Langewiesche (The Outlaw Sea, 2004, etc.) takes a hard look at nuclear proliferation and explains why the problem isn’t going away.
Opening with a description of a nuclear explosion’s effects—the fireball, the shock waves, the radiation, the high-pressure winds that fan any flames into a firestorm after the initial blast—the author extrapolates to estimate the casualties and other damage that would result from such an explosion in a modern urban setting like Times Square. As if that weren’t chilling enough, he then considers how sufficiently motivated terrorists might attempt to steal the materials needed for a nuke at various sites in the former Soviet Union. The good news, he concludes, is that, despite rampant corruption and inefficiency, the odds are against such an attempt succeeding. The bad news is that the technical means to build a bomb are for sale to anyone with the money. The book’s second half follows A.Q. Khan, who did much to create this atomic bazaar, from his student days to his rise as a national hero in Pakistan and his eventual downfall. His country became a nuclear power through his efforts, but Khan’s willingness to deal with the likes of North Korea and Iran made him a handy scapegoat when Pakistan needed to placate an angry United States. There was plenty of blame to go around, avers Langewiesche. Many European countries turned a blind eye to Khan’s purchase of technology when Pakistan was building its bomb. Even the U.S. eased its pressure on Pakistan when Chinese and Soviet power grew too threatening. Now, “no amount of maneuvering will keep determined nations from developing nuclear arsenals,” concludes the author. His blunt summary of this sorry history pulls no punches and offers very little consolation.
Depressing but essential reading.