TV has been called “an after-dinner mint.” Here is a big fat one that won’t go down easily.

It’s “The Fire Unleashed,” a three-hour program (Thursday at 8 p.m. on ABC) exploring our nuclear world in a compelling blend of words, visual images and music that makes that musty old term documentary seem almost out of date.

ABC had the good judgment to sweep away an entire night of regular prime-time programs in order to accommodate this “ABC News Closeup” on a subject that towers over all others. This is important, awesome TV that is already being pelted by the nuclear industry for its “serious errors” and “unfair and biased portrayal” of nuclear energy.

Judge for yourself.


New Mexico, 1945, birthplace of the atomic bomb. A mushroom cloud fills the small screen as the voice of the late J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the bomb, recalls the setting off of the first blast at Alamogordo:

“We knew the world would not be the same. . . . I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture: ‘Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.’ ”

The power of the atom has grown beyond our power to control it. The created dominates the creator. No wonder that, despite ABC’s best efforts, the potential consequences of this technological boomerang are too evil and too vast to fully comprehend.

So you watch this program at times almost in a daze.


It depicts the arms race as a race with no acceptable finish, a sort of cycle of threats, tit for tat and bomb for bomb, that’s as pointless as a cat chasing its tail.

You’ll find no more elaborate or clearer explanation of President Reagan’s proposed “Star Wars” defensive system than here. Will “Star Wars” unhinge the arms race or will its continued reliance on technology propel us closer to destruction? Both sides in the debate are heard from here.

Better that Americans and Soviets face each other with shields than weapons, says Edward Teller, father of the H-bomb. Reagan’s plan “opens zee Pandora’s box,” a Soviet official disagrees.

Meanwhile, we see trigger fingers multiply and the nuclear “High Noon” extend to the “stormy political theater” of Latin America, where such nations as Brazil and Argentina are on the nuclear threshold, abetted by West Germany and the United States.


The proliferation has also reached South Asia and the Middle East. And how long before an unstable Kadafi gets his own nuclear toy? With the ultimate weapon now passing through so many hands, the possibility of an accident--all it takes is one slip on the nuclear banana peel--continues to grow.

ABC also cites the perils of peaceful nuclear development and spreading, lingering, clinging nuclear waste. The program contrasts the relatively poor safety records of U.S. nuclear power plants with those in France and other countries. The engineering at the Diablo Canyon plant in California “wouldn’t fly at Joe’s Sheet Metal Shop,” a former inspector says.

Meanwhile, Three-Mile Island plant structures are silhouetted against an early evening sky like fat cannon, Big Berthas aimed at the heavens, while correspondent Marshall Frady describes the 1979 near-miss meltdown there as “the most ominous accident in the history of the nuclear industry.”

If “The Fire Unleashed” has a major flaw, it is unjournalistic theatricality, the repeated use of music as an editorial device to enhance or diminish credibility. When Frady notes about the Three-Mile Island accident that “official reports reassured residents,” for example, the ominous background music makes a counterstatement that seems to undercut those official reports.


“The Fire Unleashed” had been a loose concept at ABC News for at least four years, Frady said by phone from New York recently. “Then about two years ago, talks began about tracing the long scenario of the arms race, that long minuet of escalating gestures,” said Frady, who also helped write the program.

“I was startled and stunned that they (ABC) seemed so ready to commit three hours and that it was not consigned to the customary gulch of documentaries: weekends, the night after Christmas or 10 o’clock.”

“The Fire Unleashed” runs against the grain of what Frady calls the “snack-sized journalism” of TV magazines. Even with the rare TV luxury of three hours, though, Frady ultimately “felt like we were trying to construct a cathedral in a thimble.”

“The Fire Unleashed” evokes feelings of helplessness and despair.


The planet is so lovely from afar, yet so terrifying up close, where, unless things change, we all seem destined to share the same Hiroshima, with Communist and capitalist dissolving into the same ashes.

The program ends with these words from Frady:

“Over the great reaches of cosmic time . . . we have existed here for only a moment . . . creating against the void around us, an urgent and tumultuous pageant. Now we are faced with the possibility of our end.

“There would be then no more struggle, not even weeping . . . no more passion . . . no more courage . . . no more faith . . . no more forgiveness . . . no more love.


“All vanished with us like a dream . . . no memory even that we labored and dared once . . . that we made beauty, discovered care and honor.

“No memory even that we were --one marvelous glint of knowing in the eternal night of the universe.”

The destroyer of worlds.