Get your nuclear weapons right here

By STEVE WEINBERG Special to the Times
Published May 20, 2007

When the U.S. government signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty after World War II, the world looked different than it looks today.

Four nations possessed atomic bombs besides the United States: the Soviet Union, China, France and Britain. It seemed unimaginable then that India, Pakistan, Israel, Iran, North Korea and South Africa would join the nuclear club. Those unwelcome memberships changed the balance of power around the globe, making that grand-sounding treaty regrettably obsolete.

There is no other way to say it: William Langewiesche's The Atomic Bazaar is an important book, an urgent book about the likelihood that Pakistan or India or Iran or North Korea or a stateless terrorist clique will initiate a war by using a nuclear weapon.

The U.S. government used nuclear weapons in 1945, twice, against Japan. Neither the bombing of Hiroshima nor the bombing of Nagasaki meant the end of humanity. But those bombings could have triggered such an end. Instead, they transformed the merely theoretical into the ugly real.

Those dropped bombs also erased any moral authority that so-called civilized nations could exercise to shame less stable governments into renouncing the development of nuclear weapons.

Langewiesche, author of American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center and a reporter for Vanity Fair and Atlantic Monthly, unfolds the saga of nuclear proliferation in a four-part narrative. In part one, he delineates how the 1945 bombings opened Pandora's box, making the unthinkable thinkable. The best way to stand up to a bully is to become a competing bully. As scientists and politicians, many of them trained in the United States, grasped the relative accessibility and affordability of nuclear weapons technology, why would they stay pure?

As a source tells Langewiesche, "Nuclear weapons technology has become a useful tool especially for the weak. It allows them to satisfy their ambitions without much expense. If they want to intimidate others, to be respected by others, this is now the easiest way to do it. Just produce nuclear weapons. The technology has become so simple that there are no technical barriers, and no barriers to the flow of information that can prevent it. This is a reality you Americans need to understand."

In part two, Langewiesche explains, step by step, how a terrorist can assemble the materials needed to build a nuclear weapon. He eschews alarmism, using matter-of-fact language and emphasizing the obstacles. He demonstrates clearly, however, that long odds do not mean impossibility.

In part three, the centerpiece of the book, Langewiesche documents the rise of Abdul Qadeer Khan, a Pakistani scientist who earned a doctorate in metallurgical engineering in 1972, found employment at a Dutch energy consulting company in Amsterdam, realized that he could steal bombmaking materials without getting caught, then offered to generate a nuclear bomb for his native country, which feared attack by India.

Khan became a hero in Pakistan, then decided to branch out by helping other nations develop nuclear weapons. Langewiesche's narrative is chilling.

Part four focuses on Mark Hibbs, an American journalist based in Bonn, Germany, who writes for expensive, technical newsletters with names like Nucleonics Week. Although Langewiesche himself deserves credit for his journalistic exposes about nuclear proliferation, he crowns Hibbs as the premier reporter alive when it comes to ferreting out the truth about the ultimate weapon. Hibbs figured out what Khan was doing, and how both corporations and governments ignored the welfare of humankind to enable him.

How does Langewiesche close his disturbing book? Not with a bang, but not with a whimper, either.

"There will be other Khans in the future. It seems entirely possible that terrorist attacks can be thwarted - though this would require nimble governmental action - but no amount of maneuvering will keep determined nations from developing nuclear arsenals. ... Now and then a country may be persuaded to abandon its nuclear program, but in the long run, globally, such programs will proceed."

Every citizen on the globe, Langewiesche says, will have "to accept the equalities of a maturing world in which many countries have acquired atomic bombs, and some may use them."

Steve Weinberg is a biographer and journalism professor in Columbia, Mo.


The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor

By William Langewiesche

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Hardcover, 192 pages, $22

The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor

By William Langewiesche

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 192 pages, $22