The new nuclear zone

<strong>The Atomic Bazaar: the Rise of the Nuclear Poor</strong>

William Langewiesche <em>Allen La

For a book about an ugly subject, this is beautifully written. The lengthy description of the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945 that opens The Atomic Bazaar is as lean, as taut, as frigidly poised as anything you will read this year.

It is hard not to quote the whole thing verbatim, but here's a taster: "In relation to its surface area [the bomb's combined uranium mass of 133 pounds] was enough to achieve 'criticality' and allow for an uncontrollable chain of fission reactions, during which subatomic particles called neutrons collided with uranium nuclei, releasing further neutrons, which collided with other nuclei, in a blossoming process of self-destruction. The reactions could be sustained for just a millisecond . . . More than 150,000 people died." It's the tick-tock tension of that pile of non-restrictive clauses being blown apart by the calm, appalled logic of those staccato pay-offs that gets you. Burke said that whatever excites feelings of pain and danger is sublime. William Lange- wiesche is a sublime writer. Despite his best efforts, nobody sane could come away from this book unfrightened.

It is a commonplace that the postwar nuclear stand-off ushered in a kind of peace. True, the price of that peace was the exponentially increasing taxes that had to be raised to pay for ever bigger, ever more powerful weaponry. But no national leader could ever sanction nuclear war because, even as his arsenal totalled that of the enemy state, its arsenal would have been totalling his. The acronym for mutually assured destruction might have been MAD, but a kind of sanity grew out of the concept. Hell didn't come to pass. In the 1980s, Martin Amis said he wanted to do away with what he called Einstein's Monsters, though he half conceded his opponent's side with his more recent - incontrovertible - insight about the invasion of Iraq. He said it wouldn't have taken place unless somebody somewhere knew for sure that Saddam Hussein didn't have weapons of mass destruction.

But what about what Donald Rumsfeld would call the unknown unknowns? As Langewiesche makes plain, the technology required for assembling a nuclear arsenal has, like all other technologies, become cheaper and more efficient with the years. Forget James Bond's plutocrat villains. These days you don't need much money to get nuked up. History, as a cold war veteran counsels Langewiesche in Moscow, has turned inside out: "At some point this change occurred. The great powers were stuck with arsenals they could not use, and nuclear weapons became the weapons of the poor."

Not that The Atomic Bazaar seeks to alarm. Langewiesche has a head as cool as his prose. "The nuclearisation of the world has become the human condition, and it cannot be changed," he declaims. "Fear of it becomes dangerous when it detracts from realistic assessments of the terrain." One such assessment, he argues, would conclude that a terrorist bent on carrying out a nuclear attack would have his work cut out. Quite so, though the disinterested observer has to point out that Langewiesche's carefully marshalled evidence suggests that there is no need to think the task beyond a tinpot troublemaker, either.

True, plutonium poses little danger because it's such difficult stuff for the layman to handle. On the other hand, there are some 2.2 million pounds of "fresh, safe, user-friendly" highly enriched uranium scattered around the world.

More than half of that stash is to be found in Russia, where it is kept in "sealed but not locked" containers in "ordinary storage rooms" in buildings that anyone with access to broadband mapping services can find and identify. A couple of horses with saddlebags would be all you'd need to carry off your booty - though the terrain is so hostile, and the locals so distrustful of strangers, that you'd be unlikely to get far.

But what, asks Langewiesche, if you do? Where do you aim for and what do you do when you get there? What government would be so blasé about retaliation that it would let rogue weapons be manufactured on its soil? What terrorist, come to that, would trust a government slippery enough to let him go about such work? Maybe you could put a bomb together in an "ungovernable" city such as Mombasa, Mumbai or Mexico City, but it's a big ask. And anyway, ungovernable does not "necessarily [mean] uncontrolled". Given properly funded intelligence sources and "nimble governmental action", future "terrorist attacks can be thwarted". At least, one wants to add, until they can't be.

Optimist or pessimist, though, everyone should read this book. While a tighter edit might have excised the repetitions and accidental recaps that betray its origins in a series of magazine articles, The Atomic Bazaar is as bursting with goodies as any bazaar, atomic or otherwise. No need to agree with everything Langewiesche says to see that he is the best guide we have to our unclear nuclear zone.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New Britain - The country Brown inherits