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The Atomic Bazaar

28 Aug 2008

A very readable and well-researched book about nuclear proliferation. Level-headed and concerned at the same time.

The first half of the book is a reassuring tale of what one might have to go through to try and steal enough enriched uranium to try and make a bomb. It’s a pretty daunting task. Starting from one’s best bet, in Siberia, one would have to evade a sizable multinational obstacle course, cross several borders, bribe or deal with multiple officials and unofficial local leaders. Once in a place where one might get away with something, such as Istanbul or Mumbai, one needs to assemble a set of risk-hungry machinists, physicists, and electricians to assemble a bomb, which, under optimistic conditions, would be about as strong as the Hiroshima bomb.

The list of problems really is incredible, and this bit is very well researched, on the ground. Nobody with access to uranium is a particularly obvious bribe target, nobody is particularly able to do a lot for you on their own, none of the countries involved between Siberia and any sort of port you could get away with anonymously are particularly keen on free movement without inspections. I really would have thought this was easier, but Langewiesche makes a good case that we’ve thankfully got some time left before random fools get their hands on suitcase nukes.

The second half of the book should be required reading for anyone who thinks that the Department of Homeland Security has done a damn thing but waste money. It’s the story of how Pakistan’s own A.Q. Khan volunteers himself to the service of Pakistan and basically single-handedly delivers the bomb to the rest of the world. He steals industrial centrifuge designs from Holland (he had a security clearance), builds a multi-national network of suppliers (I was surprised to see how large a role Germany played in this), and builds an industrial enrichment process in Pakistan. Freaking Pakistan. And it was one guy.

To be fair, it was one guy with the backing of Pakistan and unlimited funds. But he later goes on to give this technology to Iran, North Korea, and Libya, which was so technologically backwards that it hadn’t even opened all of the boxes by they time they ‘gave up’ their program to the UN.

It’s an interesting intersection of superempowerment and top-down decision making. Basically, making a bomb is a small enough project that one guy can make it happen, and cheap enough that there’s plenty of Saudis who could afford it. But it’s too big a process to do unnoticed almost anywhere: the parts require too much precision, the components must consist of just-so alloys and the entire process, naturally, takes tons of uranium and electricity. While a government can’t just declare a bomb–the collection of skillsets is simply too rare to count on–neither can a talented group of individuals get away with making a bomb in private. And any state would see the construction of a bomb on its territory as a threat.

So, thankfully, there are a few tech fields left where superempowerment is not going to doom us all anytime soon. However, Langewiesche is appropriately concerned, and there’s no Pollyana hope for the future here. The genie is out of the bottle, and it would be the first time in history that humans did not use a weapon they had. The only upside is that having a bomb doesn’t mean being able to destroy the world, and that a limited-scale nuclear exchange (to anyone not in the given area, of course) is feasible. Not something I look forward to, but I suppose I should expect to see a nuke go off in my lifetime.