15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
In the post 9-11 world there has been much debate about the possibility of a nuclear terrorist attack; either dirty or conventional. Given the discussions, and the accusations about other nations' capabilities, I think it is incumbent upon us all to learn as much as we can about the realities of the situation and how nuclear material is dealt with.
This book begins with a look at how a nuclear bomb could (and almost would have to be) made and how it could be detonated. It discusses, in detail, the similarities and differences between plutonium and highly enriched uranium. It further details what the extent of damage would be, as well as likely repercussions. The author then moves into the area of security of possible fuels, and gives a detailed look at how difficult it would be for a terrorist group to obtain the needed material.
Finally, the book finished with a detailed look at A.Q. Khan, and the role Pakistan has had in disseminating information to other third world nations. It also discusses the politics of the nuclear underground and how this might affect the world.
The book is well written, contains much valuable information, and paints a brighter picture than I would have imagined possible. It is, however, frightening to think of who has these weapons and how they might be used.
17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on May 19, 2007
The nuclear doomsday thriller was in vogue during the 1980's (see "Warday" -- 1984 and "The Fifth Horseman" -- 1980). Now in a post 9-11 world, nuclear destruction has made a comeback in TV (see "24") and in literature with "The Atomic Bazaar." Written in a documentary fashion, Mr. Langewiesche focuses upon how easy it would be for a terrorist to obtain the materials for a nuclear bomb (starting in Russia). Then the book tells the true story of A. Q. Khan who offered "nukes to go" to the rogue nations of the world. Easily read in one evening, it will leave you paranoid for our future.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on June 18, 2007
Langewiesche is a great reporter and a good writer. Like Sebastian Junger, he writes coldy, directly and at times viciously about the realities of an armageddon that could be coming to your (our) front door very soon. The first half of the book are broad strokes on how that armageddon could manifest itself via a terror network. The second half of the book concerns AQ Khan, the Pakistani proliferationist who wittingly has made the first half of the book 'do-able'. Unlike Junger, Langewiesche lacks the great writer's ability to weave a narrative; the book feels disjointed, a bit tossed together at times. No matter. The content is critical for understanding the age we live in and the realities we may someday face.
12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on May 31, 2007
Quick read - I read it in 3 hours. Langewiesche's prose is concise and compelling.
Langewiesche starts off by describing how a simple mashing together of 2 blocks of highly enriched uranium could cause a blast. Then he describes what it would look like and feel like if you were there.
The next part of the book explains how difficult it would be for a stateless terrorist to obtain highly enriched uranium (HEU) and make a bomb out of it. It is nearly impossible. Uranium is easy to get but it takes a whole lot of technology to make the 90% HEU necessary for a weapon.
The rest of the book is an expose' of the Pakistan's notorious, greedy, egocentric, megalomaniacal A.Q. Khan and how he stole technology from an unsuspecting Dutch engineering firm to develop Pakistan's nuclear weapons program and how he sold the technology to anyone with money.
The last part of the book is an unflinching excoriation of Musharrif and the rest of Pakistan's ruling elite.
The technology is out there; any state with the money will get a bomb - the genie is out of the bottle - Saudi Arabia, Syria, Brazil, Venezuela, Iran; you can't stop it. It is foolish to try.
I disagree with the other review of this book - The author's conclusion is that a terrorist could not obtain a nuke. ( I also heard him say the same on NPR).
He assures us that detonations and nuclear exchanges will likely take place but probably between backward countries such as India and Pakistan. He reassures us that if a state handed over a nuke to a terrorist to use on us, they would be accountable, and nobody has as many nukes as we do.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
"The Atomic Bazaar" is sometimes fascinating, and sometimes frustrating (eg. when we learn how ineffectual much of the U.S. effort to safeguard Soviet fissionable materials has been). One learns that the Hiroshima bomb was 9,700 lbs., containing two half-spheres of highly-enriched uranium weighing about 62.5 lbs. each, that were slammed into each other by a projectile charge. The reaction lasted for just a millisecond and used less than two lbs. of uranium (about 3 tablespoons) to create a 15 kiloton TNT-equivalent explosion that killed 150,000. We also learn that most of the radioactive products quickly decay - seven hours after ignition, emissions are about one-tenth those at the level one-hour after detonation, and after two days the level has dropped to a one-percent level.
Langewiesche then goes on to assert that use of nuclear weapons are now more likely by terrorists than a nation-state, due to relatively lesser concern over retaliation.
Terrorists are not likely to obtain a finished bomb through theft - they are well guarded and incorporate sophisticated electronic interlocks. Building one from scratch is also not a likely alternative because of the difficulty enriching natural uranium. Thus, Langewiesche believes that the greatest threat comes from terrorist theft of already highly enriched uranium (HEU), particularly from the former Soviet Union. About 100 lbs. of 90% U-235 woud be required. (Plutonium, available from a number of nuclear-generating plants, is not a likely source because it is HIGHLY radioactive, and very poisonous if inhaled, ingested, or in contact with an open wound; further, it requires a much more complex means of detonation.)
Langewiesche does not believe obtaining HEU would be easy - especially since the areas are remote and the populations rather close-knit; however, it is not impossible either. He relates how some Soviet storage facilities are guarded by relatively unreliable units, that radiation detectors are often turned off (they are set off by most anything), and how border-crossing check-points are easily by-passed.
"The Atomic Bazaar" then goes on to tell of Abdul Khan, the famous Pakistani engineer who brought his nation into the nuclear-arms community. He began as a metallurgical engineer within a consulting firm specializing in building ultra-centrafuges to concentrate gassified uranium from 0.7% U-235 to 3% - sufficient for generating power. (Increasing to 90% weapons-grade concentration becomes simply a matter of continuing the process.) While working there he scavenged discarded parts, stole documents and photographs, and recruited others. Libya, Iraq, North Korea, and Iran are all believed to have used his expertise in their own programs.
Ultimately, Langewiesche is not certain what the future will bring, though he does believe that simply having a nuclear weapon (and its associated political threat) will be enough for some. Regardless, this is an important book that should be read.
11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on July 5, 2007
The decades that followed the incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been relatively peaceful and without nuclear incident. That in itself is a miracle. In the early years the Nuclear Club was small: it consisted of the United States, Britain, France, China, and the Soviet Union. These countries had the requisite infrastructure to develop the nuclear weapons of that era. In recent years the Club has greatly expanded, it now includes Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and probably Iran. With advances in technology and easy access to information, about 20 more countries are in position to produce such weapons. Worse yet, the technology is now so advanced and compact that it can easily fall into the hands of nonstate actors - i.e. terrorists - for whom the traditional strategies of deterrence and containment are not effective.
William Langewiesche, formerly of "The Atlantic" and currently of "Vanity Fair," explains why nuclear weapons have become such an attractive tool for weak and poor countries. Since there are fewer technical hurdles and the information is readily available, it is an inexpensive way to gain respect and notoriety; or, in the case of North Korea, to blackmail.
In his research for this book, Langewiesche imagined how a resourceful terrorist would go about acquiring nuclear material. What is needed is about a 100 lbs of highly enriched uranium (HEU); Russia possesses about 600 metric tons. He flies to Ekaterinburg, and from there goes to Ozarsk, one of Russia's many nuclear cities. Langewiesche notices that the facilities are poorly guarded by guards who are poorly paid and have a reputation for being drunk on the job. With the presence of lavish homes in the area and luxury goods in the stores in a city that has no visible means of income, there is without doubt a culture of corruption. For a few million dollars they would be more than happy to part with a few bricks of HEU. Smuggling the goods out of the country would also be fairly easy and for the same reason. Russia's southern border is lined with some of the most corrupt and lawless countries on earth. Border guards would be more than happy to look the other way for a few extra dollars. After that a small lab would be needed to build the weapon and perhaps a shipping container or small plane to deliver it. This scenario is very much in the realm of the possible.
Much of this book is devoted not to the hypothetical but the actual case of Abdul Qadeer Khan. Khan was actually a metallurgist, not a nuclear scientist as many have claimed, who worked for a Dutch company where uranium was enriched. He copied blueprints of centrifuges and purchased the necessary parts on the black market. Khan then went back to Pakistan and developed its nuclear weapons capabilities. Secretly he set up a nuclear supermarket offering his goods to Saudi Arabia, Libya, Syria, Iran, North Korea, and who knows how many others. Khan is still considered a national hero in Pakistan and Langewiesche excoriates the Musharraf government who has done little to punish Khan other than to put him under house arrest.
Langewiesche also recounts the efforts of Mark Hibbs, an American journalist in Bonn and an expert on the nuclear industry. Hibbs was one of the first to disclose Khan's nuclear arms bazaar. Unfortunately the disclosures came after the damage had already been done. According to Langewiesche, "no amount of maneuvering will keep determined nations from developing nuclear arsenals."
Despite the fact that Langewiesche is a gifted journalist, this book at times seems discontiuous and incoherent. It is more a collection of magazine articles than a unified thesis. Nevertheless it is an important statement about the dangers of nuclear proliferation.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on July 4, 2007
The Atomic Bazaar provides a great overview of the current state of nuclear proliferation. The book has two primary strengths: (1) It's short- 179 pages, so a busy professional can read it on the subway or in a day, (2) and Langewiesche personally gathered most of the facts for his book by walking the streets and talking with principal players -- as opposed to collecting them in a library.
The book is weak on nuclear design, what it would take to assemble a nuclear weapon, but correctly focuses on the longest pole in the tent, the necessary fissile materiel: Plutonium or U235. From there the author methodically looks at the most likely avenues a terrorist or rogue state could obtain the materiel.
It is written for the generalist, the terms and the science never get too deep, and the author moves quickly. You'll learn the real deal behind A.Q. Khan and how his "house arrest" is really somewhat of a sham to appease Pakistan's ally, the U.S.
Particularly interesting reading is how the U.S. government's efforts to assist Central Asian countries improve their border security are largely ineffectual.
Not a "tour de force," but the book is current, never bogs down, and should be of interest to anyone concerned with the issue of nuclear proliferation.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on August 16, 2007
This book starts out strongly, and then fizzles.
After describing the effect that a Hiroshima style bomb would have if detonated in New York or another major city the author unpacks the most significant thought of the book - the concept of "the nuclear poor". The idea is introduced in the comments of a high ranking Russian nuclear bureaucrat as follows:
"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 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".
Nuclear weapons technology a useful tool for the weak and the poor? The thought is jarring, counterintuitive, but ultimately inescapable.
Conventional wisdom has long held that the complexity and cost of nuclear weapons will limit their spread primarily to powerful nation states unlikely to use them because of the fear of immediate retaliation. In fact, as chronicled by Langewiesche, the only technological hurdles in the acquisition of the bomb have to do with the production of fissile material. Once this is obtained, the construction of a weapon such as that which destroyed Hiroshima is a simple project, well within the capabilities of terrorist organizations as well as poor and backward countries.
The author go on to describe how highly enriched uranium (only a hundred pounds is needed for a bomb) might be smuggled from a site in the former Soviet Union (and there are many) to an assembly point, perhaps in Istanbul. In so doing he demonstrates how misguided and ineffective our defensive measures have been and how the nightmare of nuclear terrorism has left the realm of fiction.
And then he goes astray.
Rather than discussing strategies to confront the asymmetrical threat of the nuclear poor, the author turns instead to the story of A.Q. Khan and the role that he has played in current nuclear proliferation. He delves into this in unbalanced detail, and we learn, for instance, that there was a small tea party following Khan's marriage to his wife Henny. Why this is important is never made clear.
From here on the book drifts, and unfortunately never quite regains its bearings.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on June 27, 2007
This is book is divided into two parts. The first is about the threat of nuclear terrorism. The author lays out a litany of facts that led me to conclude that nuclear terrorism strikes against the US are virtually inevitable, then inexplicably and in somewhat cavalier fashion, asserts that it is unlikely.
The second part of the book tells the tale of Pakistani nuclear proliferation perpetrated by A.Q. Khan.
The combination of the availability and virtual undcetectability of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and the proliferation of nuclear weapons design technology and technique by Khan make an undeterrable nuclear strike by Al Qaeda or other jihadi terrorists an existential threat to the US, the probability of which will be increased if current US defensive tactics are handicapped by revocation of post 9/11 laws including the US Patriot Act. This book should be read by every lawmaker and voter who believes that misguided changes to laws that have kept us alive since 2001 are somehow in the interest of Americans when in fact placing civil liberties ahead of civil defense is suicidal in the age of nuclear terror.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
There's no question that this is engrossing current events-type reading, an alternative to the summer hype novels. If you -- like me -- are sick of Iraq on the Sunday talk shows and all over the NYT Bestseller list, this (like Scahill's "Blackwater") is a niche work that keeps you in the know without devolving into the kind of rehash that we are all now overwhelmed by.
The book opens with a very interesting examination of what's out there, how and where to get it, and who might be after it. It reads almost like an intelligence estimate or policy paper in these early parts and is quick, informative and relevant.
The middle of the book breaks stride a little as AQ Khan, the father of Pakistan's bomb is studied. We get bio, Indian subcontinental politics, an examination of the ambitions of the nuclear aspirants on the Islamic Street, and more.
Langewiesche freely mixes in his politics, but in the end - at only 175 or so pages - I think this delivers more bang for the buck than anything I've seen on the current events/politics bookshelf for a long time.