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(photo credit: courtesy)
The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor
By William Langewiesche
Farrar, Straus, & Giroux
Author and esteemed journalist William Langewiesche's masterpiece of investigative journalism has the drumbeat of a high-speed chase, both in real time and metaphorically. Perhaps most importantly, he takes us into the mind of one of the most scary and dangerous scientists in the world, Abdul Qadeer Khan. Khan was responsible for the theft and sale of centrifuge designs that helped build Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and who single-handedly peddled nuclear plans to North Korea, Iran and other potentially hostile countries, forever shifting and making more dangerous the already precarious nuclear balance that existed before.
Langewiesche, perhaps best known for his fine work as a national correspondent for Atlantic Monthly where this book originated, is not an ideologue wed to any singular truth. Here, he uncovers information about the burgeoning global threat of nuclear weapons production that no one else has gotten close to. Particularly about Khan.
Langewiesche attempts to isolate the precise moment when Khan became radicalized to the notion that he alone could be instrumental in making Pakistan a nuclear power.
He was born in 1936 to a Muslim family in Bhopal, India, a city rife with ethnic tension between Hindus and Muslims. His father was a very severe man who was a partisan of the Muslim League and convinced that Mahatma Gandhi was planning to annihilate all the Muslims. In 1952 Khan made the trek to the newly created state of Pakistan and moved in with one of his brothers.
In 1961, he went to study metallurgical engineering in West Berlin and easily mastered the German language. The following year, he met his Dutch wife, and they quickly had two daughters. After receiving his PhD in Belgium, he took a position in the Netherlands working for Fysisch-Dynamisch Onderzoek, a company that specializes in the design of ultracentrifuges - rapidly spinning tubes that are used to separate and concentrate certain isotopes in gasified uranium that ultimately can produce enriched uranium.
The company he worked for provided designs to consortiums who wanted to provide fuel to the nuclear power industry. But, as Langewiesche points out, the technology involved in the production of nuclear power is very similar to the technology used to create nuclear weapons. It was here that Khan copied the plans for the most advanced uranium-enrichment process known to the West and fled to Pakistan to begin preparations that would give Pakistan the nuclear bomb.
There were some in the intelligence services in the West who knew about Khan's plans for Pakistan, but they were paralyzed to act by their own governments' insistence that more importance be placed upon "propping up the various Pakistani regimes than on stopping the spread of nuclear weapons."
Langewiesche believes the danger of nuclear annihilation is growing. He fears the horrific possibility that one or two nuclear weapons will fall into the hands of the new stateless jihadists who have no retaliatory targets that have thus far underlain the nuclear peace. He is concerned that many countries want to do business with Third World countries in electric-power generation and other non-weapons related business, but points out that the technology can possibly slip into the wrong hands.
But perhaps the greatest danger we face was revealed to him when he visited with the former finance minister of Pakistan, Dr. Mubahir Hassan, an engineer by training who is now a pacifist. Langewiesche asked him how Khan, who now sits in Pakistan under house arrest, was able to get away with so much for so long.
Hassan replied, "It is a cultural trait. The Western assumption that law should treat everyone the same is no longer applicable in this country, 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. That is why there is no law for the elites in Pakistan, why they do whatever they want to do."