The Atomic Bazaar Dispatches from the Underground World of Nuclear Trafficking

William Langewiesche

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Trade Paperback

192 Pages



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An Economist Book of the YearA Los Angeles Times Favorite Book of the YearA Quill Book Award FinalistA Christian Science Monitor Best Book of the Year

In his shocking and revelatory new work, the celebrated journalist William Langewiesche investigates the burgeoning global threat of nuclear weapons production. This is the story of the inexorable drift of nuclear weapons technology from the hands of the rich into the hands of the poor. As more unstable and undeveloped nations find ways of acquiring the ultimate arms, the stakes of state-sponsored nuclear activity have soared to frightening heights. Even more disturbing is the likelihood of such weapons being manufactured and deployed by guerrilla non-state terrorists.

Langewiesche also recounts the recent history of Abdul Qadeer Khan, the scientist at the forefront of nuclear development and trade in the Middle East who masterminded the theft and sale of centrifuge designs that helped to build Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, and who single-handedly peddled nuclear plans to North Korea, Iran, and other potentially hostile countries. He then examines in dramatic and tangible detail the chances for nuclear terrorism.

From Hiroshima to the present day, Langewiesche describes a reality of urgent consequence to us all. This searing, provocative, and timely report is a triumph of investigative journalism, and a masterful laying out of the most critical political problem the world now faces.


Praise for The Atomic Bazaar

“One need read only the first three pages of The Atomic Bazaar to be reminded of William Langewiesche’s formidable talent as a journalist whose cool, precise and economical reporting is harnessed to an invigorating moral and intellectual perspective on the world he describes. In a single paragraph, he lucidly explains the basic physics of the uranium-based atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima . . . The Atomic Bazaar is an important book.”—Jonathan Raban, The New York Times Book Review

"[The book] strings together four separate sections. Its opening glimpses of apocalypse do strike a unifying note of high-stakes danger. Elsewhere [Langewiesche] writes about the specifics of smuggling and manufacturing nuclear material; the new kinds of saber rattling that have become possible among mutually antagonistic nations; and the hubris-propelled career of Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, Pakistan's foremost purveyor of nuclear technology. Thanks to Dr. Khan's enterprising thefts of information from Dutch centrifuge and uranium-enrichment companies, the same blueprints for disaster have found their way to Libya, North Korea, Brazil, Iraq and Iran. His book insightfully examines the perils created by this leveling of the global playing field . . . It is Mr. Langewiesche's perspective on these ominous signs that makes his book unusual. 'The nuclearization of the world has become the human condition, and it cannot be changed,' he writes authoritatively. 'Fear of it becomes dangerous when it detracts from realistic assessments of the terrain.' Among those realistic assessments is his idea that we may be entering a period of history when limited nuclear wars are possible. 'That is the flip side of proliferation, rarely addressed in public debate,' he writes. 'The spread of nuclear weapons, even to such countries as North Korea and Iran, may not be as catastrophic as is generally believed and certainly does not meet the category of threat than can justify the suppression of civil liberties of the pursuit of pre-emptive wars.' What we need, he says, is the clear-eyed vision 'to accept the equalities of a maturing world in which many countries have acquired atomic bombs, and some may use them.' Buried within that grim assessment is a curious kind of optimism, bolstered by the kind of tenacious reporting for which this author is well known."—Janet Maslin, The New York Times

"Langewiesche has evolved into perhaps our leading forensic journalist, a voracious student of all that can go wrong. Like a literary-minded accident investigator, he digs for every shred of evidence, without worrying about whom his conclusions might offend."—Bill Gifford, The Washington Post Book World

“Langewiesche explains in calm, lucid prose how a nuclear bomb works, who might be interested in obtaining one, how they might get it, and what they might do with it.”—The American Lawyer

The Atomic Bazaar is an excellent introduction to this most discomfiting topic. It is remarkably comprehensive for a short book, especially given its pacy narrative. Through detailed reporting—from closed nuclear cities in the southern Urals to smuggler trails in Kurdistan—the author corrects many popular misunderstandings about the nuclear business.”—The Economist

“On the Siberian side of the Ural Mountains, two time zones east of Moscow and in deep forest, there is a city of 85,000 people. Recently some of its occupants have been building large, lavishly appointed homes. There is no obvious explanation of where the money is coming from. The housing boom is of some interest because the city in question, Ozersk, is one of the 10 closed nuclear cities in Russia. Many tons of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium are stored there, and the security surrounding it is not very impressive. This is one of the many disturbing things that William Langewiesche tells us in The Atomic Bazaar, a short, taut and striking account of the current and prospective state of the deadly nuclear game . . . How convincing is this analysis? Pretty compelling for someone of a realist disposition, especially given the level of incompetence and disarray recently displayed by the leading nuclear states, the main actors with an interest in proving it false. If you have any anxiety left over after worrying about global warming, you might want to read this book. The odds are that this catastrophe will happen in your lifetime.”—Owen Harries, The Wall Street Journal

“In his new book, The Atomic Bazaar, the reportorial stakes are higher than at ground zero or in Iraq. It is about the escape of the nuclear genie from the leaky bottle of international controls, and many facts are necessarily murkier. Information is classified; sourcing is often anonymous; governments dissemble in the interests of policy; evidence can be indicative rather than conclusive. Like American Ground, the book is assembled from Langewiesche’s magazine reporting, this time from disparate locales along real and potential supply lines of nuclear material and processing equipment . . . At the state level, this is worrisome, and much of The Atomic Bazaar is devoted to reporting on Pakistan and its atomic mastermind, Abdul Qadeer Khan, ‘the greatest nuclear proliferator of all time,’ who fed nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya—and made overtures to a fourth country (Syria? Saudi Arabia?)—before he was stopped . . . The Atomic Bazaar builds a convincing case that Khan’s early actions in helping his own country develop nuclear weapons—dating back to the mid-1970s—were well known in the United States.”—Art Winslow, Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Langewiesche’s policy prescriptions and sobering observations are a world removed from the ‘America as hyperpower’ motif trumpeted across the political spectrum a few years back. That said, in a world where American power is being challenged like it hasn’t been in decades, perhaps the time has come to consider how Washington can use its power and influence more realistically, in an attempt to vouchsafe its prerogatives in the increasingly challenging realm of foreign policy. The Atomic Bazaar, and its straight talk about the global nuclear race, certainly provides fodder for that all-important and seemingly unavoidable discussion.”—A. G. Gancarski, The Washington Times

"Langewiesche makes a depressing, persuasive case that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is a dead letter . . . He sweeps aside the dry leaves of diplomacy to examine this truth from Russia, where U.S. efforts to shore up haphazard security over nuclear stockpiles are cynically received as money down a rathole; from Holland, where the theft of uranium enrichment blueprints was hidden to avoid embarrassment; and from Pakistan, where the pompous proliferator Abdul Qadeer Khan sold package deals for nuclear weapons for about $100 million . . . [Langewiesche's] style of journalism relies on the grit and feel of players in the field, from warlords who control smuggling routes in Central Asia to Dr. Khan’s old lab partner in the Netherlands. But he argues that propping up corrupt regimes in Pakistan took priority over stopping the spread of nuclear weapons—a mind-boggling conclusion . . . Most of The Atomic Bazaar first appeared as a series of articles in the Atlantic magazine in late 2005 and early 2006. It’s valuable to have them as a book . . . Mr. Langewiesche comes away from this with another cold-blooded conclusion: Live with it. After the Iraq experience, he sees no merit in pre-emptive wars to stop nations from acquiring nuclear weapons. He doesn't want to abandon diplomacy, but he doesn't give you any comfort regarding the world we hand to our children. Now is the time, he concludes, ‘for finding the courage . . . to accept the equalities of a maturing world in which many countries have acquired atomic bombs, and some may use them.'”—Jim Landers, The San Diego Union-Tribune

“A calm, clear-as-water book that assesses the illicit global nuclear trade six decades after Tibbets helped end a war and open Pandora’s box . . . Langewiesche excels at a kind of forensic journalism, and his new book can be read as a globe-trotting tour of the law of unintended consequences . . . Even as our entertainment is busy flirting with nuclear annihilation . . . Langewiesche’s little book has the temerity to look the real thing in the eye.”—Karen R. Long, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

The Atomic Bazaar opens with an unnervingly vivid description of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, and the impact of a Hiroshima-size nuclear device. That description recalls the equally impressive account of the attack on the World Trade Center that opens American Ground. A master of calm, lucid prose, Langewiesche is never calmer or more lucid than when describing something horrific . . . in the most arresting portion of The Atomic Bazaar, he guides readers through an alphabet soup of U.S. and international agencies dedicated to guarding against those possibilities.”—Mark Feenly, The Houston Chronicle

“It would seem governmental resources might be better spent overlooking what a 13-year-old spends on the Internet and focusing on, say, nuclear weapons and their availability to terrorists. The Atomic Bazaar, a terrifically reported book by Vanity Fair’s William Langewiesche grows out of this perspective, and it will both terrify you and put you at ease.”—John Freeman, The Denver Post

“This short book will leave you with a sense that the nuclear fate of the world depends on a strange balance of secrecy, bureaucratic vigilance, inertia, serendipity and corruption, all held together with luck and chewing gum. Included here are the stories of Adbul Qadeer Khan (Pakistan’s deposed prince of nuclear technology) and American reporter Mark Hibbs, whom Langewiesche calls ‘a legend in the secretive realm of nuclear power.’ It’s fascinating and unnerving stuff.”—Anne Stephenson, The Arizona Republic

“There is no other way to say it: This is an important book—an urgent book—that plainly confronts the likelihood of Pakistan or India or Iran or North Korea or a stateless terrorist clique initiating a war by using a nuclear weapon.”—Steven Weinberg, The Christian Science Monitor

“As a kindergartner in 1963, I remember being instructed to crawl under my desk and put my head between my knees during air raid drills. Schools don't do that anymore, but after reading William Langewiesche’s The Atomic Bazaar, maybe they should . . . Readers of The Atomic Bazaar will come away with a new understanding of nuclear proliferation. And for those who enjoy reading espionage, political science and nuclear weapons instructional manuals, this book is the bomb.”—Richard Horan, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“In his precise, clear, muddy boots-on-the-ground style, Langewiesche explains the complex problem of nuclear proliferation.”—Kevin Horrigan, Chattanooga Times Free Press

“This book has convinced me that just about any country on earth can have nuclear weapons if it wants them. My conclusion from reading The Atomic Bazaar is that it is still possible to stop or impede any particular program, but the general process of nuclear proliferation is now so advanced that it is virtually certain that a great many underdeveloped countries will eventually build their own atomic bombs. The author, William Langewiesche, believes that nuclear weapons are now an achievable ambition for most of the world’s states. He reached that conclusion after researching and reporting nuclear proliferation stories for The Atlantic Monthly and Vanity Fair for many years. In the course of that work he met and interviewed engineers, government officials and other journalists who specialized in that field across the world. The evidence of his eyes and ears and the words of potential and actual participants in the ‘atomic bazaar’ drove his conclusions. Langewiesche, whose previous books include The Outlaw Sea, argues that it is unlikely that entire, functioning nuclear weapons will be sold to developing countries by those who possess them. He believes, correctly I think, that the nuclear powers have instituted sufficiently stringent controls on such weapons to prevent theft and sale.”—Patrick Lang, America

“Langewiesche opens with an icy discussion of the American use of nuclear weapons against civilian populations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, followed by a similarly antiseptic description of the physics of nuclear weapons. A national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, Langewiesche is a skilled writer, and both treatments induce awe and queasiness, reflecting our deep ambivalence about our nation’s relationship with nuclear technology . . . The book offers a brief explanation of the logic of the NPT—it was intended not to constrain, let alone reduce, the number of nuclear weapons in the world but rather to limit membership in the club of nuclear nations—before moving swiftly on to Langewiesche’s bread and butter, investigative reporting.”—Justin Logan, The American Conservative

“William Langewiesche has translated some of the most visible dangers of 21st-century proliferation into a vivid text that is provocative in its implications. Langewiesche offers readers a striking premise: the nonproliferation regime has ultimately failed to delegitimize nuclear weapons as symbols of power and prestige in the international system . . . Langewiesche is an illustrative writer, and his talent and flair for the dramatic are immediately apparent. His narratives bring life and color to the subject, offering images of A. Q. Khan’s lake house with its sinking speedboat, or of the comfortable VIP quarters at a Georgian border crossing. While not crucial to understanding his contentions, such illustrations lend a context and description rarely found in the nonproliferation literature. Purely academic treatments of the subject cannot compete with Langewiesche’s prose . . . An entertaining and educational book . . . Langewiesche is right to emphasize the dangers facing the world today.”—Quincy W. Castro, Nonproliferation Review

"In his sixth book of combustible investigative journalism, Langewiesche, long a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly and now the international editor for Vanity Fair, takes on the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Fluent in nuclear politics, Langewiesche explains why nuclear bombs are now the weapons of choice for poor and poorly governed countries and 'the new stateless guerillas,' and he reveals how such groups can acquire the components of a nuclear bomb. Intrepid and electrifying, Langewiesche reports on contaminated secret nuclear cities in Russia and such U.S. funded outposts as the so-called Plutonium Palace, and he chronicles how stolen uranium and nuclear hardware are smuggled to Turkey, the 'grand bazaar for nuclear goods.' The book's most startling disclosures are found in Langewiesche's portrait of Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of the 'Muslim' bomb and the 'greatest nuclear proliferator of all time,' and his profile of fellow journalist Mark Hibbs, who has revealed secrets pertinent to the mess in Iran. Langewiesche's bracing exposé of nuclear criminality blasts away the ubiquitous misinformation usually attendant on this alarming subject."—Donna Seaman, Booklist

"Langewiesche 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."—Library Journal

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Chapter One THE VANGUARD OF THE POOR Hiroshima was destroyed in a flash by a bomb dropped from a propeller-driven B-29 of the U.S. Army Air Corps, on the warm morning of Monday, August 6, 1945. The bomb was not chemical, as bombs until then had been, but atomic, designed to release the energies that Einstein had described. It was a simple cannon-type device of the sort that today any number of people could build in a garage. It was bulbous and black, about ten feet long, and weighed ninety-seven hundred pounds. It fell nose-down for forty-three seconds and, for maximum effect, never hit
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  • William Langewiesche

  • William Langewiesche is the author of five previous books: Cutting for Sign, Sahara Unveiled, Inside the Sky, American Ground, and, most recently, The Outlaw Sea. He is currently International Correspondent for Vanity Fair, and was for years a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, where this book originated.
  • William Langewiesche Copyright Andrew Brucker