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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.