Actor Michael Douglas Embraces Role as Advocate Douglas has used his celebrity status for years to call attention to nuclear disarmament and the global weapons trade. The two-time Academy Award winner is talking with lawmakers on behalf of the Ploughshares Fund, an organization that works to halt nuclear proliferation.
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Actor Michael Douglas Embraces Role as Advocate

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Actor Michael Douglas Embraces Role as Advocate

Actor Michael Douglas Embraces Role as Advocate

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NEAL CONAN, host: Today Michael Douglas is here in Washington, D.C. The two-time Oscar winner is talking to lawmakers on behalf of an organization called the Ploughshare Fund that supports programs to control the spread of nuclear weapons and initiatives for nuclear disarmament. He's hardly the only star to visit Washington on behalf of a cause.

If you'd like to speak to him about that cause or about celebrity activism, give us a call, 800-989-8255, email us,, and you can also chip in on our blog at Michael Douglas is here with us in Studio 3A. Welcome to Talk of the Nation.

Mr. MICHAEL DOUGLAS (Movie Producer, Actor): Thank you, Neal. Very nice to be here.

CONAN: And I don't mean to be disrespectful, but why should a senator, or a member of the House of Representatives, listen to what an actor has to say about nuclear weapons?

Mr. DOUGLAS: Well, they probably spent a few hours watching my movies, so I guess it's not much to ask for an audience for a short period of time for concern. But a lot of times, I do find that politicians enjoy the opportunity to talk to somebody in a different area. And I'm not planning on talking at them, but hopefully asking a few questions, and seeing if we can't really make some headway in terms of nuclear disarmament. With elections coming up here in our country, and other elections around the world, this is a crucial time, and a hopeful and exciting time to really see some change.

CONAN: What kind of questions might you ask a senator or a congressman?

Mr. DOUGLAS: Well, I think we could ask them about what the opportunities are of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty becoming installed next year. That would be something I would hope for. I think there's a lot of discussion about dramatically reducing the number of the arsenal of our warheads out there.

You know, between the United States and Russia, we have about 95 percent of the warheads in the world. I think there's sort of a bipartisan feeling that these could be dramatically reduced. So those are a couple of questions off the top. We also have, you know, our RRP - RRW, the reliable replacement weapons, which is an issue or a question that I'd like to find out about.

CONAN: And that's - they're designing a new kind of warhead to replace the aging ones that are still in silos around the country.

Mr. DOUGLAS: That's correct, although there seems to be some question as to the "aging," quote, unquote, the fact that they still might be quite functional. But be that as it may, there's just a general consensus, and for somebody who's been involved in disarmament as long as I have, going back 25, 30 years, to see how little has changed since the end of the Cold War, is very shocking and surprising. So the feeling is this might be a moment in time to get some bipartisan support. It's one of those issues that has a lot of bipartisan interest, and we could get some real activity.

CONAN: When you talked about 20, 25 years ago that you first got involved, what was it that motivated you to pick this particular cause?

Mr. DOUGLAS: Well, I produced a movie called "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," and after we had a wonderful success for that picture, I was looking for another project. And I found this horror movie, what I thought was a horror movie. It was called "The China Syndrome." And it was about a man versus a machine. In this case, it was a nuclear reactor.

And I can't say that I was involved in the issues at that time, but doing the homework for that picture and planning it out, I became more and more involved in understanding about nuclear reactors. And then, of course, when the movie came out, we had this incredible coincidence of the Three Mile Island accident happening ten days after the movie came out. And one of the incredible things was that we had a sequence of events in our movie of what would happen, and the most likely scenario, and it was almost exactly the same as what happened at Three Mile Island.

CONAN: It was uncanny, yeah.

Mr. DOUGLAS: It was uncanny, and it was an epiphany for me. It really left a lasting impression, and that was combined with looking into my father's heritage and background which was from Belarus and Russia, and trying to find the town that he came from, and then realizing that town was disappeared because it was downwind from Chernobyl. So those two experiences played a large part.

CONAN: And where did you go to learn more about the issues of proliferation in nuclear weapons?

Mr. DOUGLAS: Well, I read a lot of books. Without making a plug for the president of Ploughshares, Joseph Cirincione, but there's a wonderful new novel called "Bomb Scare," a book that talks about this issue, and several others. And I've been talking to lots of people. And again, as you said, even as senators meet with you, you find people around the world and other countries, presidents and people at the head of legislature who are happy to meet with you.

CONAN: We want to get listeners involved in the conversation. If you don't recognize the voice, yes it is Michael Douglas. 800-989-8255, email us, And we'll talk with Michael. Michael's with us Molkalumni(ph), is that right?

MICHAEL (Caller): McColony (ph) Hill, 174 sold.

CONAN: OK. OK, in California. Go ahead please.

MICHAEL: Yes. Good to hear your voice again, Mr. Douglas.

Mr. DOUGLAS: Thank you very much.

MICHAEL: What's going on with the miniaturization of the nuclear weapons warhead delivery program that they've got? It's kind of gone stealth. And the other question I have is, is the Donald Henry Rumsfeld Program to put weapons into space in orbit - is that still ongoing? Do you know anything about those? Because they're both very destabilizing and the last one is a violation of our nuclear weapons and space program treaties.

Mr. DOUGLAS: Well, one of the concerns and issues about the Reliable Replacement Warhead, and the argument is that we can reduce the size of the warheads with the new science that we have, but we'll do this without testing them at all. So it's a little scary, and it kinds of gives a sense of the idea that this is going to be ongoing rather than being finite. So that is of tremendous concern. I'm not familiar...

CONAN: This is a discussion, at this point, rather than a program, as I understand.

Mr. DOUGLAS: Yes. This is a discussion, and it has been stopped. It was stopped once by our Congress, and it's up now, this year, again, as far as Reliable Replacement Warheads.

CONAN: And in terms of nuclear weapons in space, if you know anything, I don't.

Mr. DOUGLAS: I don't. No. Not anymore.

CONAN: OK. Michael, thanks very much for the call.

MICHAEL: Thank you. But just one quick clamant. Any step in those directions, they're very destabilizing to world peace, and it really gives an option to any president to use them or lose them as a weapon system, and that's not where we should be going.

CONAN: OK, Michael. Thanks very much. Let's go now to Mike. And Mike's with us from San Francisco, in California.

MIKE (Caller): Hey, Michael. Thanks for being on.

Mr. DOUGLAS: Thank you.

MIKE: I just wondered what potential you see for starting to get rid of some of the nuclear weapon states, you know, such as Israel, but also Pakistan, India, and then some of the bigger ones, and if there's a way to work from the smaller to the larger?

CONAN: I presume you mean get rid of their nuclear weapons, rather than the states themselves.

MIKE: Yeah. Not the states, the nuclear weapons programs that these guys have.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. DOUGLAS: Well, I think sequentially if - first of all we have to get the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty initiated and passed next year. Then in 2010, the Non-Proliferation Treaty comes up for review. And our hope is that we will join, once again. Now, India, Pakistan, and Israel have not been a part of that. And I do think that it's going to be instrumental for us to try to make them a part of that treaty, if we're going to deal with the rogue states such as North Korea or Iran.

It's ironic with Iran that we, the U.S., actually started their whole nuclear program back when the shah was in power. And of course, they flipped this around on us now, and said, well, it was good for the goose, why not the gander? So it's - we were the ones when, back when the Shah was in power, that actually started their whole program.

MIKE: Right.

CONAN: Michael, thanks very much.

MIKE: Thank you.

Mr. DOUGLAS: Thank you.

CONAN: And as you look at these issues, clearly a lot of people look at the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and that's the tool that's mostly been used to get countries like South Africa, who developed the bomb and gave it up, Argentina, and...

Mr. DOUGLAS: Brazil.

CONAN: And Brazil decided not to develop nuclear weapons after going down that road some considerable distance. Nevertheless, that treaty obligates the United States, and of course, Russia, as signatories, to work to reduce their stockpiles. And since the Cold War, you're saying that has not moved fast enough?

Mr. DOUGLAS: No. It really hasn't. And I think we've played sort of a two-tier system as to those who had warheads and those that didn't. And for a long time, people accepted it. But I think now they've realized it just has not been a dramatic enough reduction. And that was the spirit of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

And it has to lead by the United States. President Putin, many years ago, put forward, you know, drastic reductions, which were not responded to. But even when you're talking to, not just doves, but hawks, it would easily - could reduce below 1,000 warheads per country. You know, we're at 10,000 right now, and that would still be compensate, and cover more than enough.

CONAN: Let's see if we can talk with Rasa, Rasa is with us from San Francisco.

RASA (Caller): Good morning. Thanks so much for taking my call. I think you just alluded to a point I wanted to make which is that the nuclear signatories have been the more belligerent by not observing their obligation to reduce. But in particular I'd like to hear your comments regarding first-strike weapon in tactical weaponry, which the United States has been developing, and which in conjunction with the Star Wars program, are some of the biggest threats to world security, in my opinion.

Mr. DOUGLAS: Rasa, maybe you can help me, inform me on terms of the first-strike offense.

RASA: So the first-strike weaponry, which is bunker busters, to allow possibility for first strike, which is...

CONAN: These relatively small...

RASA: Targeting their silos.

Mr. DOUGLAS: Yeah.

RASA: We would effectively undermine the Mutually Assured Destruction principle, and it would allow the U.S. to strike first by targeting the Soviet silos, or Russian silos. ..TEXT: Mr. DOUGLAS: This is part of the Reliable Replacement Weapons. I mean, this falls under that category.

CONAN: And my understanding of these weapons was, as Rasa said, they would be designed as bunker busters. In use against someone like the Russians, wouldn't they see them coming over the horizon, and isn't this the same Mutually Assured Destruction theory that held for so many years?

RASA: No, but the issue is that they would be, it would allow one side to believe that they could win a nuclear war. And whereas Mutually Assured Destruction said that neither of us could destroy the other's weaponry, therefore if they were - if one was to strike first, the other one would have the chance to strike, and we would mutually destroy each other, whereas first-strike weaponry would undermine the enemy's nuclear arsenal, and thus allow one side to have a major advantage.

CONAN: All right.

Mr. DOUGLAS: I think one of the concerns about trying to get the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty passed is it's tied in with many politicians with instituting reliable weapons. And that's where I've been trying to tie it together, which doesn't really make a whole lot of sense.

CONAN: We're talking today with actor and producer Michael Douglas, who's in Washington, D.C., on behalf of the Ploughshares Foundation, to lobby Congress on nuclear proliferation and disarmament. If you'd like to join us, 800-9898255. Email And you're listening to Talk of the Nation, from NPR News. Michael's on the line, Michael calling from Detroit.

MICHAEL (Caller): How're you doing, guys?

CONAN: Good.

Mr. DOUGLAS: Michael's a very popular name today.

CONAN: It is, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MICHAEL: Yes, it's a great name.

Mr. DOUGLAS: Thank you.

MICHAEL: Listen, my question would be kind of a spring chicken when it comes to Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. And I'm kind of curious to, would be you also against nuclear energy, seeing the energy crisis that we're in now, and the outdated nuclear plants that we have in the area? I mean, even with us in Michigan, we have one that's made 30 years ago. Would you be for the updating of those, and for the further research for more nuclear energy?

Mr. DOUGLAS: The answer is yes. I was against nuclear power for a long time, but have dealt with the realities of global warming, and what the alternatives are. I just wish that we finally would develop a way - the real question is creating the fuel because you can - those who have the ability to create fuel can create plutonium or, you know, highly enriched uranium, which is what you make bombs out of, and that's really been an issue.

That's why I think we're arguing with Iran so much. But for instance, there's a new form, something called a pebble bed reactor, which uses, you know, small, almost tennis-ball sizes of uranium, which is a little more safe. And so to answer your question the long the way, yes. I do support nuclear power now. I wish there were other alternatives, but I don't think there are.

CONAN: Still a lot of unanswered questions about what to do with the spent fuel.

Mr. DOUGLAS: There's tremendous unanswered questions.

CONAN: Thank you very much for the call. And let's see if we can one last question in. And that is from Manuel, Manuel from Kansas City.

MANUEL (Caller): Hi. I love your show.

CONAN: Thank you.

MANUEL: And my question is that America's done a lot in disarming our huge supply, which is much smaller. But Russia, as far my last time I checked, hasn't done much in that way, and their security was rather lax. I wondered if you had more updated information about the security situation, and the numbers of their armaments.

Mr. DOUGLAS: Well, you know, one program that has happened - well, first of all, the Ukraine for instance, which is another country we talked about that's turned over all of its nuclear energy, in terms of creating bombs, to get out of that school. But there was a lot a programs, and this is where the nuclear NTI group led by Sam Nunn, you know, worked with our government in acquiring enriched uranium, mixing it with existing fuel so that it now was a fuel process without being enriched any longer, and Russia has helped out with that.

Russia sent us in a lot of their highly enriched fuels over here, which we have mixed with normal, regular fuel uranium, which allows us to use the plants, and that's one way of diluting them. So I think they've, actually, in some of the requests when President Putin was leading Russia, have suggested ideas along those lines.

CONAN: And one of the solutions proposed for Iran is to indeed have their fuel created and reprocessed by Russia, as in to provide them with a secure source of material.

Mr. DOUGLAS: Correct.

CONAN: Of course, that hasn't gone anywhere yet. But we'll see about that. Manuel, thanks very much for the phone call.

MANUEL: Oh, thank you. That was, yeah, that was informational. Thanks.

CONAN: OK. Bye-bye. And Michael Douglas, I'm afraid we're out of time. Thanks very much for coming in and good luck on Capitol Hill.

Mr. DOUGLAS: Thank you very much for the opportunity.

CONAN: Michael Douglas, the two-time Oscar winner, actor and producer. He joined us here in Studio 3A. Tomorrow we're back at the Newseum, and join us for the Political Junkie. We'll chew over the results from Oregon and from Kentucky. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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