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Originally published May 18, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 18, 2007 at 2:00 AM

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Book review

"The Atomic Bazaar" details how the nuclear lion got out of the bag

There is no other way to say it: "The Atomic Bazaar" is an important book. An urgent book. A book about the likelihood that Pakistan or...

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance


William Langewiesche will discuss "The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor," 7 p.m. Wednesday, University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle; free (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com). He will read at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).

There is no other way to say it: "The Atomic Bazaar" is an important book. An urgent book. A book about the likelihood that Pakistan or India or Iran or North Korea or a stateless terrorist clique will initiate a war by using a nuclear weapon. "The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 179 pp., $22) is about potential death on the ultimate scale.

The U.S. government used atomic weapons in 1945, twice, against Japan. Neither the bombing of Hiroshima nor the bombing of Nagasaki meant the end of humanity. Instead, they transformed the merely theoretical into the ugly real. Those dropped bombs also erased any moral authority that so-called civilized nations could exercise to shame less stable governments into renouncing the development of nuclear weapons.

Author appearance


William Langewiesche will discuss "The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor," 7 p.m. Wednesday, University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle; free (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com).

He will read at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).

Author William Langewiesche, an international correspondent for Vanity Fair, unfolds the saga of nuclear proliferation in a four-part narrative. In part one, he delineates how the 1945 bombings opened a Pandora's box, making the unthinkable thinkable. The best way to stand up to a bully is to become a competing bully. As scientists and politicians worldwide, many of them trained in the United States, grasped the relative accessibility and affordability of nuclear weapons technology, why stay pure?

As a source tells Langewiesche: "Nuclear weapons technology has become a useful tool, especially for the weak. It allows them to satisfy their ambitions without much expense. If they want to intimidate others, to be respected by others, this is now the easiest way to do it. Just produce nuclear weapons. The technology has become so simple that there are no technical barriers, and no barriers to the flow of information that can prevent it. This is a reality you Americans need to understand."

In part two, Langewiesche explains, step by step, how a terrorist can assemble the materials needed to build a nuclear weapon. He eschews alarmism, using matter-of-fact language and emphasizing the obstacles. He demonstrates clearly, however, that long odds do not equate with impossible.

In part three, the centerpiece of the book, Langewiesche documents the rise of Abdul Qadeer Khan, a Pakistani scientist who earned a doctorate in metallurgical engineering during 1972, found employment at a Dutch energy consulting company in Amsterdam, realized that he could steal bomb-making materials without getting caught, then offered to generate a nuclear bomb for his native country, which feared attack by India.

Khan became a hero in Pakistan, then decided to branch out by helping other nations develop nuclear weapons. Langewiesche's narrative is chilling.

Part four focuses on Mark Hibbs, an American journalist based in Bonn, Germany, who writes for expensive technical newsletters with names like Nucleonics Week. Although Langewiesche himself deserves credit for his journalistic exposés about nuclear proliferation, he crowns Hibbs as the premier reporter alive when it comes to ferreting out the truth about the ultimate weapon. Hibbs figured out what Khan was doing, and how both corporations and governments ignored the welfare of humankind to enable him.

How does Langewiesche close his disturbing book? Not with a bang, but not with a whimper, either.

"There will be other Khans in the future. It seems entirely possible that terrorist attacks can be thwarted — though this would require nimble governmental action — but no amount of maneuvering will keep determined nations from developing nuclear arsenals ... Now and then a country may be persuaded to abandon its nuclear program, but in the long run, globally, such programs will proceed." Every citizen on the globe, Langewiesche says, will have "to accept the equalities of a maturing world in which many countries have acquired atomic bombs, and some may use them."

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