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'The Atomic Bazaar': Terrorism and the nuclear arms race

Building nuclear weapons has become easier and easier for smaller, poor countries threatened by world powers.

It is probably impossible to write an enjoyable book about the proliferation of nuclear bombs. The task is difficult for an author, who must interpret highly technical scientific processes, pierce the secretive political world of espionage, explain all of that for a general readership – while living with the daily reminder that in a flash humanity could end up dead. The task is difficult for a reader, too, who must contemplate the horrible consequences while turning each page.

So eliminate the thought of enjoyment while consuming The Atomic Bazaar by journalist William Langewiesche. Instead, come to the book with a mind-set of self-education and a sense of foreboding.

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There is no other way to say it: This is an important book – an urgent book – that plainly confronts the likelihood of Pakistan or India or Iran or North Korea or a stateless terrorist clique initiating a war by using a nuclear weapon.

The US government used nuclear weapons in 1945 twice, both times 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 unfolds the saga of nuclear proliferation in a four-part narrative. In Part 1, 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 should they resist building their own?

As a Russian 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 2, 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 equate with impossible odds.

In Part 3, the centerpiece of the book, Langewiesche documents the rise of Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, a Pakistani scientist who earned a doctorate in metallurgical engineering during 1972, found employment at a Dutch energy consulting company in Amsterdam, realized that he could steal bombmaking materials without getting caught, and 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.

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Part 4 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 exposés about nuclear proliferation, he crowns Hibbs as the premier reporter 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 mankind 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 global citizen, 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 freelance book reviewer in Columbia, Mo.

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