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A February 2004 rally in Karachi for Khan, who trafficked in nuclear secrets. (AP Photo/Shakil Adil)

The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor
By William Langewiesche
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 179 pp., $22

William Langewiesche is a kind of journalistic Joseph Conrad . Seeking out extreme, exotic places (the Sahara, ground zero, post-Saddam Iraq), Langewiesche writes about no-nonsense individuals -- usually, but not always, men -- of high technical competence: pilots, engineers, sailors. That competence is what attracts Langewiesche. Himself a superb reporter and writer, he sees doing one's job well as an almost moral imperative. The quicksand line between professionalism and culpability, the line that sunders the life (and soul) of a Lord Jim , a Mr. Kurtz , is his abiding subject.

Langewiesche, now on the staff of Vanity Fair after many years at The Atlantic Monthly , is not just the most Conradian but also the most elemental of contemporary journalists. So far his books have encompassed earth ("Cutting for Sign," about the US-Mexican border, "Sahara Unveiled," "American Ground," about excavating the World Trade Center site), air ("Inside the Sky"), and water ("The Outlaw Sea" ). He has now completed the cycle, with a book about fire.

In "The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor," Langewiesche writes about the fire released by nuclear weapons. More specifically, he looks at nuclear proliferation and the disastrously successful career of Abdul Qadeer Khan . Khan is the Pakistani metallurgical engineer whose pilfering of nuclear secrets in Western Europe helped create Pakistan's nuclear weapons program. He later sold nuclear secrets to North Korea, Iran, and Libya.

Khan takes up some two-thirds of Langewiesche's book. This makes for an odd skewing of structure, as the preceding material is in many respects both richer and even more troubling.

"The Atomic Bazaar" opens with an unnervingly vivid description of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and the impact of a Hiroshima-size nuclear device. That description recalls the equally impressive account of the attack on the World Trade Center that opens "American Ground." A master of calm, lucid prose, Langewiesche is never calmer or more lucid than when describing something horrific.

That's no less true when the horrific material is abstract. The current global situation regarding the proliferation of nuclear weapons is troubling in the extreme. For decades, nuclear weapons were a monopoly of the great powers. Nuclear weapons were what defined them as great. That fact, as well as the destructive power of such weapons and the great expense of developing them, kept the monopoly secure. Advances in technology and the end of the Cold War have helped alter that.

It's believed that at least 30 countries now either possess or have the capacity to develop nuclear weapons. "The nuclearization of the world has become the human condition," Langewiesche writes, "and it cannot be changed."

Having described this evolution in the status of nuclear weapons, Langewiesche examines the specifics of proliferation in a post-monopoly world. An even greater fear than the presence of such weapons in the arsenals of additional nation-states is nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorist groups. There is the "entirely real" possibility, Langewiesche writes, "that one or two nuclear weapons will pass into the hands of the new stateless guerrillas, the jihadists, who offer none of the retaliatory targets that have so far underlain the nuclear peace -- no permanent infrastructure to protect, no capital city, and indeed no country called home." How might such groups get bombs? Langewiesche takes us through the particulars of the options: building and stealing. In the most arresting portion of "The Atomic Bazaar," he guides readers through an alphabet soup of US and international agencies dedicated to guarding against those possibilities. He introduces us to the National Nuclear Security Administration , which practices MPC&A (Material Protection Control and Accounting) . He goes to the city of Ekaterinburg, in the Urals , which lies near five of Russia's 10 nuclear cities. All are closed to the public. How closed might they be to a Chechen commando unit? What Langewiesche finds isn't all that reassuring.

Of course, Khan didn't need any commandos to help Pakistan enter the nuclear club (note the noun's two meanings). He simply needed technical knowledge, a job in the right place (a Dutch firm that designed centrifuges), and unsuspecting colleagues. There was nothing all that difficult about Khan's acquiring the means for Pakistan to build bombs, but that didn't keep him from putting on great airs -- and receiving great rewards -- when he returned home.

Langewiesche doesn't disguise his contempt for Khan. Yet if he's so negligible a figure, why write about him at such length? As if in compensation, there's a near-worshipful portrayal of the journalist who helped reveal what Khan had done. Mark Hibbs writes for such highly specialized publications as Nucleonics Week . Professionally unassuming and personally circumspect, Hibbs is Khan's opposite, embodying the sort of consummate expertise Langewiesche cherishes.

Hibbs' s findings, unfortunately, were after the fact. Khan now lives under house arrest in Pakistan, a concession to Western political pressure. He remains a national hero in his country. That's paradoxical, perhaps, but not surprising.

Langewiesche quotes a Pakistani whom he describes as "close to the military." "You cannot have a world order in which you have five or eight nuclear - weapons states on the one hand, and the rest of the international community on the other. There are many places like Pakistan, poor countries which have legitimate security concerns -- every bit as legitimate as yours. And yet you ask them to address those concerns without nuclear weapons, while you have nuclear weapons and you have everything else?"

Mark Feeney is a member of the Globe staff.