Burgeoning Global Threat

The Atomic Bazaarby By William LangewiescheFarrar, Straus & Giroux. 192p $22
This book has convinced me that just about any country on earth can have nuclear weapons if it wants them. My conclusion from reading The Atomic Bazaar is that it is still possible to stop or impede any particular program, but the general process of nuclear proliferation is now so advanced that it is virtually certain that a great many underdeveloped countries will eventually build their own atomic bombs.

The author, William Langewiesche, believes that nuclear weapons are now an achievable ambition for most of the worlds states. He reached that conclusion after researching and reporting nuclear proliferation stories for The Atlantic Monthly and Vanity Fair for many years. In the course of that work he met and interviewed engineers, government officials and other journalists who specialized in that field across the world. The evidence of his eyes and ears and the words of potential and actual participants in the atomic bazaar drove his conclusions.


Langewiesche, whose previous books include The Outlaw See, argues that it is unlikely that entire, functioning nuclear weapons will be sold to developing countries by those who possess them. He believes, correctly I think, that the nuclear powers have instituted sufficiently stringent controls on such weapons to prevent theft and sale.

He also believes that it is probable that a poor country seeking to construct its own nuclear weapons is likely to opt for building gun type weapons in which the fissile core would be made of enriched uranium (H.E.U.). Another possibility would be to attempt to build bombs in which the fissile core is made of plutonium. North Korea followed the plutonium pathway toward nuclearization, but the relatively small amount of plutonium available has been a severely limiting factor in its program. The general opinion in the community of experts watching North Koreas efforts has been that North Korea must have also been pursuing an H.E.U.-based program if its nuclear ambitions were ever more than a negotiating tactic.

Langewiesche finds that the reasons for opting for H.E.U. bombs are quite simple: 1) Weapons built of plutonium are of necessity much more complicated in design and fabrication; and 2) there is a great deal more H.E.U. in the world than there is plutonium, and a lot of it is poorly safeguarded. (There are something close to 20,000 metric tons of H.E.U. in existence at the present.) Much of this material is located in the countries of the former Soviet Union in a wide variety of facilities in many of the former closed cities. Laboratories, industrial sites, medical plants and storage sites possessing H.E.U. are scattered across the Eurasian landmass by the thousands. In many of these places the custodians are members of the former Soviet academic and managerial elite whose standard of living has been severely stressed by the lengthy transition to a market economy. Langewiesche observes that in many places possessing H.E.U. there are no longer explicable sources of the funds which continue to support standards of living far above the populations of the surrounding region. These are often the same places with the lowest standards of government safeguarding.

The author cites several specific examples of the creation of nuclear bomb programs by relatively poor countries. He discusses the Pakistan case in the greatest detail. He describes the easy availability of technical education in Europe and the United States, which produced such capable men as the scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan and his associates. He also des-cribes their practical workplace experience in such places as the Netherlands. Then he gives an account of the sense of grievance against the developed world, which caused Pakistan to seek atomic weapons, and the huge slice of available funding that successive governments devoted to this program. Langewiesche also makes it quite clear that for Pakistan (and probably for India as well) nuclear weapons are not thought of as merely a deterrent. They are thought of as the ultimate battlefield killer. From his chronology we can see that Pakistan has probably been on the brink of nuclear weapons deployment against India several times.

The manufacturing and research facilities for making the kind of bombs discussed here are not very advanced. The plans for such gun type bombs are widely accessible on the Internet. The possession of such weapons holds an almost mystical significance for small countries. The ownership alone would make them major players in their own minds. Saddam Hussein would have had a fission weapon in the early 1990s if he had not ruined his prospects by invading Kuwait.

The present nuclear powers have learned to live with the possession of such weapons. The new owners will not have been through the sobering experiences of the cold war.

Someone should get busy explaining to them why these weapons have not been used since Nagasaki.


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