The BBC is getting 2024 off to a cheery start. Flagship documentary of the week is Nuclear Armageddon: How Close Are We? (BBC Two). And the conclusion seems to be: very. Maybe build a bunker and start stockpiling tins.
In theory, this should have been terrifying. But somehow it wasn’t, because the programme appeared to have been prompted by two things. One is the box office success of Oppenheimer, last year’s Hollywood film about “the father of the atomic bomb”. The presenter, Panorama journalist Jane Corbin, visited Oppenheimer’s cabin in Los Alamos, and we got a clip from the film. Unfairly or not, this made the documentary seem like a tie-in to a cinema release.
The second thing is the Doomsday Clock, which is “set” every year to show how close humanity is to annihilation. It now stands at 90 seconds to midnight – the closest it has ever been – mostly thanks to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The 2024 clock will be announced next week. Corbin went to the offices of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which sets the time, to find out more. But she failed to dispel the feeling that the clock is a bit of a gimmick, and pulling back the curtain to show us that it’s partially decided by Zoom meeting didn’t help.
Nor did Rachel Bronson, president of the Bulletin, seem terribly scientific when she said: “These are not the weapons that we need for the 21st century. People are scared. It doesn’t feel normal out there.” It was also mentioned, as an aside, that climate change and the threat posed by AI are also now taken into account when setting the clock.
The programme did offer an easy-to-digest, potted history of nuclear weapons. A former Royal Navy Submarine Service chief weapons engineer, Feargal Dalton, explained how the UK’s Trident nuclear deterrent system works (no mention that Dalton is a CND supporter these days, but he did keep his political opinions to himself).
Corbin went to RAF Lakenheath, where a tiny but committed band of campaigners are protesting against the rumoured arrival of American missiles. Her most interesting conversation was in the US with Siegfried Hecker, former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, who warned against underestimating North Korea. Hecker believes that it’s only a matter of time before it has the capability to hit North America. “I’ve watched them,” he said, “and every time somebody says ‘North Korea can’t do this’ – a few years later, they did it.”