The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor
By William Langewiesche
Allen Lane ₤20, 181 pages
FT bookshop price: ₤16

In 1960, during a presidential debate with Richard Nixon, John F. Kennedy warned that by the end of 1964 ”10, 15, or 20 nations will have a nuclear capacity, including Red China.”

Nearly 50 years on, Kennedy’s fears are yet to be realised. Just nine countries have nuclear weapons: the US, Russia, China, Britain, France, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea.

Three reasons explain why Kennedy was too pessimistic: alliances, a successful international treaty and technology.

First, influential governments with the capacity to develop the bomb, such as Germany and Japan, felt protected by the US nuclear umbrella. Second, many countries foreswore nuclear weapons by signing the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty - in return for help developing nuclear energy, if they wanted it.

Last, and most important, big technical obstacles stood in the way of developing a bomb - particularly in the complex techniques associated with the manufacture of the fissile material at the bomb’s core. This main subject of The Atomic Bazaar is how the technology to isolate the uranium-235 isotope, usable both in nuclear weapons and in nuclear power reactors, was stolen from a Dutch laboratory in the 1970s, and the damage caused by that theft.

The thief was a Pakistani metallurgist, Abdul-Qadeer Khan. Through him, Pakistan obtained the wherewithal to manufacture uranium-235, after which he offered other nations the same opportunity. The countries offered this capability included such bastions as Libya, North Korea, Iraq and Iran.

The book captures the vanity of Khan, who styled himself the father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb. The illegal house Khan built on a lake by Rawalpindi, forbidden because it is the source from which the teeming city derives its water, is a telling symbol of the failings of Pakistan’s government. Khan built it there as a boast, as a display of personal power. When a country so corrupted possesses nuclear weapons, Langewiesche invites us to conclude, we should worry.

The narrative is developed from two long articles written originally for Atlantic Monthly and for those who have followed the Khan affair, there is not much new here. Other books - such as Gordon Correra’s Shopping for Bombs - have covered it in much more detail. It also lacks footnotes, so some controversial claims are simply asserted.

We are told, for example, that ”it is reasonable to assume” that the CIA had penetrated Khan’s operation and that this was always presumed within Khan’s inner circle to be true. We are also told that for 30 years, as the evidence grew that Khan had flipped his network to become a sales as well as a procurement operation, the US government limited itself to trying and failing to stop European suppliers providing Khan with technology. But we are not given much insight into why the effort was not rolled up earlier.

The book’s virtue is to make accessible and dramatic a subject that may, if the human race is unlucky, come to be the most critical of the 21st century: the causes and consequences of the spread of nuclear weapons to terrorists and to what he calls fourth-rate powers. The new world order, it suggests, will be one on which dozens of immature and unstable governments possess the destructive power to kill millions.

Its conclusion is uncomfortable and fatalistic. Yet though the nuclear genie is almost out of the bottle, it is not quite there yet. North Korea seems willing to negotiate away its nuclear weapons for a good enough economic deal. If Iran can be prevented from developing the bomb, other countries in the Middle East may decide they do not need it either.

If the international community can establish a suitable combination of carrots and sticks to influence government behaviour, the unstable world Langewiesche predicts may be further away than he suggests.

Stephen Fidler is the FT’s security and defence editor.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

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