I generally try to stay away from books that will give me nightmares. With the exception of The Hot Zone (Richard Preston‘s book about the horrifying emergent Ebola virus) and The Andromeda Strain (Michael Chrichton at his early best, and the subject of a cool-looking A&E miniseries coming later this month, itself a remake of the merely mediocre 1971 movie), few books have really caught my attention in the profound, visceral way William Langewiesche’s The Atomic Bazaar did. But unlike those other works, Langewiesche doesn’t try to be frightening, and perhaps it is therefore his matter-of-fact calmness which makes the information he presents all the more terrifying.
One needn’t spend much time browsing in The Bazaar before you realize: the proverbial cat is out of the bag. He is not the first to report that the knowledge of how to construct a nuclear weapon is no longer particularly hard to come by. (You may not quite be able to download the plans off the Internet, but the basic “gun” model used in the Little Boy (Hiroshima) bomb is fairly easy to construct from the right amount of Uranium 235.) Thus for a long time, the world has relied for its nonproliferative intentions on the difficulty of obtaining sufficient quantities of weapons-grade U235 (loosely defined as uranium whose 235 isotope is present at >90% by mass). Building centrifuges requires far more engineering and machining expertise than does building the actual bomb, and Western nonproliferation efforts (and the IAEA‘s efforts) have thus focused on nipping the process in the materials production bud.
Blame it on the leaky Russians (Langewiesche convinces us that they had little, if anything to do with nuclear proliferation) or the incredibly trusting Dutch, who initially hired A. Q. Kahn and later let him waltz out of the country with the plans for what are still considered state-of-the-art uranium centrifuges (state-of-the-non-classified-art, I should say), or the Pakistan government, which first propped up Kahn and which later bowed to US pressure to arrest him—and then promptly locked him away under house arrest so that no Western intelligence services could ask any further awkward questions relating to the involvement of the Pakistani government itself—but no matter how you slice it, not only has nuclear knowledge proliferated, but therefore so has nuclear technology. The North Koreans, the Iranians and the Libyans now also have the know-how (if not the machines, in the case of newly-reformed Libya) to produce significant quantities of weapons-grade uranium, and of course so do the Pakistanis, the Indians, the Israelis (not officially :-), the Germans, the French, the British, the Chinese, the Russians and the US. That’s roughly half the world’s population (50.6%, to be precise) whose governments are known have access to nuclear weapons technology. A majority.
Thus I conclude that the nonproliferation agenda is bankrupt. So far as we know, we have kept these weapons out of the hands of non-state actors. But such was not the aim of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty! In order to create effective controls which might curb the transfer of nuclear technologies to non-state actors, we’ll have to start by identifying what didn’t work in the NPT—for starters, the overt inequity between the nations permitted to maintain such weapons (namely the permanent members of the UN Security Council) and those not permitted to do so. The NPT created second-class citizens of half the world. Any surprise the world didn’t abide by the treaty? It’s Versaille all over again: a Phyrric victory of an asymmetric treaty over geopolitical reality.
So much for sleeping tonight.