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The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor by William Langewiesche

Kevin Horrigan
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MCT)

In his precise, clear, muddy boots-on-the-ground style, Langewiesche explains the complex problem of nuclear proliferation.


The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 0374106789
Author: William Langewiesche
Price: $22.00
Length: 192
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2007-05
Amazon

In his new book, The Atomic Bazaar (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), William Langewiesche, who is the best reporter most folks never heard of, introduces us to Mark Hibbs, "who is largely unknown to the public, but must rank as one of the greatest reporters at work in the world today."

Bill Langewiesche -- who is the international correspondent for Vanity Fair, a former correspondent for The Atlantic and the author of American Ground, the best book about the terrorist attacks of 9/11 -- is deservedly famous. By comparison, Mark Hibbs has spent the last 20 years writing for such specialty publications as Nucleonics Week and NuclearFuel.

Hibbs' speciality is technical articles about the nuclear industry. The body of his work, Langewiesche says, tells the story of "the gradual failure of Europe, China and the United States to prevent nuclear arsenals from spreading around the globe, and of the ferocious determination to acquire such arsenals that post-colonial nations, some banding together, increasingly show."

Nuclear physicists and nuclear engineers read Mark Hibbs. So do spies.

Reading his work, the world could deduce that the Pakistani scientist A.Q. Kahn had sold nuclear technology to Iraq, North Korea, Libya, Iran and other hostile states. They could learn who was buying what parts for what centrifuges with the collusion of which governments. Armed with that knowledge, governments could do something about it, which sometimes they did. Other times, they didn't, which is what "The Atomic Bazaar" is all about.

In his precise, clear, muddy boots-on-the-ground style, Langewiesche explains the complex problem of nuclear proliferation. The book's subtitle is "The Rise of the Nuclear Poor," a phenomenon predicted in 1946 by Robert Oppenheimer, who led the U.S. effort to build the first atomic bomb. "It will cost enormously less to destroy a square mile with atomic weapons than with any weapons hitherto known to warfare," Oppenheimer said, adding, "in this respect, only biological warfare would seem to offer competition for the evil that a dollar can do."

Thus, nuclear weapons have become the weapons of choice for poor nations. Langewiesche quotes a Russian scientist: "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."

Thus Iran. And North Korea. And Pakistan. And India. And who knows who is next? Maybe a terrorist who doesn't have to worry about tell-tale trail that would allow a nation to backtrack nuclear debris to its point of origin and thus retaliate. This is the scenario of the so-called "suitcase bomb," the "nuke in a crate" nightmares that keep the Coast Guard up nights.

Not so easy, Langewiesche writes. He takes us into the former secret cities of the Soviet Union, in and around Ekaterinberg in the Ural Mountains, places now devastated by radiation and poverty. Nuclear weapons deteriorate without regular maintenance, making it unlikely they could be bought off the rack. And besides, the layers of complexity involved in actually getting one out of safekeeping are more burdensome than you might think.

It might be far easier to acquire a couple of softball-size pound chunks of HEU, highly enriched uranium, the stuff you'd need for a bomb like the one that destroyed Hiroshima. You'd only need 100 pounds or so, and there are more than 2 million pounds of HEU "lying around," so long as you know where to look. Langewiesche walks the trail that a terrorist might walk in buying some HEU and packing it over ancient smuggling routes, perhaps to Istanbul and a machine shop. There a physicist, an engineer and a couple of machinists might produce, in four months or so, a 15-kiloton weapon that could devastate the heart of a city.

Still, that, too, is more complicated than you might think and fraught with peril, so long as intelligence agencies have their ears to the ground. Alas, Langewiesche writes, intelligence agencies and the Department of Homeland Security have concentrated their detection efforts not on informal systems of spies running agents with street sense, but on exotic, multi-million border crossings, full of cool technology that a smuggler can avoid simply by crossing elsewhere.

This is a systems failure of the sort Langewiesche has written about before: plane crashes, the Challenger and Columbia shuttle disasters. One small assumption in a complex system goes wrong, and the next thing you know, seven astronauts are dead or a plane lies shattered in the Everglades. In this small but scary and important book, the stakes are raised.

"(I)f the United States is hit someday with an atomic bomb," Langewiesche writes, "it will in part be because of Washington's discomfort with informal realms -- because of blindness to the street, amply demonstrated in recent times, which will have allowed some bomb-builder the maneuvering room necessary to get the job done."

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Kevin Horrigan is a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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