Saturday, November 22, 2008

PBS: Avoiding Armageddon: Nuclear Nightmare

PBS has a series “Avoiding Armageddon: Our Future, Our Choice”. Disc Two is “Nuclear Nightmare”, dated 2003. It is narrated by Walter Cronkite and directed by Frank Sesno. The production company is Ted Turner Documentaries.

The program started with an account of the July 1999 crisis where President Clinton met with leaders of India and Pakistan, who could have entered into a nuclear exchange. Even in 2002 the after effects of the crisis continued. One problem is that neither country can detect a “nuclear tipped” weapon from a similar conventional one.

The film then goes back to 1945 to consider the history of nuclear weapons, with the Trinity Test in New Mexico and President Truman’s use of the atomic bomb to end World War II with Japan. Not as many people know that in 1951 the Joint Chiefs of Staff wanted to use up to thirty atomic bombs in North Korea or Manchuria to “end” to Korean War. Truman said no, out of moral reasons.

The film discusses the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the closest we ever came to nuclear war with the Soviets. The soviets almost breached our quarantine with subs equipped with nuclear payloads that we didn't know about.

The film moved to the modern era. It the 1972 treaty that prohibited nuclear missile defense, that then President Reagan’s challenge in 1983 with a proposal for a Strategic Defense Initiative, which was never built.

After the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991, the resulting situation was one of thousands of sites, over 9 or more time zones, husbanding nuclear weapons and materials presumably under control of an imploding Communist parties. Nuclear scientists were out of work and were faced with supporting their families in a world of high inflation. One scientist, wanting to start a pet shop, smuggled small amounts of uranium at a time and kept it in his apartment until selling it. One scientist got a job working for the Taliban in Afghanistan. In 1998, three workers were seriously injured by a canister of loose strontium 90 found in the mountains of the Republic of Georgia. There is tremendous pollution in the Ural mountains areas near plants, with many birth defects.

The IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) had investigated 17 leaks of nuclear material from Russia by 2003.

The film mentioned former senator Sam Nunn (D-GA), who now works with the group the Nuclear Threat Initiative, and has produced a dramatic film “The Last Best Chance.” Nunn believes that misdirection into the hands of terrorists is by far the most likely way a nuclear incident could happen on American soil or any other western country. The film briefly covered attempts by Saddam Hussein to obtain uranium, and then attempts by Al Qaeda. The Cold War was deterred by "mutually assured destruction" but a terrorist has no return address.

The film showed by illustration the effect of a Hiroshima-sized bomb had it been exploded on 9/11 at the WTC site.

There was presentation of non-proliferation and the dismantling of some Soviet weapons, and even smashing bombers. Some nuclear materials were being sold to utilities in the United States for electric power.

The film says that only about 2% of cargo coming through coastal ports is inspected.

The film ended with a panel discussion, emphasizing the need for removing loose nuclear material from around the world.

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