The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August. This is Episode 545 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the show, we’ll be discussing nuclear energy, nuclear safety, and nuclear war, both the realities and how these issues are portrayed in Hollywood. Obviously, Craig Mazin would seem to be a great person to dive into these topics, since he made a show called Chernobyl, but he is off making his new show this week. Luckily, we have two bona fide experts joining us today.
Joan Rohlfing is President and COO of Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit, nonpartisan security organization focused on reducing nuclear and biological threats imperiling humanity. NTI also produced the docu-drama Last Best Chance that premiered on HBO. She’s held senior positions in the US Department of Energy and worked as an advisor to the US Ambassador to India in the wake of nuclear tests in India and Pakistan. Earlier in her career she oversaw nuclear weapons policy and acquisition programs for the Department of Defense and the Armed Services Committee at the US House of Representatives. Joan, thank you so much for being with us.
Joan Rohlfing: John, thank you so much for the invitation.
John: Now, my first question for you, Joan, is one of the questions that always comes up as we’re trying to pitch projects in Hollywood, is why now? What is it about this particular moment that makes this story relevant to be told on a big screen or on a small screen? Can you tell us why in April 2022 we should be paying attention to nuclear issues?
Joan: I think we’re at a moment where the danger is extremely high. In fact, I would argue it’s one of the highest points in the history of the nuclear era, rivaled perhaps only by the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. A lot of people who think nuclear weapons went away at the end of the Cold War are now realizing with this Ukraine crisis that nuclear weapons are still around. The nuclear threat is real. We have seen a major nuclear power, Russia, do nuclear saber-rattling and make both implicit and I would say rather explicit threats of nuclear use. We’ve seen conflict around nuclear reactor facilities in Ukraine. This is a moment where we are feeling these dangers palpably. Many people are frightened. What I hope we can talk about today is not only what’s frightening about the situation, but what can we do to help prevent a nuclear catastrophe from happening.
John: Great. We can talk about this as our responsibilities as citizens but also as storytellers and making sure we’re telling the stories that can get people thinking about this. Often on the show we’re doing a segment called How Would This Be A Movie, where Craig and I discuss a starting point of a story that comes up in the news. I want to introduce our second guest for that news angle.
David E. Hoffman is a contributing editor to the Washington Post. He’s worked as a diplomatic correspondent and the newspaper’s bureau chief in Jerusalem and Moscow, and also assistant managing editor for foreign news. He’s the author of several books, including The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy, which won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. David, welcome to the show.
David E. Hoffman: Thanks for having me.
John: Now, you’ve covered these stories and probably assigned them. You’ve reported them yourself but also assigned them out to other writers. I’m curious what you think. Are these stories that are being under-reported or should be higher in the attention in the news media for us to be looking at in nuclear issues or nuclear safety?
David: We have a war going on, so I’d like to address nuclear weapons. I don’t know if people noticed, but just the other week, a missile fired by Russia, a cruise missile, landed within 15 kilometers of the border with Poland, a NATO nation. Had it hit inside Poland, the United States and all of NATO allies would’ve been committed to defend Poland. Meanwhile, a week or two after that, helicopters from Ukraine crossed the border into Russia and destroyed an oil depot in a place called Belgorod. When I see missiles and helicopters crossing this kind of border between East and West in the middle of a war, I am reminded that all the nuclear missiles, the intercontinental ballistic missiles of Russia and the United States are on launch-ready alert today.
People think that the Cold War’s over and we got rid of all of the hair trigger alert stuff, but those missiles, in the case of the United States, land-based missiles and submarine-based missiles, are ready to launch within minutes of the President of the United States giving an authorized order. In the case of land-based missiles, maybe 10 minutes. In the case of submarines, maybe 12 minutes.
We have this system, and I think the Russians still have it too, because during the Cold War we had a standoff. We had a cocked pistols standoff. It was called mutual assured destruction. It’s still there. It’s a recipe for mistake, for disaster, for catastrophe. We’ve never been able to remedy it. People have tried. Presidents have tried. They keep promising, we’ll set up a joint early warning, we’ll have a hotline. All of those efforts basically failed. At a time when both sides are really facing off in Ukraine, the idea that we still have the hair trigger alert, you don’t read about it in the headlines, but that’s what really worries me.
John: Let’s set the table for what we want to talk about on this episode. It sounds like when you talk about the escalating tensions between two nuclear powers, which seems like an old idea, it seems like the Russians were always our enemies in old movies or old TV shows and they disappeared off of that, but the conflict is hot now.
You talked about nuclear weapons, the possibilities of nuclear war, but I also want to talk about nuclear energy and safety, which those two things overlap, to a degree, because even just this past week we’re seeing stories as Russia pulled out of the Chernobyl region, the Russian soldiers, they were doing really dangerous things in that space. When you have military people interacting with nuclear areas, that’s a concern as well. We’ll try to have a conversation about the realities and the Hollywood portrayals of these things and what we need to do in terms of thinking about these portrayals in the next months and the next years going forward about nuclear issues. ‘’
Maybe let’s start with nuclear weapons and nuclear war, which is just an incredibly disappointing and frustrating thing to start with. Joan, can you give us a sense of how many nuclear weapons are in the world right now? Do we have a count? Do we have a sense of how many there are out there?
Joan: There are estimated to be some 13-15,000 nuclear weapons in the world, which is an excessive number of weapons when you think about the power of each individual weapon. A modern nuclear weapon is roughly 20 times the firepower of the nuclear weapons used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
That having been said, there is a positive message in here, which is that the number of weapons in the world today is just a fraction of how many we had several decades ago. The estimate is that at the high point there about 70,000 nuclear weapons in the world, the majority of those held by the United States and Russia. That’s still true today. The US and Russia together have about 90% of the remaining nuclear weapons in the world. Progress has been made to bring those numbers down, but the dangers are still there, greater than ever, a lot of complexity in the system, increasing the risk of use, and more players, and some of them have growing arsenals, so a dangerous moment.
John: I want to talk about the players, but first let’s focus on that story of dropping from 70,000 nuclear weapons down to 13-15,000. What happened? I wasn’t aware that it had dropped so much. What changed? What were the policies? What were the programs that actually got us down that low?
Joan: The short answer is arms control. During the Cold War and at the height of the Cold War, the US and Russia, at the time Soviet Union, both understood that we had a mutual interest, an existential common interest in trying to limit the dangers of nuclear weapons and prevent a nuclear exchange. Even though we were adversaries and had competing systems, we worked hard and diligently to reduce numbers to put limits around our arsenals and to do that in a way that was verifiable and relatively transparent. The verification provisions that we negotiated allowed a high degree of intrusiveness and inspections and regular reporting on our arsenals. It was quite extraordinary.
Unfortunately, many of the agreements we put in place, both around nuclear weapons and limitations around our conventional stockpiles, those agreements have come apart, fallen apart. Both the US and Russia have walked away from quite a few of those agreements. It leaves us in a much more dangerous place today.
John: David, can you give us some sense from the Russian perspective in terms of the number of weapons that are out there in the world and the reduction, but they still have a force there. What’s your reporting, what’s your experience like with the Russian side of this?
David: The real reason that we are at a lower level today, as Joan said, with these negotiations… You have to understand that behind this is a story of people and a story of political will. The reason we are where we are today are two men, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. For separate reasons, they both came to the conclusion that the world was headed to an abyss, and they wanted to do something about it. When they finally had a chance to do something about it in the late 1980s, it had a big impact. When we talk often about the warheads and the numbers and the treaties and the verification, people just shouldn’t forget, these are always stories of human will and willpower.
I covered Reagan for a long time. It wasn’t until 1986 on a cold evening in Reykjavik that I realized, six years into his presidency, seven years after I started covering him, that he was a nuclear abolitionist. I think Gorbachev too kept his desires secret, because he was rising and became the General Secretary of the Communist Party. He couldn’t have announced right away what his intentions were. He did some extraordinarily courageous things that were not about building. You won’t get any statues in Russia or the former Soviet Union for what he did, because a lot of what he did was to prevent things from happening. Gorbachev prevented an arms race in space, personally. When the Soviet guys, the rocket men, brought him plans to match Reagan’s Star Wars and to have a nuclear arms race in space, Gorbachev put those plans in his bottom drawer and never said another word, and it didn’t happen.
Fast-forward to today, we’re 30 years beyond the end of the Soviet Union. We had a period in Russia, about 10 years, from 1991 to 2001, of a democratic market free period. It was the longest period of freedom in 1,000 years of Russian history. It was pretty chaotic and raucous. I lived there. During that time, Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton also decided that they didn’t need as many nuclear weapons. Things continued on a pretty good trajectory toward cooperation and reducing the risks. When Putin came in in 2000, handpicked by Yeltsin, he also was very, very cautious and didn’t really reveal his hand. As the time went by, in 2007 he gave a very hawkish speech, in 2011 he was faced with huge protests in Moscow, 2012. Putin gradually decided to reassert Russia’s aggressive posture toward the rest of the world. In my book in 2009 I wrote that Russia could sometimes be prickly but was not necessarily the enemy of the United States. Things have changed.
What we see now with this war in Ukraine, this war of aggression, a war without a cause, Russia has become a very, very determined adversary, and Putin is using nuclear weapons as a signal. He’s threatening them. He’s making all kinds of statements that are very worrisome. I’m not sure how he thinks about the consequences of actually using a nuclear weapon in combat, which hasn’t been used since Hiroshima. I’m very worried that this kind of bravado and theatrical signaling is going to create confusion and uncertainty. He’s been doing it. He started doing it very early in this conflict.
John: I want to highlight a thing you said there, because you talked about how the story of our nuclear arsenals being depleted and the decisions to back away from these things and Gorbachev or Reagan deciding they did not want to have an arms race in space, those are compelling ideas or compelling stories. It’s very hard to tell stories about things that didn’t happen. It’s hard to write about the space race that never was. We can do alternate scenarios for things like if there had been this race in space, but it’s hard for us to create popular entertainment that talks about things that did not happen. One thing we do talk about a lot though is the idea of things that could have happened or could be out there. We talk about nuclear disarmament and all these warheads being taken down.
Joan, can you tell us what actually happens when a nuclear weapon is taken offline? Is there any danger that those weapons are going to get loose, that that material is going to be out there, that warhead is going to be falling in the hands of somebody who should not have it?
Joan: When a weapon is dismantled, and I’ll talk about the US system, it’s broken down into its constituent components. You have metals and electronics. I would say the most important part of a nuclear weapon is the nuclear fuel, the fissile material that can produce a chain reaction and a great release of energy when the bomb is detonated. That’s a combination typically of plutonium and highly enriched uranium. Those materials are really important to safeguard. When they’re withdrawn from a weapon, they need to be stored in a very high-security facility. Obviously, the material coming out of weapons needs to be secured properly.
Even aside from weapons, there are pretty significant global stockpiles of these materials. Around the world, a big part of our global effort has been ensuring that those materials are secured to the highest possible standards so that they cannot be stolen by terrorist organizations to be put together again in a weapon form and detonated in a city around the world.
John: As recently as a year ago, when the word nuclear was brought up in terms of weapons, the concern was proliferation. The concern was that other nations around the world would have their own nuclear weapons. They were concerned about Iran. They were concerned about North Korea. Where are we at now with proliferation? Do we know how many nations have nuclear weapons? You say that 90% are probably still controlled by the US and Russia, but where are the rest of those weapons?
Joan: There are nine nuclear weapons states today. We continue to worry that other states may join the ranks in terms of the nine. In addition to the United States in Russia, you have the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and although Israel does not publicly acknowledge that it has nuclear weapons, it is believed to have nuclear weapons. Those comprise the current nuclear weapon states, as all of us who read the news understand. We’re very worried about Iran developing nuclear weapons. They already know how to make the fissile material. We’ve heard states say, for example, Saudi Arabia, that if Iran becomes nuclear, they will also acquire nuclear weapons. We could imagine a cascade within the Middle East.
We have to worry about other countries in the future as well. There are other states that have the capacity to build nuclear weapons, they have the scientific know-how to build nuclear weapons. Some of them already have the capabilities to make the materials. What we do have are treaties that provide a pretty good set of brakes to further proliferation, but the political will to maintain those treaties needs to be maintained. That’s really essential. There are stories of hope though. Let me just offer that–
Joan: While there’s all this material in the world, highly enriched uranium and plutonium, we’re doing a better job of trying to quantify where it is, the quantities that exist around the world. In the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, there was an agreement struck for many of the weapons that were being dismantled in Russia in particular to take some of the highly enriched uranium out of those weapons and convert it into a non-weapons usable form, a lower form of enrichment, which was sold to the United States to be used and burned in our power plants, so producing energy, a wonderful Swords to Plowshares story that was called the Megatons to Megawatts Program. We know how to do a lot of things that dramatically reduce the risk.
I also wanted to just pick up on David’s comment earlier about how important people are to the process of disarmament. He mentioned Reagan and Gorbachev and Putin giving very different examples of behavior. I would say the public at large plays an important role here. Public pressure played a role in President Reagan’s understanding. There was political pressure created around nuclear weapons. There was a palpable understanding of the nuclear threat at that time. We’re coming up on a 40-year anniversary in a couple of months of one of the largest anti-nuclear protests ever, certainly in the United States. About a million people gathered in Central Park to protest nuclear weapons. It’s hard to imagine today that kind of gathering, because nuclear weapons have so fallen off of the public’s radar screen.
I would say one of the very large storylines about nuclear weapons is frankly how undemocratic they are. When you look at the small number of states in the world that have weapons, vast majority of states have signed a treaty to never develop nuclear weapons in exchange for extracting a promise from the nuclear weapon states that they would eventually give up their nuclear weapons. That’s a 50-year-old treaty that’s under a lot of pressure right now.
The other way in which it’s undemocratic is we see the authority to use these weapons vested in a very small numbers of hands around the world. I’m really struck by, with the current crisis in Ukraine, the power of a single individual, in this case Putin, to use his nuclear weapons as a shield for absolutely egregious, illegal, aggressive, destructive behavior. If that’s not undemocratic, I don’t know what is.
John: David, I want to keep talking about the people involved in these stories, because I think as we’re looking forward to how we tell stories in this space, we adapt characters we can focus on. We say Gorbachev and Reagan, but who are the characters we might be looking at now who are going to be involved in this situation? Can you give us a sense of what a journalist working in this space would be doing and how they would be able to report on this when so much stuff would have to be top secret? Do you have a sense of what the roles of people working inside the government, the US government, or through other agencies would be doing to try to stop proliferation to intervene and keep a nuclear war from breaking out? Who are some of the people that you think are interesting for us to be following in this situation, the kinds of people?
David: John, before I answer that, I just want to go back to something about Gorbachev. I don’t think that it’s easy to just say nothing happened. I think that Gorbachev’s story is immensely important and is a hell of a drama. How does a guy rise in a dictatorship? How does he become the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, keeping his ambitions to himself about wanting to end the Cold War and the arms race? It was an amazing struggle. He really saw the horrible weaknesses of the system and thought, I have to change it. He said, “We can’t go on living like this.” I haven’t seen that yet brought, that bravery and courage inside, not an open society, but a closed one. I haven’t seen anybody do that yet. I think it’s pretty amazing.
I would point out to you that there is a way to make stories out of things that don’t happen. Take just a look at Project Sapphire, which was this incredible effort by the United States to airlift a large amount of highly enriched uranium out of Kazakhstan. Uranium could’ve laid around there. The Iranians were sniffing around. They were hoping maybe to get that fissile material to build a bomb. Very, very bright and small group of Americans figured it out, flew some C-5As into there, loaded that stuff onto the planes, and they flew the longest flight in the history of a C-5A carrying highly enriched uranium back to the United States, so that it couldn’t be grabbed by Iran. I think that that storyline, Project Sapphire, that amazing secret operation, yeah, something didn’t happen. The Iranians didn’t get it, but it still was pretty amazing.
In all the cases of arms racing, it’s to me just as incredible to see an arms race in reverse or going downhill, people trying to stop this braking locomotive as it is to see the actual threat of things getting worse. I think we’re actually in a situation like that now. We see now the Chinese are very actively building silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles that could hit the United States or anyplace else in the world, hundreds of these silos. What are they thinking? They had 100 or 200 missiles. Now they seem to be aiming for more than 300. They had a system before where they did not use the hair trigger alert of the United States and Russia and now they’re edging more toward putting missiles on alert. What are we thinking?
If we now have three of our powers all racing to build a hypersonic glide vehicle that can evade the fences and be maneuverable at very low altitudes at high speeds, carrying a nuclear warhead, I don’t think we should take for granted the idea that all arms racing going forward is great. We ought to think about how to we break these things, how do we reverse the course. As drama too, I think actually being up against the machine is a pretty good narrative arc.
John: Let’s talk about then who the characters are, who would be up against this machine, and who would be breaking the progress of us going towards more nuclear conflict. Talk to me about a journalist who was investigating this. How challenging is it to report in this space?
David: It’s actually amazingly become easier. Certainly when I was the White House correspondent in the 1980s covering Reagan, almost everything was secret. We had to do a lot of what we called access journalism, meaning building up sources and getting people to leak stuff to us.
Now flash forward to today. This thing, for example, that I just mentioned about the Chinese building these silos, how did that become public? Two different, very smart experts in two separate organizations, not working for the government, use commercially available satellite imagery to discover these missile fields being built in China. They wrote reports and made it public. Open-source intelligence has become a very powerful tool in spawning dangers and warning us of trends. That kind of tool didn’t exist in the Cold War, but even people using their phones to spot military equipment rolling through Ukraine, the use of satellites is really advanced to the point where essentially people not in government can deploy intrusive measures of satellite photography to see what’s going on on the ground and alert us to what’s really happening.
Joan: John, can I build on that? David is absolutely right in highlighting people on the outside of the system. You were asking earlier about who are the people inside of the government who are going to save us from unclear wear, and a caveat here, I have the highest respect for colleagues in the government. I spend a good part of my career in the government. These are good people doing very hard jobs.
That being said, one of the reasons we have this spring-loaded, incredibly dangerous system in place, the one David was describing, with large numbers of forces on high alert, that there are many ways in which the system can fail and we could end up in a nuclear war, and worse yet, blundering into a nuclear war accidentally that nobody intended. There’s a really important question that we should all be asking ourselves, which is, why is it, after 75-plus years since the advent of nuclear weapons and some 60-plus years since we developed this operating system called nuclear deterrence. Three years since the end of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, why do we still have this really dangerous system in place? What is holding it in place? I think we need to look at the bureaucratic inertia and the vested interests, both financial and political, and power interests vested in the existing system.
I think there’s a really interesting story that can be told about people on the outside who are trying to disrupt those vested interests in order to enable the system to adapt to meet today’s threats and keep us safe from nuclear use, from a nuclear catastrophe. There are definitely stories about the people doing work to expose nuclear proliferation in other parts the world. There are people who are trying to build public pressure to bring about a different result. There are also brave voices who are working inside of the system, who are trying to push the change agenda. I think there are historical examples of that too, where people stood up and defied authority to prevent a launch from happening. The
he Soviet Union at the time, there are two Russian officers who are described as saviors of mankind during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a really interesting story about a guy named Vasili Arkhipov, who was on a Soviet submarine around Cuba and basically stood in the way of a launch order by the captain of the ship. By the way, that was turned into a movie that flipped roles called Crimson Tide.
John: I was going to ask if that was Crimson Tide.
Joan: Yeah, that was Crimson Tide, only Crimson Tide was obviously abut an American crew, same story. Another Russian officer, Stanislav Petrov, who prevented launch essentially when Russians had some faulty early warnings suggesting there were incoming US missiles. He was able to recognize that that was a mistake, an error of the system, and basically prevented that information from getting relayed up the chain where someone would take action on it. There are fascinating internal stories, but I think we should also be looking at stories in and around the system, at people willing to challenge it.
John: You brought up Crimson Tide. I want to do a quick segment on our portrayals of nuclear war in our movies and what’s realistic and what has changed in 2022 versus these movies from the ’80s and ’90s. I definitely grew up on the Day After Tomorrow, Terminator 2. We had this vision of oblivion basically in the event of a nuclear war. Joan, what would the reality of a nuclear war between the US and Russia look like now? Is it world-ending? What happens?
Joan: I’m sorry to report, it hasn’t changed since the time you and I were growing up. It would be absolutely catastrophic. If there was an exchange of weapons at any kind of scale, given the size of our arsenals, where we each have more than 1,000 incredibly powerful nuclear weapons deployed, it would be catastrophic not just for our countries, but for the globe, because we know that there are secondary effects.
For example, the potential for something called nuclear winter. All of the soot that would be lofted up into the atmosphere would create a darkening of the skies for a projected period of time. Some people have estimated up to a decade. It would affect agriculture and the ability to grow crops. It would cool the climate. We would expect to see mass starvation as a result of that prolonged global cooling.
One thing we don’t fully understand, because nobody has yet done the research to really study the impacts on critical infrastructures, power infrastructures, banking, health infrastructures, how would all those things… For example, if we lost power, and you might imagine that if there’s a major attack that we would lose power and then all of the systems that require power for their operation would cascade to failure. How can we imagine that we have any kind of governmental integrity in the face of that, where people are starving, where there’s no power, there’s no heat, there’s no water?
Not to sound too dire, but I actually think nuclear war is as bad as it’s ever been depicted in the worst of films from decades ago. What we’re missing, I would say though, in the filmmaking, that I think is really important, is a film that can give people some understanding that it doesn’t have to be this way. Many people are just despairing because they understand and are very frightened by nuclear threats, but they don’t see a way out. It would be great if we could begin to portray a world where we’ve somehow crossed the Rubicon to a safer set of practices for controlling nuclear technology that does not threaten the future of humanity.
John: David, in the reporting on Ukraine, I’ve seen the term tactical nuke brought up a lot. Can you talk to us about the idea of a tactical nuke and the difference from what we think about with nuclear weapons, intercontinental weapons?
David: An intercontinental ballistic missile flies across the oceans in 30 minutes. It’s a big rock. It goes into outer space, so there’s no air resistance. It can move 20 times the speed of sound and hit the target on the other side of the world in literally half an hour. Those were the weapons that terrified us in the Cold War. Also, the Cold War was partly a standoff in Europe. In Europe, both sides created smaller essentially battlefield nuclear weapons. We’re not talking about flying through space but flying through the atmosphere. There were even nuclear weapons that could be launched in an artillery piece, although it was called the Davy Crockett. It was a large recoiling rifle that would just shoot the nuclear bomb maybe a mile or two. It had a nickname. It was called an IQ test in a tube, because the chances that the soldiers that fired that thing would experience the blow-back of blast and radiation were pretty great.
It was never used, but the idea being that if the Soviet Bloc invaded NATO with a huge conventional advantage, which they had, the West would have to resort maybe to nuclear weapons to hold it off. It was a doctrine called flexible response. This kind of potential conflict caused both sides to create small nuclear weapons, bombs, artillery pieces, and so, for the European theater. When the Cold War ended, the United States withdrew a bunch of those tactical nuclear weapons. We left 100 in 5 bases in Europe. The Soviet Union and then Russia took its weapons, which were far greater in number, there are about 2,000 of them, and moved them to warehouses inside Russia where they are today. The concern about these weapons is that in some ways because they don’t involve that globe-spanning, terrifying ICBM, that it might be easier to use them on a battlefield or that they might tempt an angry leader who has been backed into a corner, with no recourse to use them.
Also, there’s been progress, if you could call it that, there’s been change in the way these nuclear weapons are engineered. The Russians and the United States have now created smaller nuclear weapons that are smaller in terms of yield. In other words the actual explosion is smaller, so that there are small weapons that would take out half an airfield with a nuclear bomb. The concern about this is that, is there really a way to do anything in a nuclear weapons explosion that’s small? How long could you expect the battle to go on if one side used even the smallest nuclear weapon? I think the ladder of escalation is just absolutely horribly rapid, and that there’s no time to think about the size. For that matter, if you’re on the receiving end of one of those two, for example, one side or the other started to roll tactical nuclear weapons into an active battlefield, do you think the other side would think, oh, no problem, they’re just little small tactical weapons? Of course not.
Unfortunately, the United States has also given in a little bit to this. The Trump administration built a lower-yield nuclear warhead, trying to match something that Russia had done. It’s arms arcing. I think it’s dangerous. Even more dangerous, there’s talk now about putting this lower-yield warhead on a cruise missile which flies under radar, which can be used for surprise attack, a naval cruise missile could be put on a boat somewhere, and just like those cruise missiles that hit Lviv in Ukraine a couple weeks ago, just 15 kilometers from the Polish border, you could put a nuclear warhead on one of those. I think we’re entering territory that is dangerous and worrisome. When it comes to nuclear warheads, they’re small, they’re big, they’re all very, very dangerous.
John: Now Joan, up until this Ukraine confrontation, we had wars between major powers. Instead, last 15, 20 years have all been about the concern of terrorists. One of the things that kept coming up was the idea of a dirty bomb. You don’t need actually a bomb that explodes in a nuclear way, but a bomb that has nuclear material in it that could be incredibly dangerous and poisonous to people around it. Where are we at now with dirty bombs? I don’t see that being reported in the news anymore. Have we just forgotten about it? Was it not really a huge worry? Tell us about dirty bombs.
Joan: It was and is a worry. Let me explain that when we talk about nuclear terrorism, there are two kinds of nuclear terrorism, at least two kinds, and I think we just discovered a third kind with the threats to the nuclear reactor facilities. There is a so-called dirty bomb. You’re right. You described it accurately. It’s basically conventional explosive wrapped around radioactive material. It does not produce a nuclear yield. There’s no mushroom cloud. There’s just a distribution of radioactive material. Depending on what kind of radioactive material one uses, it can have a pretty enormous economic impact if you were to detonate one in the heart of a city somewhere. It’s unlikely to kill any more people than the conventional explosive itself could, but it could render multi-square-block area uninhabitable due to the radiation for an extremely long period of time. It’d be very expensive to clean up and remediate.
We also still worry about nuclear terrorism using a real nuclear bomb, one that does produce nuclear yield, even if it’s a smaller yield, as opposed to highly sophisticated bomb from a major power. It could still devastate instead of a several-square-block area, an entire city. We have a model of what that looks like in looking at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, because I think it’s possible for a well-resourced terrorist group, and we know terrorist groups have said they’re trying to acquire nuclear capability, if they get the nuclear materials, the plutonium or highly enriched uranium, if they steal them, acquire them illicitly somehow, you have to worry about them putting together a crude nuclear device.
Nuclear terrorism is still very real. It’s something we’re going to have to worry about indefinitely. This is not a threat that we say, okay, we’re done, it’s gone away. It requires us to put in place and maintain indefinitely a really strong system of nuclear security around the facilities that have the capacity to make that material or that store that material. That’s true of any kind of radiation device that a dirty bomb could be crafted of as well.
John: Joan, you brought up the concern about terrorism around nuclear facilities. Obviously, this last week we saw that as Russians pulled out of the Chernobyl region, Russians were not being careful in that place. They were digging trenches and doing things they should not have been doing. It raised a concern about how vulnerable are nuclear power plants and to what degree do we need to be worrying about them in times of wars and also not in times of war, because so often we see nuclear power in our film and TV. We’re seeing Chernobyl. We’re seeing Silkwood. We’re seeing stories of things going horribly wrong.
Maybe we can segue into talking about what is the state of nuclear energy right now around the world, because I know I used to live in France, and France largely uses nuclear power and seems to do so quite successfully, yet in the rest of the world we’re trying to get rid of nuclear power plants. What is the state right now of nuclear energy around the world?
Joan: Nuclear energy around the world on balance is growing. It’s considered to be a key component in combatting climate change because it’s carbon-free energy. You rightly mentioned some states have decided to get out of that business. Japan obviously retrenched pretty significantly in terms of its draw on nuclear power. China is significantly growing its nuclear power. France many decades ago took a decision that it doesn’t have a lot of indigenous assets for energy production, and so they decided to embark pretty significantly. About 70% of their electricity comes from nuclear power. We do have these examples with Chernobyl, a pretty catastrophic disaster. That was really a safety incident. The world learned a lot about how to build reactors that are much, much safer. The kind of accident that happened at Chernobyl could not happen today. A lot of structures have been put in place.
What we’re seeing in real time, however, is a new set of challenges. We’re in uncharted territory here. It’s the first time we’ve ever experienced nuclear power plants in a conflict zone. That’s presenting some real challenges. We don’t yet globally have norms in place, certainly not norms that the combatant Russia is willing to live by in terms of not physically assaulting the facilities, making sure that the operators can operate the facility unimpeded, that continuous power supply which is critical for maintaining the cooling system for the reactor itself, as well as for the spent fuel ponds where used nuclear fuel is stored and needs to be kept cool so that it won’t burn and create a radioactive fire.
I just want to give credit to, and this would be an interesting story, the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is the UN watchdog responsible for overseeing the peaceful applications of nuclear power. He went to Ukraine the week before last, in order to try and negotiate some norms around those facilities, a set of basic common sense, what Russian troops should and should not be doing around nuclear power plants.
I would argue that all of Europe, including Russia, has an interest in preventing a catastrophic accident at a nuclear power plant. As I imagine, there has got to be a breakdown in the command system, because it’s completely irrational, the behaviors we’ve been seeing around the power plants. I think the jury is still out on the extent to which Russian troops themselves may have been irradiated at significant levels while they were occupying the exclusion zone around Chernobyl. We heard reports of soldiers with radiation sickness, acute radiation sickness, potentially even one death. Let’s see what we learn in coming days and weeks about that.
John: David, as we wrap up here, the Ukraine crisis and Russia’s invasion also has a nuclear energy component to it as well, because of course Germany is relying on energy from Russia, and at the same time Germany is closing down its own nuclear reactors, its own nuclear power plants. How do you see the story of nuclear energy being affected by the crisis of energy policy we’re going to be having over the next couple of years?
David: I’m not an expert on this, John, but I think you can just do the simple math that if Europe has to wean itself off of Russian oil and gas, it’s going to need substitutions. The transition to sustainable energy takes time. People are looking very hard at how quickly to get to sustainable energy, but it’s not going to happen, so nuclear’s going to have to fill part of that gap.
John: Joan, because you’re an expert here, I can ask you, is nuclear fusion always 10 years away? I would love nuclear fusion. Can you get it to us a little sooner?
Joan: I’m not an expert on nuclear fusion. I’m an expert on nuclear weapons, less so power. With that having been said, so with that caveat, I do know a number of people who are engaged with the fusion community and they believe we’re getting much closer and that there’s a shot at it in the relatively near future. No, it is not always going to be 10 years away. That is the good news.
John: That’s great. I want to thank both of you for both the information, but also helping us highlight some stories along the way. Some things I wrote down here, Project Sapphire feels like it’s an obvious choice for an adaptation. A Gorbachev biopic or a Gorbachev miniseries that’s focusing on that moment or how he rises as a hero within the system to challenge the bureaucracy and challenge the expectations of what Russia should be doing next. Vasili Alapov, what’s the name of the–
John: Archipov. That’s the one that’s not the Crimson Tide situation, but a different–
Joan: He is the Crimson Tide.
John: He’s Crimson Tide.
Joan: The other gentleman is Stanislav Petrov.
David: You can read about Petrov in The Dead Hand. It’s the opening of the book.
John: Fantastic. We’ll put a link in the show notes to your book so we can see that. The other thing you were really emphasizing, both of you, is that the stories that we tell about this, we think about them as centering on the people in power and the decisions they’re making, but so often it’s the people who are doing the investigation, doing the reporting, doing the activism to stop bad things from happening or to move us to a better place may be the more interesting stories for us to be following. As we look to try to tell stories in nuclear space over the next couple years, we don’t have to just focus on the people who are sitting in positions of power. It’s often the people who are not in power who are the most interesting to follow.
David: Go find Jeffrey Lewis and Hans Kristensen, two guys in non-governmental organizations who exposed these Chinese missile fields. That’d be a great example.
Joan: Agree with that. Go take a look at Beatrice Fihn, who won the Nobel Prize for helping to bring about the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons through her work with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.
John: I love it. This is the time in the show where we do a One Cool Thing where we make some recommendation for our listeners about something they need to check out. Do either of you have a recommendation for something you would like them to be looking at?
Joan: Thanks for the questions. Atomic Veterans. There’s a filmmaker who’s done some interesting, very short videos with Atomic Veterans. Last name is Knibbe. He’s a Dutch filmmaker. A lot of people don’t realize this, but we tested nuclear weapons on thousands and thousands of human subjects who were soldiers right after the second World War ended. This gentleman, Morgan Knibbe has been really actively trying to interview the remaining survivors who were subjects of those tests, both in Great Britain and the United States. Some of the documentary work is just riveting. When you listen to these now-old men talk about these experiences, they are so vivid. It gives you a sense of the power of these weapons.
John: Fantastic. David, do you have a recommendation for our listeners?
David: John, I mentioned the story potential of one man up against the system. I’ve got a new book out in eight weeks. The title is Give Me Liberty. It’s about one man up against a dictatorship. He paid with his life for it. My suggestion is totally self-serving. Take a look at my new book, Give Me Liberty. It’s about a dissident in Cuba who fought Fidel Castro, fought him with no weapons, just pen and paper and an old wheezing Xerox machine. He got 35,000 Cubans to stand behind him and sign a petition for democracy against Castro’s dictatorship.
John: That sounds great. My One Cool Thing is, just to stick on the nuclear theme, is a couple years ago I got the chance to visit Hiroshima, which I’d always seen portrayed as being this bombed-out wreckage of a place. Then you go to visit Hiroshima, it’s actually beautiful. I was there over spring break. Cherry blossoms everywhere. It is remarkable combination of a vibrant city that has at its center this park that really shows what happened in the bombing. The museum behind it is fantastic. It both lets you not forget how horrifying the results are of a nuclear attack, but also it gives hope for the ability to rebuild after it. If you’re in Japan anyway and you’re wondering, “Should we go to Hiroshima? Is it going to be depressing?” It’s not going to be depressing. It’s going to be inspiring. I encourage anyone who has the opportunity to go visit Hiroshima.
David and Joan, thank you so much for joining us on the show today. I want to thank Hollywood Health and Society for putting this today. This is our third collaboration. You can go back and listen to Episode 412 on addiction and mental health and Episode 440 on incarceration.
Scriptnotes is produced, as always, by Megana Rao. It’s edited by Matthew Chilelli, who also did our outro this week. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions. For short questions on Twitter, Craig is @clmazin, I’m @johnaugust. Joan and David, are you on Twitter? Are you reachable by social medias or not?
David: I’m @thedeadhandbook.
John: That’s great. You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s where you’ll find links to thinks we talked about. You’ll find transcripts and sign up for our weeklyish newsletter called Inneresting, which has lots of links to things about writing. You can sign up to become a Premium Member at scriptnotes.net, where you get all the back-episodes and Bonus Segments, like the one Megana and I are about to record about behind the scenes of the last two weeks, am I getting COVID or getting over COVID. I’m fine. Everything turned out fine. Joan and David, thank you so much for joining us. It’s absolutely a pleasure to get to talk with some experts on these subjects. Thank you so much for being with us.
Joan: Thank you.
John: Megana, I’m back talking with you. I’m no longer prerecorded. This is back happening live. We just finished recording the nuclear episode, which was not fun, but enlightening, and hopefully helpful.
Megana Rao: Yeah, terrifying.
John: I liked that they had specific examples of like, these are stories that have not been told that someone could tell. That’s great. We always like How Would This Be A Movies, How Would This Be A Series, and it looks like there’s some really good options there.
Megana: Yeah, super useful to hear from the expert side of things versus just the writer interpreting that information.
John: While I was gone, I got to listen to you and Craig talk about 20 questions in the longest episode of Scriptnotes I think that’s ever been recorded. It was so long. I’m not actually finished with it. I haven’t gotten to the Bonus Segment where you and Craig discuss and solve all generational issues. I’m looking forward to that. I have it saved for me.
Megana: Oh gosh, I think the Bonus Segment itself is 30 minutes and the raw audio of what we recorded is 2 and a half hours.
John: Oh my gosh.
Megana: I know. I got in a lot of trouble with Bo for that.
John: Bo of course is the person who controls Craig’s calendar and schedule, and so therefore you took two and a half hours out of his HBO show to talk about Scriptnotes stuff.
Megana: Oh god, now HBO’s going to hate me too.
John: You’re on the do not hire list for HBO. Absolutely do not hire her.
Megana: When I approached Bo, I was like, “Oh, I need less than an hour. This is going to be so quick.”
John: Oh, no.
Megana: Then in passing, because her birthday was the next week, I was talking to her on her birthday, and I was like, “Yeah, I have to cut 45 minutes out of this 2-and-a-half-hour episode.” She was like, “What are you talking about? You told me that that was going to be 45 minutes max.” I was like, “Oh, god.”
John: One of the things I’m always struck by when I hear Craig talking if I’m not part of the conversation is that Craig really does talk in complete sentences. I’m looking forward to the transcripts for it, because I feel like you could actually just take his answers to things and it would feel like he just wrote them. He actually speaks very much the way other people write.
Megana: I think that that’s true. He has really fully formed thoughts right out of the gate, and it’s so impressive.
John: Yeah, because he didn’t prepare at all.
Megana: Absolutely not.
John: He had no sense of what those questions were before you asked those questions.
Megana: I didn’t even think he knew that you weren’t going to be there. He just entered the Zoom in his —
John: He thinks he’s on this episode. He has no idea that we recorded an episode about nuclear stuff. One of the things that we talked about in the episode was this guy who was talking about whether to drop out of film school. He was having some success. He was like, “Should I stick around for the next two years of film school or should I not?” It was interesting hearing you and Craig have different opinions on this. Even before you said sunk cost fallacy, I was shouting to no one, “Sunk cost fallacy!” because that’s what it really felt like to me is that you’ve gone through this much of your higher education, why would you stop and leave it unfinished there. I totally understand the notion of finishing a thing. Yet I was on Team Craig where I would say, at least for now I think it’s time to step away and pursue this writing career that looks like it’s kind of started.
Megana: I’m surprised to hear you say that. I wonder if finishing this degree is going to be helpful to Please Help Me Drop Out of Film School make connections and have some sort of credibility. I don’t really know. Once people are passing your script around, nobody’s looking at your transcript or your resume. It’s a relationship-based industry where they’re like, “I vouch for this guy,” and because your friend vouches for this person, you’re going to read that script. In order to make those connections and get people to take you seriously, I wonder if having the completed degree helps.
John: I don’t honestly think it does much, because that person who has a finished film degree, certainly what I learned in the Stark Program at USC was tremendously valuable. The actual degree I got has not been valuable, because no one’s ever asked to see it. I would have those same relationships with my classmates if I’d finished or not finished, to some degree, not entirely. Going through an extra two years with those classmates would’ve been great and I would’ve definitely learned some things, but I don’t think the actual degree is useful in a way that a lottery is necessarily useful in an architecture degree, where you have to actually prove that you know how to do this thing. No employer is ever going to ask for that degree.
I think there’s a pride aspect of it though too is that the pride in finishing a thing can feel great. Making your parents proud, that they can see, “Oh, my son got this degree,” would be great. The compromised solution that you and Craig arrived at is maybe take a gap, take some time off, and be able to go back to it, if that’s possible. That makes sense to me.
Megana: We had some interesting follow-up that an added cost to taking time off and going back is that you do lose the momentum, you lose the routine, you lose living close to a college campus. I thought that that was an interesting thing to also take into mind, into that equation. I had another question I wanted to ask you.
Megana: Someone wrote in and asked, this big win that Please Convince Me To Drop Out of Film School was hanging their hat on was that when the script was sent to Paramount, Paramount had said that they wanted to recommend it to their team. What does that feedback mean to you? I didn’t think that that was necessarily as big of a win as this listener seemed to think it was, but I’m curious to hear your thoughts.
John: It sounds like he got good coverage or got a recommend from somebody at Paramount, which is great. It’s not nothing, but it’s not a lot. It’s not going to be a guaranteed next step. I think the most you can hope out of that is that they’re going to want to take a meeting with you, which is again another good step, but isn’t a guarantee of any success. Still, take those little wins when they come. It is good news. It’s encouraging that people are reading stuff that you’re writing and liking it to the degree they want other people around them to like it. The folks who have been in your job before you, who have all gone to have writing careers, a common thread I’ve noticed is when their stuff gets passed around without them knowing it’s getting passed around, that’s when things are starting to sizzle and that things are getting started there. Please Convince Me doesn’t sound like he’s quite there yet, but maybe he’s going to get there. Be happy for what you have there.
Megana: My other worry is that he’s getting all of this information from this director who has a vested interest in selling a certain narrative to the writer versus an agent who you would expect to act in your best interest or something.
John: That’s absolutely true. The gatekeeper function there of that director is worth noting. I would also say that if this guy does decide to drop out of film school, it shouldn’t mean that he should stop all networking and all other ways of meeting people. This might be a good opportunity then to take that improv class, join that other group, find some other writers, get in a couple different writing groups. Just make sure that you are still actively doing all the other things if film school is not where you’re spending most of your time and your money, so making sure you’re still out there doing the other kinds of things that help you learn about the job you’re trying to do.
Megana: If you, John August, were what, 21, just graduated from Drake, what would your next steps be in the industry?
John: I would’ve moved to Los Angeles, just because that’s where the center of things is. LA’s a city I always want to live in. It’s much easier to move when you’re 21 than it is when you’re 25 or when you’re 29. I would’ve moved here. I probably still would’ve applied to film school, because I just didn’t know anything coming into this business. Again, 21-year-old me now with the internet would be much better connected. I would listen to all of Scriptnotes. I would’ve had a better sense of what Craig and whoever the equivalent of me would be, the alternate reality John.
Megana: Alternate reality, yeah.
John: I would’ve moved here. I would’ve gotten started. I would’ve taken the improv classes. I would’ve taken some writing classes just to be with other writers. I would’ve been doing all those things and getting a job that was interesting but not so overwhelmingly active that I still would have time to write. I think that’s what that theoretical John August would be doing.
The idea of coming out of undergrad is particularly relevant, because I was just on a college tour. As you know, Mike and Amy and I went to do a college tour of the East Coast. We got to see college towns. We started in Montreal, went to Boston. Then the plan was to go on to see Ann Arbor and Chicago and other places. Of course, as you know, I promptly got COVID, whole family got COVID, and so we ended up spending nine days in a hotel room in Boston getting over COVID, which sucked, but was not deadly, was not dangerous, because vaccines, thank god. It all sorted out okay, but definitely got me thinking about Boston as a college town. You went to college there. Man, what a great place to go to school.
Megana: I know. It’s the perfect place to live when you are that age and going to college and you’re just surrounded by all of these other young people or academics. It’s just a really invigorating, thrilling place to be.
John: While we’re in our quarantining, we watched The Social Network, which is a movie I generally love, which is also, of course, set in Boston. It was weird to see that movie now and watch it with my daughter watching it and her eyes on how she perceives Facebook, how she perceives these characters. She said afterwards, “I’ve never been so non-consensually mansplained to by a movie.”
Megana: That’s amazing.
John: Then I wanted to talk to her about the history of Aaron Sorkin. She’s like, “No, you’re mansplaining right now.” There was no stopping it. As a man, you cannot say anything, because it will actually be mansplaining to explain why he has a history of mansplaining in his films and TV shows.
Megana: Oh my god, as someone who was a teenage daughter at some point, I know that it was very difficult for my parents during that period, but it seems particularly difficult to raise a Gen Z teenage daughter. Oh my gosh. I would just be canceled all of the time.
John: We’re always on eggshells. That’s what we’re going to do. Megana, thank you for holding down the fort while I was gone.
Megana: Of course. Glad to have you back.
John: Just for our listeners, should know going forward, Craig’s availability is really tight because of the show he’s shooting right now, so we’re not sure which episodes he’s going to be with us for the next couple weeks, but we’ll still have Scriptnotes and we’ll find a way to make it enjoyable and entertaining and do some different things while we figure this all out. Thanks.
Megana: Thank you.
- Joan Rohlfing and the Nuclear Threat Initiative and on Twitter
- David E. Hoffman and his books, including Pulitzer winner The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy
- Atomic Veterans
- Book Give Me Liberty by David E. Hoffman
- Reykjavík summit of 1986 between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev
- Get a Scriptnotes T-shirt!
- Gift a Scriptnotes Subscription or treat yourself to a premium subscription!
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John August on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Outro by Matthew Chilelli (send us yours!)
- Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao and edited by Matthew Chilelli.
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You can download the episode here.