Sunday, February 14, 2010

Countdown to Zero at TED

Valerie Plame Wilson, the CIA operative exposed in a Washington Post column and part of the scandal that was to be dubbed Plamegate, was a surprise addition to the TED program. After her forced departure from the CIA, she became increasingly concerned about the dangers of nuclear disaster. Although the Cold War is over, and people have become complacent, the three dangers JFK outlined decades ago - accident, miscalculation, or madness - are still with us today.

The film Countdown to Zero describes these risks in chilling detail. There are 23,000 operational nuclear weapons still in existence. It is easy to make the actual bomb; it's the acquisition of highly enriched uranium that's tricky. Although you could make the HE uranium, the best tactic would be simply to head to Russia, where there are vast amounts of completely insecure nuclear material, and venal people who are willing to sell it. One Russian interviewed in the movie explained nonchalantly that he stole enriched uranium for quite modest goals - a fridge, stove and better car. He didn't have a political agenda. However,when it was pointed out that in the hands of a terrorist, many people could have been killed by this uranium, he was disturbingly unrepentant because after all it would only be Americans who would be dead.

Countdown to Zero is produced by Lawrence Bender for Jeff Skoll's company Participant Media and it was a treat for us to see only the second screening (after its unveiling at Sundance). Jeff Ivers, Executive VP of Participant, whom I met at Friday's Final Gala, explained to me how big a deal it was for them to get the film in front of this audience and how thrilled they were that hundreds of people turned up for the last-minute addition to the program. The documentaries are pretty well all losers (with the exception of Inconvenient Truth). As he says about The Cove, the movie that won Best Film at Toronto Hot Docs Festival, once people find out dolphins are going to be killed, it's hard to draw a crowd!

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