Anchor, 1997, 288 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-385-48560-3
In 1997, then brand-new studio Dreamworks released its first film, a techno-thriller called THE PEACEMAKER. It starred Nicole Kidman and George Clooney and dealt with their efforts to retrieve a few nuclear bombs stolen by a terrorist. Unfortunately, the film received a mixed critical reception and quickly sank at the box-office, pulling in only $41 million US and quickly fading in memories.
Too bad; I enjoyed the film a lot, finding it to be one of the only good techno-thriller of the late nineties. It seemed reasonably authentic and adequately detailed; the film is still the only one I recall in which the protagonists realistically disarmed a nuclear weapon. Small surprise to learn -later- that it was based on Andrew and Leslie Cockburn’s One Point Safe, a non-fiction book about the nuclear dangers to come out of the ex-USSR. Both writers were even credited as the co-producers of the movie and penned the original story.
What you can’t know until you read the source book is how the reality is presented as being far more chilling that the fiction.
One Point Safe begins with a bang, as it describes how a team of German terrorists tried to steal a tactical nuclear weapon from an American base in 1977. Their assault was thwarted by the failure of their diversion, but as the authors write, “No longer was it a question ‘if’ terrorists wanted to steal a nuclear weapon.” [P.6]
It gets worse. Much worse, as the Cockburns delve deeper in the wreckage of the ex-Soviet Union. In a few chapters, they describe the awful conditions to which the once-proud Soviet military has been reduced to. Officers in charge of nuclear weapons now starving, multi-megaton storage facilities rusting out of neglect. Plutonium depots left un-garded. The problem with the collapse of an empire is that after the collapse, all the nasty stuff is still there even if the people aren’t.
The crux of One Point Safe is to show the various nuclear dangers in this post-cold-war era. The guards are gone, corrupt or criminal, but their deadly possessions remain. So the Cockburns describe actual cases of radioactive material theft, the lax security measures in Russian weapons depots, the new ultra-capitalistic Russians trying to make money off the Soviet arsenal and how nuclear non-proliferation agreements aren’t worth much when transgressions mean eating again.
Things aren’t necessarily better in the United States. The Cockburns take an almost sadistic delight in describing a botched anti-terrorism exercise gone hilariously wrong. “Mirage Gold” becomes a parade of mistakes, and latter exercises designed to intercept nuclear smuggling aren’t any more successful. Those mistakes are compensated, somewhat, by a few intelligence coups, such as the American purchase of important quantities of plutonium from Russia. Once such operation, codenamed Sapphire, is a marvel of logistics meticulously described by the Cockburns.
Still, as the book advances, you can’t help but feel increasingly spooked by the missing “backpack nukes”, the widespread corruption, the “accidentally discovered” smuggling rings, the open borders, the broken Russian chain-of-command and, oh, the narrowly-avoided nuclear war of 1995.
All of which raises the question, of course, of the veracity of One Point Safe. Certainly, the tone is cheerfully sentionalistic. Online ( www.bullatomsci.org/issues/1998/jf98/jf98arkin.html ), you can find a letter from an atomic scientist protesting the alarmist tone of the Cockburns. Indeed, they probably overstate their case. But even if half of what they say is true… In any case, it makes for exciting reading.
Beyond the compulsive narrative drive of this book, you can also look at One Point Safe for one of the clearest description of how executive policy is formed, as a team of analysts tries to convince the Clinton administration to do something about the Russian situation.
In short, One Point Safe is a meanly effective read. Sensationalist but always effective, this non-fiction account will make you cringe and hope that the intelligence community is doing its work. Because otherwise…