Constructing an atomic bomb particularly one portable enough to be sneaked into a target city is a fiendishly difficult task, William Langewiesche says in The Atomic Bazaar, even for the most well-equipped terrorist network. The greater danger is that poor or underdeveloped nations with unstable governments will be tempted to create atomic arsenals, just as Pakistan and India have already done and as Iran and North Korea seem intent on doing. Despite the efforts by major powers to curtail them, raw materials and know-how are in abundant supply on the world market.
Langewiesche, who subtitles his book The Rise of the Nuclear Poor, offers a well-balanced assessment of where atomic dangers lie and why. He visits the fortified Russian nuclear city of Ozersk to determine how highly enriched uranium might be secured and smuggled out through lax border crossings. Then he sketches in the remarkable career of Dr. A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan's atomic weaponry and, for too long a time, a disseminator of nuclear technology to anyone willing to pay for his lethal expertise. National pride and perceived national interests have both driven developing countries toward acquiring nuclear weapons, although, as Langewiesche points out, some have found the actual building of a production system too daunting to carry out.
Information on who's doing what in this arena is spotty at best. Langewiesche says that one of the most reliable sources for keeping abreast of nuclear goings-on has been Mark Hibbs, an American-born, German-based reporter for the arcane trade publications Nucleonics Week and Nuclear Fuel. His account of how Hibbs spots nuclear trends in market minutiae makes for an absorbing story and illustrates just how difficult it is to keep the dreaded genie in the bottle.
The desire for self-sufficiency, which will drive proliferation forward, is a measure of a new reality in which limited nuclear wars are possible, Langewiesche concludes, and the use of a few devices, though locally devastating, will not necessarily blossom into a global exchange. . . . [T]he spread of nuclear weapons, even to such countries as North Korea and Iran, may not be as catastrophic as is generally believed and certainly does not meet the category of threat that can justify preemptive wars. Edward Morris writes from Nashville.