Going Nuclear: Many Aim to Join a Powerful Club Iran and other countries — not terrorist groups — are most likely to pose the next nuclear arms threat, author William Langewiesche says. Their goal: wield nuclear weapons for political power.
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Going Nuclear: Many Aim to Join a Powerful Club

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Going Nuclear: Many Aim to Join a Powerful Club

Going Nuclear: Many Aim to Join a Powerful Club

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One of Iran's key nuclear sites is in the city of Natanz. Inspectors for the International Atomic Energy Agency reportedly toured the facility last weekend. The New York Times reports inspectors found equipment producing for the first time fuel suitable for nuclear reactors. The man who leads the IAEA, Mohammed ElBaradei, told the paper we believe they have the knowledge. From now on, it is simply a question of perfecting that knowledge.


Now, the nuclear ambitions of nations like Iran are profiled in a new book called "The Atomic Bazaar." Author William Langewiesche told us yesterday that he thinks terrorists are unlikely to have the bomb anytime soon, but more countries like Iran are likely to succeed.

WILLIAM LANGEWIESCHE: The future is quite clear: The poor of the world will acquire increasingly the nuclear weapons capabilities. The problem, however, is very different than the problem is for terrorists. Having one or two bombs doesn't do you much good if you're a government. What you want to have is an arsenal. And if you have the capability, you then have power, which is really what this is about.

INSKEEP: Well now, you've previously told us that it's a low-probability event that a terrorist group would ever put together a bomb. What makes it relatively easy for countries to do that to the extent that quite a few seem to be pursuing nuclear programs all the time?

LANGEWIESCHE: Because they can set up the manufacturing facilities to produce the fissile material. They can provide the haven, they can build the warehouses and either put them in a cave or in a bunker or not. They provide the political safety for this to occur.

INSKEEP: They can - they don't have to steal the uranium the way - or buy it - the way that a terrorist group would have to do. They can try to enrich it as Iran says it is currently doing.

LANGEWIESCHE: That's correct, and that is what they do. There's no hope - if you want to sustain an arsenal of nuclear weapons, there's no hope of acquiring enough fissile material on the black market. I mean, you might be able to acquire enough for one or two bombs. That's not the problem if you're a government. You want to build an arsenal.

INSKEEP: Well, let's say that you are able to get that far. Do you then need a bunch of brilliant scientists to turn that uranium into an effective nuclear arsenal?

LANGEWIESCHE: Well, we know in the case of Pakistan and the famous A.Q. Khan, who was the great proliferator responsible for Pakistan's acquisition of nuclear weapons, that it helps if you've got a very smart and ambitious guy leading the effort. He stole a lot of very specific information about centrifuges - that is the machine that is used to enrich uranium. He did not steal information about building of nuclear bombs because you don't need to steal that information. It's all in public domain. And I would imagine that he cut five to 10 years off the effort by just walking away from The Netherlands with that information in his head.

INSKEEP: So is getting the fuel - just as it is with terrorists - is getting the fuel the hardest part, whether you are going to try to buy it as a terrorist would or whether you're going to try to make it as a state might?

LANGEWIESCHE: Getting or making the fuel is the hardest part, yes. It's the big operation. And in the case of a terrorist, it has to do with being very discrete and getting a small amount. In the case of a government, it has to do with setting up an enormous industry, which Pakistan did.

INSKEEP: And is it safe to say that if a country like Iran succeeds in enriching enough uranium, that's it, they can be a nuclear power anytime they want to be?

LANGEWIESCHE: Of course. And I mean we know very well what Iran is doing. There's no secret here. I mean they are pursuing nuclear weapons right now and really cannot be stopped because this is information and you can't bomb information out of people's heads. The logic for acquiring nuclear weapons is quite clear in many countries and in Iran.

INSKEEP: What do you mean the logic of acquiring nuclear weapons?

LANGEWIESCHE: These are very effective political tools. It's not by chance that the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council are the same members of the original club of five nuclear powers: France, Britain, Russia - former Soviet Union - China, the United States.

INSKEEP: And then there's a list of other countries that have acquired nuclear weapons in the years since.

LANGEWIESCHE: Well, we had Israel and South Africa, and both of them being maverick nations so they were not operating by the pure logic of the Cold War. India also early, a non-aligned state.

INSKEEP: Wanted to defend itself against China, for example, so it needed nuclear weapons.


INSKEEP: And then Pakistan wants to defend itself against India.

LANGEWIESCHE: And it all makes sense. Once India had a nuclear weapon, Pakistan, really being the target of India's anger often, really needed to have nuclear weapons also. So these are not irrational choices. That's the problem. We may deplore it, but the logic is there.

INSKEEP: Is there something viral about this? Every new country that gets the bomb creates other countries around it which desperately need the bomb.

LANGEWIESCHE: Of course, that doesn't mean to stand down from attempts to limit the spread of nuclear weapons by any means. But an acknowledgement that the spread is inevitable would tend to mitigate against some of the more extreme reactions. For instance, possible wars against a country like Iran.

INSKEEP: How can fears of nuclear annihilation be overstated?

LANGEWIESCHE: First of all, the word annihilation is rather large. We're looking at the possibility of more likely of limited nuclear wars fought between Third World states - India and Pakistan. We're talking, of course, about the possibility of millions of people dying, a very serious thing. But it's not the same thing as global annihilation, sort of the Cold War idea.

INSKEEP: Well, what are we to make of that when you're pointing us toward a world where, given the options, the likelihood of a nuclear war that maybe only involved a few dozen bombs, because that's all a couple of countries had in their arsenals, and maybe only killed millions rather than billions of people is considered an acceptable outcome?

LANGEWIESCHE: Well, this is our bed and we lie in it. I mean this is the world in which we live. We may not like it. We shouldn't like it, but this is where we are in history.

INSKEEP: Is there anything reassuring here in the way that states, as opposed to terrorists, would use a nuclear weapon or not use a nuclear weapon once they have it?

LANGEWIESCHE: There is one thing. All countries, states that become nuclear powers are subject to the logic of deterrence. That is mutually assured destruction, retaliation, and to the extent that they have big houses, they have families, they have infrastructure, or that they maybe even care about their own countries, they're offering huge targets that cannot be defended. And things can get out of control, of course, but assured destruction or retaliation continues to be our best hope.

INSKEEP: William Langewiesche is author of "The Atomic Bazaar." Thanks very much for speaking with us.


INSKEEP: Mr. Langewiesche explains some of his travels to research his book at npr.org. And we'll continue our conversations tomorrow, when a nuclear expert says that Langewiesche is wrong and the spread of nuclear weapons can be stopped.

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