The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 October, 2007, 12:00am

The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor

by William Langewiesche

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, HK$330

Since September 11, 2001, US politicians - usually in an effort to justify some sort of spending or legislation - have warned Americans of the threat of a nuclear bomb exploding in a large city. The federal government has dedicated millions of dollars to installing radiation detectors, and many first responders have received training to deal with a nuclear aftermath.

Few have asked, however, how likely it is that a terrorist group or poor nation could come into possession of a nuclear weapon.

William Langewiesche is one of those few and The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor, cobbled together from his reporting for The Atlantic Monthly, attempts to answer that question. With an investigation that takes the reader from Pakistan to the mountains of Kurdistan, Langewiesche explores a nuclear underground that includes rogue nations, terrorist groups and a nuclear poor who believe they have just as much of a right to nuclear weapons as the US and Russia.

Langewiesche argues that many poorer nations are tired of an apparent hypocritical stance by the major powers: that it is fine for states such as Britain, Israel, the US and Russia to build and maintain nuclear weapons while they are denied the right. Nuclear programmes like those in North Korea and Iran may one day become the norm, not the exception, and we should prepare ourselves for a world in which these weapons will spread and may also be used.

'Nuclear weapons technology has become a useful tool, especially for the weak,' a Russian bureaucrat tells Langewiesche.

'It allows them to satisfy their ambitions without much expense. If they want to intimidate others, to be respected by others, this is 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.'

Representing an even more worrisome proliferation issue, he writes, are the stateless actors who may be attempting to obtain nuclear material or a complete bomb. He argues, though ultimately fails to prove, that nuclear material, technology and information are being shared by terrorist groups in an effort to achieve their goal. Although there probably isn't a 'nuclear bazaar' where terrorists can obtain what they need, Langewiesche does report that facilities in Russia continue to be poorly guarded and that smuggling stolen or purchased material across the country's southern border would be simple.

The Atomic Bazaar suffers from Langewiesche's decision to concentrate much of his reportage on Pakistan's former chief nuclear scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan. As his reporting in 2005 in The Atlantic Monthly noted, Khan was responsible for the spread of nuclear technology and information to other nations including Iran, probably with the tacit approval of the nation's leaders.

Readers might be forgiven if they think Khan was the only figure - the Typhoid Mary of weapons of mass destruction - in the alleged underground nuclear black market.

The book's greatest weakness, however, is the mixed message that Langewiesche ultimately sends. Throughout much of the work he argues that it is inevitable that unstable and poor nations and terrorist groups will come into possession of nuclear weapons, and even details how that could come to pass. But then he abruptly declares that 'in reality Washington, London and New York are unlikely anytime soon to suffer a nuclear strike', because the odds would be stacked against anyone actually buying or building a nuclear weapon - a difficult feat for those without state sponsorship.

Langewiesche's effort is occasionally brilliant but, as a total work, it doesn't succeed. The Atomic Bazaar lacks the coherence necessary to explore the subject in an in-depth manner because it is essentially a collection of related magazine articles, which is disappointing given the importance of the subject matter.

How much we need to fear a new nuclear future is a question someone else will have to answer.