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The Atomic Bazaar – William Langewiesche

The Atomic Bazaar – William Langewiesche, pub. Allen Lane, London, 2007

This book is a timely reminder of the problems associated with nuclear proliferation and the issue of dealing with nuclear-equipped misgoverned developing nations. Most of the book looks at Pakistan, which is reasonable, because Pakistan, a nation with an effective nuclear weapons delivery capability, illustrates all the problems and difficulties. North Korea may be an emerging nuclear weapons state, but it has still to develop an effective delivery system and Iran is still several years away from having an effective weapon.

As Langewiesche points out building a Hiroshima-sized atomic bomb “now lies well within the capacities of any number of nations.”

The cost of developing nuclear weapons is not high and the technology is well understood, plans for nuclear weapons have even been placed on the Internet. Langewiesche argues that as a result nuclear weapons technology has become especially attractive for the weak, he quotes a Russia who says, “The technology has become so simple that there are no technical barriers, and no barriers to the flow of information, that can prevent it.” His Russian contact continued, “At some point this change occurred. The great powers were struck with arsenals they could not use, and nuclear weapons became the weapons of the poor.”

The author also raises the possibility that nuclear weapons will be acquired by terrorists, a danger which first arose when the Soviet Union dissolved. However it is not easy to acquire nuclear weapons, they are very well guarded and as Langewiesche notes, “there has never been a single verified case, anywhere, of the theft of any sort of nuclear weapon.” He adds that even if thefts did occur in the 1990s as nuclear weapons require regular maintenance it is unlikely that any device would now be viable.

Highly enriched uranium (HEU) could, however, be used as the basis of a simple home-made nuclear weapon. A bomb-maker would require at least one hundred pounds of HEU enriched to 90% or more. The author points out that Russia has hundreds of tons of HEU stored at its nuclear production sites, but getting nuclear materials out of Russia would never be easy. A simple uranium bomb could be made by exploding two pieces of uranium together, something that could be done in a large workshop or garage with a team of about five people.

Langewiesche concludes that in reality the cities of the West are unlikely to be hit by a nuclear weapon in the near term, “more at risk, for now, it would seem, are the cities of the nuclear-armed poor; particularly on the Indian subcontinent, and in the Middle East.” Cities like Rawalpindi, in Pakistan, are particularly at risk.

The builder of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb is Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan.

In January 2004 U.S. agents intercepted a German ship, the BBC China, carrying parts for the Libyan nuclear weapons programme, an off-the-shelf programme purchased from Pakistan. “At about the same time, it was revealed that the Pakistani-run network had sold information and nuclear-weapons components to Iran and North Korea and had begun negotiations with a fourth country, perhaps Syria or Saudi Arabia.” President Musharraf claimed to know nothing of this, and blamed A Q Khan, who was placed under house arrest, “for his own protection”.

Dr. Khan had begun his professional life working for Urenco in the Netherlands, the company build a centrifuge plant in order to separate the fissionable isotope of uranium, U-235.  In the 1960s Mr. Bhutto had said that Pakistanis would eat grass if necessary, but they would have their [nuclear] bomb.

Between 1972 and 1975 Khan stole the secrets of the Urenco centrifuge, and this provided the foundation for Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons programme, “reemerge in the Libyan and North Korean programmes and appear (apparently by independent routes) in Brazil and Iraq as well. It would also move directly from Pakistan to Iran.”  By 1984 the plant at Kahuta built by A Q Khan was producing enough fissionable material to build several bombs a year.

The path of the testing of the Pakistani bomb was that in 1987 Pakistan fabricated several nuclear devices. Then, in May 1998, India tested five atomic bombs (it’s first test had been in 1974).  Within weeks Pakistan explored six devices.

The author traces some of the history of the development of the Pakistani bomb though the work of Mark Hibbs who has been reporting on nuclear proliferation for Nucleonics Week and Nuclear-Fuel.

He notes that A Q Khan offered to help Iraq secure nuclear technology.  But thinks that ultimately A Q Khan became unbalanced by fame, “He was subjected to a degree of public acclaim rarely seen in the West – an extreme close to idol worship, which made him hungry for more.”

Langewiesche also produces an excellent quote on corruption in Pakistan: “A Pakistani parliamentarian made the point to me that some of the highest positions in the government today are held by people who are not merely corrupt and opportunistic but are the very icons of Pakistani criminality – people from families with a known history of murder, extortion, vote rigging, smuggling, and fraud. He had complained about this to Musharraf, who had advised him to be realistic: Pakistan Musharraf had patiently explained is an imperfect society. … Even the army is run like a real estate racket, expropriating land form ordinary citizens, then passing it on to the officers for their personal gain.”

He also found another Pakistani who commented on the fact that the Pakistani elites ignored the law. Dr. Mubashir Hassan said, “The Western assumption that law should treat everyone the same way is no longer applicable in this country [Pakistan], in this culture. In Pakistan relationships exist only on an individual level, and as an individual, I am entitled to forgive you or penalize you no matter what the law says. It is a feudal culture – or a degenerated feudal culture. That is why there is no law for elites in Pakistan, why they do whatever they want to do.”  This quotation applies in many other countries. The implications are that A Q Khan had therefore put himself beyond the law [at least for a time].

In reviewing the way in which Pakistan spread nuclear technology around the world the author says, “Pakistan’s sale of nuclear-weapons technology abroad did not require a deliberative process, a chain of command, or a formal commitment to proceed. More likely it took the form of opportunities that occasionally arose, and that were acted upon by a small circle of friends – the country’s military rulers, its co-opted politicians, and of course A Q Khan and his men.”

At the end of the book Langewiesche reviews the history of proliferation, noting that “Iran was Pakistan’s longest-standing customer.”  Hibbs wrote an article in January 2003 stating that Pakistan was believed to be the design data source for Iranian centrifuges. Pakistani cooperation with North Korea dated back to 1992 when Pakistan took North Korean missile technology in exchange for centrifuge prototypes.

The business of proliferation continued, the CIA issued a report that Libya had revived its nuclear-weapons programme.  In 2003 IAEA inspectors found traces of weapons-grade uranium in Iran on two occasions.

Libya officially ended its nuclear-weapons programme and in November 2003 it began to answer questions about Pakistan’s involvement.

In February 2005 A Q Khan took responsibility for the export of nuclear knowledge, in a televised statement. However the author says that Pakistan’s investigation of A Q Khan’s activities was “a cover-up and a sham” – “moreover of a sort only possible in a morally bankrupt and corrupt nation, where cowardly and illegitimate rulers, propped up by massive infusions of American dollars and dependent on their soldiers’ guns, suppress genuine inquiries because they would be implicated themselves.”

He concludes that while, “It seems entirely possible that terrorist attacks can be thwarted – through this would require nimble governmental action – but no amount of manoeuvring will keep determined nations from developing nuclear arsenals. North Korea, Iran, perhaps Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Brazil.” “In the long run, globally, such programmes will proceed.”

And says that we need to accept this and deal with it.

This short book is a very useful guide to the process of nuclear proliferation over the last twenty years, and highlights the critical role that Pakistan has played in spreading this knowledge around the world. On occasions the United States has chosen to ignore the evidence of its own intelligence services and let Pakistan continue to spread this knowledge around the world, an example of how short term objectives can blight long term goals.

© Andrew Palmer, 2009

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