The Atomic Bazaar

by William Langewiesche

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux) $22

The Atomic Bazaar begins, of course, with a bang. William Langewiesche describes the atomic blast at Hiroshima, and later Nagasaki, in detail—the mechanism of the bombs, the millionth-of-a-second nuclear reaction, the ultrabright fireball, the column of radioactive ash. The rest of the book, detailing the geopolitical fallout of those explosions, is considerably less spectacular, and despite the terrifying subject matter of nuclear arms proliferation, it's not all that chilling.

Langewiesche jumps from WWII Japan to post–cold war Russia to examine the possible security breaches there that stateless nuclear aspirants might exploit to gain an atomic weapon. As it turns out, the likelihood of terrorists stealing a bomb or the fissile material to build one isn't great. Next, he follows the rise of one A. Q. Khan, the Pakistani scientist responsible for developing Pakistan's weapons program. Finally, he interviews Mark Hibbs, an American journalist and an expert on nuclear proliferation, at length on the global dissemination of Pakistani nuclear technology—this, it seems, is the real threat, not independent terror cells, but poor nations with nuclear ambitions and interests that run counter to the already armed nations of the world.

The threat of nuclear proliferation is very real, but like many real threats, the details are less about intrigue and espionage and more about parts procurement and international committees. It's occasionally interesting, but anybody expecting Clancy—or even History Channel—levels of drama will be disappointed. Langewiesche offers little in the way of commentary or analysis—though there's a general disgust with government corruption and incompetence and some anti-Islamist anxiety—and he ends with the half-hearted sentiment that fighting nuclear proliferation is a noble but ultimately quixotic effort. It might not be the best thing for the world, but this book could use a few more explosions.