The U.S. detonated the first atomic bomb on July 16, 1945, in a New Mexico desert. But the tremendous effort leading to the successful test was very much an international affair. A striking fact is that more than three-quarters of the senior scientists laboring in the heavily guarded wartime facility at Los Alamos were not born in this country. Even the Soviet Union — as Thomas C. Reed and Danny B. Stillman remark sardonically in “The Nuclear Express,” a history of nuclear proliferation — had their “representatives” present at the creation. With such a multifarious cast of characters in close attendance, it is no wonder that, like furies emerging from Pandora’s box, the lethal technology began to spread uncontrollably at the very dawn of the atomic age.
Six decades later we live in what has come to resemble a nuclear madhouse. Nine countries are known nuclear powers, including the basket case of Pakistan and lunatic-led North Korea. Unless the world takes action, another lunatic-led state, Iran, will soon join the list. Indeed, the time is drawing short: The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday that U.S. officials have discovered “fresh evidence of recent efforts by Iran to evade sanctions” and to acquire the means to deliver nuclear weapons on long-range missiles.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the Natanz nuclear-enrichment facility in 2007. ENLARGE
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the Natanz nuclear-enrichment facility in 2007. ASSOCIATED PRESS
Ranging widely over the subject, Messrs. Reed and Stillman assemble a mass of details, technical and political, to tell us how the world reached this parlous state. Both are retired designers of thermonuclear weapons, the former from Livermore National Laboratory, the latter Los Alamos. Two themes predominate in their account. First, the technological know-how to build nuclear weapons has become impossible to contain. The nuclear express, they say, is a train that long ago left the station and is now hurtling down the tracks without an engineer at the throttle. On one of his visits to his counterparts in China, Mr. Stillman tells us, he observed American-educated Chinese engineers and physicists laboring away on every aspect of weapons design. As “The Nuclear Express” makes clear, the Chinese — assiduous students of American achievements — have been improving on our best techniques and then, in turn, disseminating this technological know-how to clients abroad.
The book’s second theme: The U.S. has invested extraordinary efforts in making nuclear weapons safe, but it was not always thus, and elsewhere it is still not a universal practice. In the first years of the nuclear era, military discipline alone kept American weapons from misuse. In some locations, in other words, the only thing preventing the unintended explosion of a nuclear weapon was a 19-year-old soldier with a rifle. The generals in charge of weapons discouraged the implementation of technological barriers — mechanical or electrical locks — that might slow an American response to a surprise attack.
By the late 1950s, after a series of frightening near-accidents, such laxity had become intolerable. Engineers set to work, and now Permissive Action Links are built into almost all U.S. nuclear weapons; the computerized padlocks require the insertion of a 12-digit code, known only to the president and his designated successors, to arm a nuclear device. Messrs. Reed and Stillman express doubt that all of the other nuclear powers have adopted such prophylactic measures. The practices of Pakistan and India in this area are not fully known. Nor can we be at all confident about the safeguards established by Russia, where slovenliness is part of the national culture and nuclear accidents have already taken a terrible toll in human life.
Messrs. Reed and Stillman conclude that a fierce storm is gathering. They see the Islamic bomb — whether wielded by Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia or some unforeseen possessor of the murderous weaponry — bringing about a world in which “millions will die” and “more than one democratic society will be consigned to the dust-heap of history.”
The authors are also deeply concerned about China, some of whose officials “might not object to the nuclear destruction of New York or Washington, followed by the collapse of American financial power, so long as Chinese fingerprints could not be found at the scene of the crime.” But Messrs. Reed and Stillman do not provide evidence for this dire reading of Beijing’s intentions, nor do they explain why the Chinese would embark on a course almost certain to wreck their own economy as well.‘The administrative offices, laboratories and infrastructure needed to support the test of China’s nuclear weapons were built from scratch, starting in 1960, within a newly constructed town to be known as Malan. —
Which brings us to the weakness of this often informative book. The authors are nuclear-weapons designers, not students of international relations — and it shows. When they depart from their discussion of technology and enter the realm of politics, they make many strong assertions, some of which are questionable or worse. Tracing the flow of technology from Islamabad to Riyadh, for example, Messrs. Reed and Stillman tell us that “the peoples of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are culturally close, indistinguishable in person.” Wrong on both counts.
The authors are at their best when describing what they know well: the inner workings of these frightening devices. For anyone wishing to understand why, say, the U.S. “Bravo” test of March 1, 1954, was three times more powerful than planned, “The Nuclear Express” is a useful source. The explanation: Weapon designers miscalculated the way in which the isotope Lithium-7 would convert into Lithium-6, thereby supercharging the bomb into a 15-megaton explosion. The resulting shockwave fractured a concrete firing bunker 20 miles from the blast, and radiation poured into a control room filled with unhappy officials. Other casualties from radioactive fallout were suffered in locations more than 100 miles from the epicenter.
The story of Bravo has been told before by others, but it is worth hearing again, especially from writers with a thorough knowledge of the technology involved. Bravo was a little mistake with big consequences. This book may be unsteady when it ventures into political analysis, but it is sufficiently steady to make plain that allowing the nuclear express to keep roaring ahead would be a much bigger mistake, with much bigger consequences.
Mr. Schoenfeld, a resident scholar at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J., is writing a book about secrecy and national security.