Browsing the 'Atomic Bazaar'

First of two parts.

William Langewiesche

William Langewiesche is currently a writer for Vanity Fair magazine. He previously wrote for the Atlantic Monthly, where he chronicled the cleanup at the site of the World Trade Center. Greg Martin hide caption

itoggle caption Greg Martin

Part 2 of the Interview

Hidden in Plain Sight

Langewiesche describes how a group could conceal a project to build and deliver a nuclear weapon.

Read an Excerpt

William Langewiesche tried to imagine what it would take for a terrorist to build a nuclear bomb. Research for his new book The Atomic Bazaar took him around the world.

Where you begin, he says, depends on which radioactive element is in your bomb.

A likely choice is highly enriched uranium, which is easy to work with and abundant in the world, primarily in Russia and other former Soviet republics, the author says.

Steve Inskeep talks to Langewiesche about how would-be terrorists could obtain the material and the flimsy barriers keeping them from doing it.

As part of reporting for this book, did you go take a look at some of the places where highly enriched uranium might be concentrated in Russia?

I did. There are, as you know, 10 formerly secret cities just east of the Urals in Russia where the Soviet nuclear arsenal was built. Those cities still exist. They're still closed cities. You can't get into them. And I went there to look at the possibilities with a sort of terrorist idea in mind of how difficult it would be to acquire highly enriched uranium there.

Just to be clear on this, somebody may be listening and thinking, he's giving a guide to terrorists. What are you trying to do here?

It could be taken as a guide. On the other hand, I have been assured many times over that the discoveries that I made are well known to the world. One guy told me I was basically dealing with Boy Scout merit badge level of information. And unfortunately that's enough information to create a bomb.

So ... you've gone east of the Urals in the former Soviet Union and you're trying to think like a terrorist. You know that somewhere in that closed city is some highly enriched uranium. You need about 100 pounds of it. What options do you have?

Well, there are two choices really. You can either attack it with a commando-style raid or find a way to steal it more quietly. The commando raid idea turns out to be a pretty bad one. For one thing, these places are protected. OK, they are protected by troops who may be drunk, who may be on drugs, with all kinds of morale problems, but they can still shoot. And they can make noise.

The larger problem is that if you make noise, if you go in with a commando group, you're going to have to get away. You have hundreds of miles of voyage in front of you and you will be intercepted. You have to acquire the fissile material in such a way that the Russians don't know, at least for several days and maybe preferably never, that you have acquired it.

What is the way that would be practical then? An inside job?

An inside job — corruption. And there's plenty of corruption in Russia, of course. But it's not that easy. There are not a lot of strangers around that part of the world. You're going to be noticed. So you can't just sort of go there and corrupt somebody. It has to be done through Russian intermediaries, but it's a difficult process.

Russian intermediaries meaning you find the right crime boss who is willing to make the right connection or pay the right person and produce the fuel that you ask for?

That's correct. And of course with every intermediary, with every level, you increase the risk that you will be betrayed, that they will just take your money.

Well, let's say that you get through that step and there you are outside this closed city in the former Soviet Union with 100 pounds of uranium. What do you do then?

If they have not noticed it, at that point you're in pretty good shape. You start moving for the borders of Russia. You move toward your assembly point, which you will have chosen in advance. Probably you want to assemble it in some very large Third World city where a small industrial project will not be noticed and where the state control is loose. The obvious city is Istanbul, and you would almost certainly get there.

In other words, the defense that the United States and Europe has built against this possibility pretty much breaks down once you've acquired the fissile material.

When you talk about defense, you're talking about guarding borders. What kind of facilities did you find in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, which is one of the places you identified as a possible route on your way to a safe city to assemble a bomb?

It's just incredible, actually. We went down there and found this huge border crossing point that had been built by the United States at the cost of millions of dollars, with a dormitory and air conditioning and helipad. But if you have stolen 100 pounds of HEU (highly enriched uranium) and you are seriously in the business of building a weapon, you're not going to go through those borders.

You'd go over the mountains.

Go over the mountains or just across the fields. The borders are wide open. So we fail completely. And the reason we fail, they're trying to apply a governmental solution — building ports of entry and all of that — to a non-governmental problem. There are many networks of power in the world that are not governmental.

You're saying that if somebody were able to get their hands on 100 pounds of highly enriched uranium and they're trying to slip it across the border through various former Soviet republics, [there are] lawless areas where there are local leaders who might be able to help things move or help stop things for that matter.

There's no such thing as pure anarchy in this world. So if you look at the areas which we believe are lawless, in fact they're full of laws. They may be traditional, they may be clan-based, they may be new, they may be business-based. But there's always some form of order.

What sort of order did you find along that possible smuggling route that you outlined and traveled along?

Well, what one might expect. I went to the border between Iran and Turkey and spent quite a lot of time in the mountains there among the Kurds, who are moving opium and ... smuggle diesel fuel across the mountains that divide the two countries. These are basically very large families. They may have thousands of members in them. They the call them clans.

Believe me, nothing escapes their notice. Now, it entirely escapes the notice of the Turkish government, let alone the United States, the U.S. government. So if a load of HEU is moved through on horseback, we have no way of knowing that. But, of course, [the clans] know it. But they're not talking to us .... It's not a question of hostilities, it's that we haven't sent people in there to talk to them.

After you met with some clan leaders, did you get a sense that an American could build a relationship with them to the point where they might tip you off if some suspicious material was passing through?


Did you get a sense that if you made friends with them and then came and said, 'You know, I have some packages that I need to pass through quietly,' do you think that those clan leaders might help?


What is the farthest that anyone is know to have gotten through these steps that you have laid out?

The best information is that no one has gotten anywhere near this. I mean, if you look carefully and practically at this process, you see that it is an enormous undertaking full of risks for the would-be terrorists. So far there is no public case at least known of any appreciable amount of weapons-grade HEU disappearing. And that's the first step. So, if you don't have that, you don't have anything.

In Part 2 of the interview, airing on Wednesday's Morning Edition, Langewiesche discusses how additional countries could soon have the bomb.

Excerpt: 'The Atomic Bazaar'

'The Atomic Bazaar'

Chapter One


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 the ground. One thousand nine hundred feet above the city it fired a dull gray plug of highly enriched uranium down a steel tube into a receiving lump of the same refined material, creating a combined uranium mass of 133 pounds. In relation to its surface area, that mass was more than enough to achieve "criticality" and allow for an uncontrollable chain of fission reactions, during which subatomic particles called neutrons collided with uranium nuclei, releasing further neutrons, which collided with other nuclei, in a blossoming process of self-destruction. The reactions could be sustained for just a millisecond, and they fully exploited less than two pounds of the uranium atoms before the resulting heat forced a halt to the process through expansion. Uranium is one of the heaviest elements on earth, almost twice as heavy as lead, and two pounds of it amounts to only about three tablespoonfuls. Nonetheless the release of energy over Hiroshima yielded a force equivalent to fifteen thousand tons (fifteen kilotons) of TNT, achieved temperatures higher than the sun's, and emitted light-speed pulses of lethal radiation. More than 150,000 people died.

Their executioner was an ordinary pilot named Paul Tibbets, who was twenty-nine then and is still alive now, in Ohio. He neither abhorred nor enjoyed the kill: he was a flight technician, removed from the slaughter by altitude and speed, and coddled by a pressurized, well-heated cockpit. That morning the sky was quiet, with no sign of enemy opposition. The B-29 cruised thirty-one thousand feet above the city in smooth air. It lurched and nosed upward when the bomb fell clear. Tibbets banked steeply to get away and turned the airplane's tail on the destruction. When the bomb ignited, now far behind and below, it lit the sky with the prettiest blues and pinks that Tibbets had ever seen. The first shock wave came shimmering through the atmosphere and overtook the airplane from behind, causing a sharp bump measured at 2.5 g's by a cockpit accelerometer. The bump felt about like the near miss of an antiaircraft burst, or the jolt of crossing a pothole in a jeep. A second shock wave then hit, but it was a reflection off the ground, like an echo of the first, and therefore even less intense. Tibbets tasted the fillings in his teeth. He saw the cloud rising over Hiroshima, and, as must be expected, he felt no regrets.

Still, Hiroshima was not good for him. Though he became a brigadier general in the U.S. Air Force, and later the chairman of an executive-jet company, he suffered from the stigma of having killed so many, and he grew bitter about any implication that what he had done was wrong. It was unrealistic and probably unfair to expect him to repent, but over the decades American elites did just that, having first required him to drop the bomb. In his retirement he took to traveling around the country giving talks to war buffs and like-minded reactionaries. He showed up at air shows, I suppose to shake hands. In the 1990s, he waded angrily into a minor controversy about the Smithsonian's display of the forward section of his airplane, the Enola Gay, and accused the elites of manipulating public opinion for their self-interest. He said he was a pilot and soldier, and by implication a simple man. He sold trinkets on the Internet, including, for $500, a beautifully rendered one-twelfth-scale atomic-bomb model mounted on a (solid, not veneer) mahogany base, and accompanied by an autographed data plate. For those with smaller budgets, he offered a sheet of thirty-six commemorative stamps picturing a B-29 soaring beyond a mushroom cloud, with excellent detail of boiling smoke on the ground. Tibbets may have been bullheaded, but at least he was consistent. When the writer Studs Terkel interviewed him in 2002, eleven months after the September 11 attacks, he did not bemoan the sadness of war or ruminate on the difficulty of facing a stateless foe, but opted true to form for a nuclear response. Against Kabul? Cairo? Mecca? He said, "You're gonna kill innocent people at the same time, but we've never fought a damn war anywhere in the world where they [he meant we] didn't kill innocent people. If the newspapers would just cut out the shit: 'You've killed so many civilians!' That's their tough luck for being there."

Tibbets spoke from experience, and in a narrow sense he was right: it was indeed just tough luck for all the innocents who died under his wings in 1945. Those people, however, did not constitute collateral casualties—any more than the victims in the World Trade Center did. In fact Hiroshima had been chosen primarily as a civilian target and had in part been exempted from conventional firebombing to preserve it for the most dramatic possible demonstration of a nuclear strike. Three days later, the city of Nagasaki was hit by an even more powerful device—a sophisticated implosion-type bomb built around a softball-sized sphere of plutonium, which crossed the weight-to-surface-area threshold of "criticality" when it was symmetrically compressed by carefully arrayed explosives. A twenty-two-kiloton blast resulted. Though much of the city was shielded by hills, about seventy thousand people died. Quibblers claim that a demonstration offshore, or even above Tokyo harbor, might have induced the Japanese to surrender with less loss of life—and that if not, another bomb was ready. But the intent was to terrorize a nation to the maximum extent, and there is nothing like nuking civilians to achieve that effect.

It's too bad, but such is the world we live in. And cities are soft targets. More accurately, they are flammable, dense, and brittle. This goes for New York, with all its high-quality concrete and steel, and even more for the new urban conglomerations of Asia. Beyond this there are significant differences in the dynamics of nuclear blasts, dependent largely on the size of the explosion and the altitude at which it takes place. A Hiroshima-sized terrorist attack at street level in Times Square would shatter midtown Manhattan and raise a cloud of radioactive debris which would settle downwind, lethally, perhaps across Queens. By comparison a North Korean airburst of the same size a half mile above Seoul would cause still larger destruction, but result in less radioactive fallout. These variations, however, become mere details when they are measured against the common result: any city hit by a nuclear bomb will fall badly apart. And a Hiroshima-sized device now lies well within the capacities of any number of nations.

When such a device ignites, the nuclear chain reaction endures for a millionth of a second. During that interval, a lethal burst of neutron particles shoots outward, penetrating walls and people in the immediate vicinity, but losing energy within a few hundred yards, as the neutrons collide with the air. Simultaneously, and for seconds afterward, a pulse of electromagnetic gamma rays, similar to light but far more powerful, flows at dangerous levels through the city to a distance of about two miles. All this would be serious enough, but it is just the start. Even in combination, these two forms of radiation (known as the initial radiation) account for only about 5 percent of the energy released by the bomb. Another 10 percent is released well after ignition, by the radioactive residue that may fall to the ground or go drifting off through the atmosphere. But all the rest of the bomb's energy—85 percent of the yield—is transformed into air-blast and heat. Nuclear bombs of the Hiroshima size destroy cities by smashing and burning them down.

These primitive effects kill almost everyone who would otherwise be dying quickly of acute radiation, then spread out to kill many more. They begin within less than a millionth of a second, when the fission process releases massive amounts of invisible X-rays, which at low altitude are absorbed by the air within a few feet. The resulting heat, rising to tens of millions of degrees, raises the pressures within the vaporizing weapon to several million times that of the surrounding atmosphere. Still within the first millionth of a second, an ultrabright fireball forms, consisting of gasified weapons residues and air. The fireball brutally expands and simultaneously rises. Within three seconds of a twenty-kiloton explosion, it reaches its maximum size, about 1,500 feet across. If it touches the ground (whether because the ignition point was on a street, or at less than 750 feet overhead), it vaporizes the earth and all structures that it encounters and begins to loft large quantities of dirt and debris into a violently rising, intensely radioactive column.

Rising in that column along with all the ash and earth are hundreds of by-products of the fission, many of which are radio-active, but a good number of which decay so rapidly that they reach the end of their radioactive lives before they settle again to the ground. Rapid decay is a common characteristic of the most radioactive fission by-products. Seven hours after ignition, the emissions of the fallout are approximately one-tenth as strong as at the one-hour mark; after two days, the radioactivity has bled away to merely one-hundredth of the same one-hour value. Such decay accounts for the fact that people living downwind under even the thickest fallout will probably be able to escape safely (though they may suffer medical consequences in the long run), if only they can avoid exposure for the first few hours following the blast. Avoidance is difficult for those not specially prepared to protect themselves, and as a result many people will grow sick or die from the fallout. But residual radioactivity turns out not to be the greatest danger of a twenty-kiloton bomb.

So back to the first small fraction of a second. As the fireball grows, it reradiates some of the energy in the form of two thermal pulses. The mechanisms behind these pulses have to do with the intense temperatures and internal dynamics of the nuclear fireball, the understanding of which must surely rank among the most coolly analytical of practical human knowledge. The first pulse is short and weak and accounts for only 1 percent of the fireball's thermal radiation. It consists of ultraviolet waves, and at a short distance may sunburn human skin but poses no serious danger except for damage to the eyes of the few people who happen to have been focusing in exactly the wrong direction at exactly the wrong time. By contrast the second pulse is massive, accounting for all the rest of the fireball's thermal radiation, and continuing for an eternity—perhaps two seconds. It consists primarily of visible light and infrared emissions and, in a nuclear explosion even of this relatively modest size, is capable not only of burning eyes and skin, but of igniting combustible materials and wooden structures as far as a mile ahead of the fireball's front.

Then comes the blast. It begins as a shock wave at the fireball's birth and propagates outward initially at supersonic speeds. Within the first tenth of a second it overtakes the now slowing expansion of the fireball and bursts through the fireball's surface. Sharply pressurizing and heating the atmosphere, the shock front slows to the speed of sound and continues outward, with enormous destructive power. If the bomb was exploded in the air, there are actually two shock waves, the primary one, then a reflection off the ground. Roughly one and a quarter seconds after detonation, and a third of a mile away from the ignition point, the reflection catches up to the leading shock wave and merges with it into a single vertical front. If the bomb was exploded on the street, as it might be, say, in New York, there is no reflective wave, and the shock front travels from the very start as one. Either way the effects are about the same. Though people can withstand greater pressure spikes than the shock wave delivers, the structures they inhabit cannot. Three seconds after detonation, the shock wave is just under a mile from the ignition point and, in the case of a twenty-kiloton bomb, is breaking structures with a hammer blow of air pressure, and then tearing them apart with outflowing winds of 180 miles an hour. The violence is such that fires that may have been ignited by the thermal pulse are snuffed out. Ten seconds after detonation, the shock wave has moved two and a half miles out and has weakened significantly, but is still capable of making projectiles of glass, tearing doors from their frames, and collapsing some concrete or cinder-block walls.

There is a moment of calm.

The fireball is no longer visible, but it is still extremely hot, and it is vigorously rising into the atmosphere. A result of its rise, and of a partial vacuum that has just been formed by the displacement of air, the winds now reverse and begin to flow back toward the epicenter at speeds up to two hundred miles an hour, ripping apart damaged structures that have somehow so far remained standing. These "afterwinds" raise dirt and debris into the base of the telltale mushroom cloud now beginning to form. The broken city lies like kindling, and whether because of electrical shorts or gas pilot lights, it begins to burn. Depending on conditions, the fires may spread and join, to create the sort of firestorm that was seen in Hiroshima, though not Nagasaki. Either way, the destruction of the city is complete, and in overfilled places such as New York or Seoul—or Mumbai—it is likely that several hundred thousand people have lost their lives.

Excerpted from The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor by William Langewiesche. Copyright © 2007 by William Langewiesche. Published in May 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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