, but getting there is extremely difficult. Just look at how much fright and worry accumulated in the first six decades of the nuclear age. Many people devoted their lives to reining in the danger, and it is still with us, filling up our theater screen and making us feel uncomfortable.

David E. Hoffman covered foreign affairs, national politics, economics, and served as an editor at the Washington Post for 27 years.

He was a White House correspondent during the Reagan years and the presidency of George H. W. Bush, and covered the State Department when James A. Baker III was secretary. He was bureau chief in Jerusalem at the time of the 1993 Oslo peace accords, and served six years as Moscow bureau chief, covering the tumultuous Yeltsin era. On returning to Washington in 2001, he became foreign editor and then, in 2005, assistant managing editor for foreign news. Twitter: @thedeadhandbook