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Every now and then I read a book that terrifies me. The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor is one such book. I’m not entirely sure why I grabbed it at the bookstore last week – it might have been that I recognized the author’s name (William Langewiesche) or that it wasn’t a very long book.
I sat outside yesterday afternoon and read it as the sun went down and my dogs played. As I turned each page, I felt myself getting more and more anxious. The core story is that of Abdul Qadeer Khan and Pakistan’s rise as a nuclear power, but all the usual characters (Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and Russia) are a deep part of the story. Oh – and the United States.
Langewiesche is an incredible storyteller. This could easily have been a tedious book. It moved along more rapidly than most of the junk nuclear crisis fiction crap that I read as part of my mental floss program. I was also introduced to a new journalistic hero – Mark Hibbs. Hibbs writes for McGraw-Hill / Platts publications such as Megawatt Daily, Emissions Daily, and Dirty Tankerwire. While these could be the titles of porn sites, they are most definitely not. Hibbs has been digging in the nuclear dirt for a long time and some of his discoveries are amazing. Frightening, but amazing.
This book reinforces that it could all be gone in a flash. Langewiesche does an awesome job of not being alarmist – he’s very pragmatic – both about the underlying facts around the global nuclear weapon industry as well the challenges of “bad guys” creating an atomic bomb. At the same time, he shows how utterly chaotic, messed up, and bureaucratic the existing global nuclear infrastructure is and why the dynamics that the US and Russia have unleased on the world – first in World War II – and then during the cold war – is outside our fundamental control (and containment) at this point.
Langewiesche has written a balanced, detailed, riveting, and terrifying book that should be read by any child of the atomic age who hid under his desk at school during an atomic bomb drill. Wow – boom. Time to go for a run and enjoy this planet.