“Two of the most underappreciated (and terrifying) facets of global nuclear proliferation are how much it has depended on nuclear smuggling to thrive, and how inadequate our ability is to detect or prevent the construction of secret nuclear facilities.”
So writes nuclear-proliferation expert Albright in the introduction to his rewarding, though occasionally dense book. The author spins a cautionary thesis about the inexorable proliferation of nuclear weapons, which began with A.Q. Khan’s global “illicit trade” network. Albright documents Khan’s modest beginnings as a scientist of atomic energy in the Netherlands, tracking his rise from smuggler to leader of an evasive nuclear-arms network that spans the Netherlands, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, India, Libya, China, North Korea and South Africa, among others. It is the story of an endlessly morphing bureaucracy comprised of so many agents that it can be difficult to keep track. Luckily, most of Khan’s players are repeat offenders, which will help orient readers. According to reports, Khan smuggled nuclear secrets from the Netherlands to Pakistan and from Pakistan to Iran and Iraq. From South Africa his network could work without legal scrutiny, and, through Dubai, the network could sell items using “legitimate” businesses as fronts for the illicit trade. In addition to the bureaucratic shape-shifting, countries sought to purchase nuclear equipment one piece at a time, using imports of individual components, like tubing for gas centrifuges, rather than a whole plant. This allowed the clandestine operations to fly under the radar of the CIA, NSA and even the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency). Albright paints a frightening picture of a future rife with unregulated nuclear armament, but he has not lost hope. “Three critical steps that must be taken,” he writes, “are implementing universal laws and norms against nuclear smuggling, establishing more secure nuclear assets, and working toward earlier detection of illicit nuclear trade.”
Worthwhile reading for policy wonks and general readers who can soldier through the technical jargon.