Lucy Walker talks about the making of Countdown To Zero, a chilling new documentary that examines the current state of the nuclear arms race and the probability of a nuclear catastrophe either as the result of terrorism or an accident. She also discusses its relevance in light of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami disaster, ahead of world leaders meeting in the UK on June 21 to discuss the issue on Demand Zero Day.
Could you ever have imagined a more timely release for Countdown to Zero given what recently happened in Japan?
Lucy Walker: Well, what's actually funny is that I was supposed to go to Japan about a week after those events, and had to cancel the trip, so it was very close to home. Unfortunately, what's been going on in Japan right now is a really sad reminder of[the issue]. Even though nuclear power is a different issue to nuclear weapons, and I did sort of not focus on it as I think it deserves its own film. We don't talk about nuclear power at all except to point out the proliferation risks with the technology.But I think what nuclear power and nuclear weapons definitely share is that the consequences of something going wrong with anything nuclear could be so massive and so grave and so frightening. This is a classic example of somewhere like Japan, which is super disaster prepared, earthquake ready, tsunami conscious, anti-nuclear catastrophe, and yet tragically it's suffering this horrible situation because you can never plan for every freaky, freaky, freaky, exceptional low probability event.I think, unfortunately, it's not at all surprising. Obviously, it's very surprising, but it sort of underlines the point of the film which is that, unfortunately, you can never prevent accidents happening. And so even if you don't think anyone is deliberately going to set a weapon off, which unfortunately with the proliferation of terrorists going the way they're going, you can't bank on over the long-term. We have that whole section on accidents, for example, and how we can never prevent the unlikely things happening. So, unfortunately, I sort of feel like it only ever confirms that we're right to worry. Unfortunately, nobody that's watched the film has thought said: "If anything, you're not exaggerating! If anything, you're underestimating the threat."
How aware of the threat were you before you first started taking on the movie?
Lucy Walker: I think, like many people, I had hoped it had gone away but vaguely knew I should be worried about it and it probably was really worrying. I guess that alone made me know there was a great film in there, but I know so much more now. I think it's a really tough issue to get your head around.There was a fantastic statistic when I first began that more Americans thought that aliens could take over the planet than a nuclear bomb could go off. Now, you can laugh your head off about that but actually when you think about it, it's really hard for people to get a grip on this issue and, certainly, which countries have them. I think it's very confusing. I don't know if it needs to be taught in schools.I really wanted the film to give people the confidence to read the newspaper and think about what their politicians are talking about and to understand and really know what is going on. That's really my goal.
Given what you've found out, what does worry you more now - the risk of an accident or the risk of a terrorist attack?
Lucy Walker: I feel like I'm not a bookie. I'm not going to give you odds. And the good news is that it's all pretty low probability. I don't think we all need to move to New Zealand just yet. But the problem is that it is, even just on a pure mathematics level, as time goes on, if the risk isn't zero, then eventually that'll be it. It could be a thousand years, it could be more, but eventually the risk will be 100% that something is going to go wrong if the risk isn't zero per cent. So, you have to think about the maths. If there are zero nuclear weapons in the world, then there's zero chance something is going to go wrong. If not, then there's every chance something is going to go wrong. So, for me, any amount of 'X' times being able to destroy the world over is too many. Who wants to destroy the world once, let alone more than that? So, it was pretty clear to me that destroying the world was at least something we should look into and understand how we might want to avoid.
Are you optimistic that the key players, such as President Obama, are beginning to make the right noises about complete nuclear disarmament?
Lucy Walker: I think Obama's leadership on the issue is really encouraging. I think that suddenly great breakthroughs happen, or great or terrible things happen to shift things. Again, for example, Japan... we're hearing news about people re-thinking nuclear power policy in light of this. So, the question is does it take a nuclear catastrophe to provoke a re-think? Or can leaders get together and have an enlightened discussion and really make some changes before being prompted to do so in hindsight by a particularly high fatality horror incident?I like to think that human beings sometimes can be rational, constructive and sensible... sometimes! I definitely know that, for example, the Berlin Wall coming down - that was so hard to predict and yet so massive. 9/11 was hard to predict. Sometimes you get these massive, massive changes. I definitely feel like it's not a partisan or a party political issue and I'm encouraged. In the UK, for example, from all parties there are certain people that have really spoken out about the issue and I really appreciate them.
How was getting to meet someone like former Soviet head of state Mikhail Gorbachev? And of the interviews you conducted, which were the ones you were most proud to have been able to secure?
Lucy Walker: I spoke to [Pakistani nuclear pioneer] AQ Khan, which was very interesting, and the nuclear smuggler... I didn't think that was going to work out. But it was nice because not only do you get the interview, but hopefully as well it shows a different side of things. I have a great team and normally we're pursuing things we know we're not likely to get, but are constantly after the best possible things even when it's unlikely to succeed. What I'm working towards all the time is knowing this: that if we can't get it, then nobody could. So, it was really exhaustive and we just didn't take no for an answer. We'd ask eight or 10 times if necessary. We were just the world's most persistent people because there's no arena to talk about nuclear weapons. It's bad to even be associated with them, or to mention them. It doesn't make them look good, so they're under no obligation whatsoever. You're really asking them to risk a lot and gain very little.So, all the interviews we've got I'm really proud of... there's more world leaders in this than in any other film. And it's not just because they're world leaders that they're important, I wanted them because they're the people that have their fingers on the button. I wanted the film to be full of the experts' experts - the ultimate experts, people who've had their finger on the button, or had their hands on real-life nuclear material such as the nuclear smuggler, or have their hands on the technology and understood where it's going, like Scott Kemp who is the physicist and expert who looks about 12-years-old. I didn't want to just say Al-Qaeda is scary! If someone told me that Al-Qaeda wants nuclear weapons, I wanted to know how we know that and what there is to know exactly. I don't want to just rely on clichés, particularly with such an important topic, which has been so abused by cliché. I wanted to work from the facts.
Were there any people you wanted to speak to who refused access?
Lucy Walker: Loads and loads. Name a world leader and we tried to get them in. Colonel Gaddafi and his son, Saif, both agreed to an interview and then dropped out at the last minute after I'd already gotten on the plane. So, that would have been interesting.
Interview: Rob Carnevale Photo: Dogwoof