Sure, it’s no “Barbie,” but Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” is the most highly anticipated film about nuclear weapons in decades.
With its impending release, we at the Nuclear Threat Initiative created a primer to set the scene and arm audiences with the most accurate information possible before you head to the theater to see the action yourself.
Which country has the most nuclear weapons?
“Oppenheimer” is a historical film, but the threat posed by nuclear weapons is very real today. Nine countries now have nuclear weapons, with the United States and Russia possessing about 90% of the world’s nearly 13,000 weapons.
At the same time, China’s nuclear arsenal is rapidly increasing, potentially to 1,500 warheads by 2035 (Beijing currently has more than 400). Diplomatic relations between Washington and Moscow have plummeted. U.S.-China relations are at a historic low. Tensions between India and Pakistan – both nuclear-armed countries – and India and China continue to simmer. And North Korea’s nuclear program is advancing.
Unfortunately, public awareness of all these steadily increasing threats is very low, which is why many nuclear experts fear we could be sleepwalking into a nuclear disaster.
Today’s nuclear weapons are much more powerful than Oppenheimer’s nukes
J. Robert Oppenheimer played a critical role in developing the first nuclear weapons as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project. Two of those weapons were used against the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, obliterating both cities and killing hundreds of thousands of people.
Who was J. Robert Oppenheimer?What to know about atomic bomb physicist’s life, career, death
Oppenheimer was shaken by the destruction brought by the weapons and the potential for them to inflict even greater destruction in the future. After seeing the first-ever nuclear detonation in New Mexico on July 16, 1945, he reflected that he “knew the world would not be the same” and then recited a line from Hindu scripture: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
A few years after the end of World War II, Oppenheimer opposed the U.S. government’s plan to develop even larger nuclear weapons called hydrogen bombs, which were created anyway. Today, these kinds of weapons still exist in modern arsenals that include nuclear weapons 80 times more powerful compared with the bomb detonated over Hiroshima, and they have more accurate and survivable delivery systems (missiles, not just bombers) that can fly faster than the speed of sound.
Russia has plans to deploy even more powerful nuclear weapons soon. Oppenheimer and his colleagues predicted that a strategy of nuclear competition would cause an arms race, and he was right.
US shouldn’t send Ukraine cluster bombs:Biden is wrong to send cluster bombs to Ukraine. 50 years later, they’re still killing in Laos.
No such thing as ‘small scale’: Nuclear war would impact the entire world
You might be tempted to think you would be safe if nuclear weapons were used halfway across the globe from your location. Sure, you would be able to avoid the immediate blast effects, but you would experience the after-effects. There is significant evidence that the entire globe could be impacted by even a small-scale nuclear war.
For example, one study assessed the global effects of a “limited” nuclear war between India and Pakistan, revealing that the fires produced in the conflict would send so much soot into the atmosphere that the sun’s rays would be diminished for years. This would result in reduced global temperatures, which in turn would cause widespread crop failures and worldwide famine, potentially affecting billions of people.
For many decades, scientists have been warning about this phenomenon, often referred to as “nuclear autumn” or “nuclear winter.”
No, Christopher Nolan did not detonate a nuclear weapon for ‘Oppenheimer’
Even the best in Hollywood wouldn’t have the scientific and technical capabilities to develop, let alone detonate, a real nuclear weapon. But even if they somehow did, it would be illegal.
In 1963, President John F. Kennedy signed an agreement to ban aboveground and underwater nuclear tests as part of an effort to prevent additional countries from developing nuclear weapons. That agreement is still in effect.
The United States is also a signatory to a global test ban treaty that, once in full effect, would ban all nuclear explosions anywhere on earth.
So, no, director Nolan did not detonate a real nuclear weapon in the making of “Oppenheimer.” He did not use computer-generated images, either. Instead, he simulated a nuclear explosion using conventional explosives.
There are many reasons to be grateful that a real nuclear weapon couldn’t be used for the film. Victims of nuclear testing in New Mexico and in native communities across the Southwest and U.S. island territories are still seeking compensation for the very real harm caused by the lasting effects of the Manhattan Project and nuclear testing.
When will Ukraine join NATO?Russian military fortifications may hold the answer.
It is possible to eliminate nuclear weapons once and for all
In a recent interview with Wired, Nolan stated that those lucky enough to preview his film have been left “devastated” and that the film is almost part of the “horror” genre.
While progress on nuclear disarmament has stalled, the world has made significant gains in reducing global stockpiles of nuclear weapons. At their peak, the United States and Russia (then the Soviet Union) had more than 60,000 nuclear weapons between them. Today, they have about 11,000.
Obviously, that’s a huge reduction. But we have a long way to go. From Oppenheimer to Barack Obama to Henry Kissinger, politicians and experts from all political persuasions have been convinced that we should fully eliminate nuclear weapons and the threat they pose to humanity.
Today, we have the capability to monitor and control nuclear weapons technologies that didn’t yet exist in Oppenheimer’s time. It’s now possible to create the international control system that Oppenheimer and others advocated for in 1945.
The first step to elimination is raising public awareness about nuclear threats. We hope that’s exactly what “Oppenheimer” will do, and we call on those motivated to speak out after seeing the film to demand that our leaders work toward building a safer, nuclear weapons-free world – now and for future generations.
Joan Rohlfing is the president and COO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit, nonpartisan global security organization focused on reducing nuclear and biological threats. James McKeon is a senior program officer on NTI’s Global Nuclear Policy Program.