NS Book Review by Randy Brich - The Nuclear Express: A Political History of the Bomb and Its Proliferation

NS Book Review by Randy Brich 

The Nuclear Express:  A Political History of the Bomb and Its Proliferation by Thomas C. Reed and Danny B. Stillman 

I hear the train a comin'
It's rollin' 'round the bend,
And I ain't seen the sunshine,
Since, I don't know when, 

  • Johnny Cash        

Everything I knew about the proliferation of nuclear weapons became obsolete after reading Reed and Stillman's myth-shattering expose' The Nuclear Express:  A Political History of the Bomb and Its Proliferation.  Talk about eerie; this book will make your skin crawl.  By the time you're about half way through a reading diet of a chapter a day followed by a long walk to clear your head becomes necessary - it's that heavy.  But, your head never quite clears and the haunting image of a train load of nuclear bombs headed for a wreck that will forever alter the course of western civilization can't be erased. The Nuclear Express

The book opens with a "What if" scenario that reverberates in the nooks and crannies of your mind throughout the rest of the tome.  It describes the likely impact if the first attempt to blow up the World Trade Center had been with an inefficient nuclear bomb.  The results of a bomb yielding only 5 kilotons would have caused such widespread destruction that we'd likely still be talking about it today.   

That evocative image pervades the entire book as you learn, in chronological order, the incredibly interesting details regarding the paths each of the eight declared nuclear powers (US, Russia, France, Britain, China, India, Pakistan and North Korea) took to discover the secrets of the bomb.  Additionally, as Reed and Stillman recount the means Israel employed to unofficially obtain the bomb, you - like me- might be surprised to learn that the US wasn't involved. Other incidents involving Israel made me stare in disbelief at the page.  For example, during the 6 Day War I learned that Israel attacked the US spy ship, Liberty - killing dozens and wounding more than a hundred military personnel -- while President Johnson ordered the fleet of fighter jets scrambled to Liberty's defense to turn around.  Similar anecdotes keep the pages turning as you immerse yourself in one of the greatest tales you will ever read.  

The first several chapters record the familiar story of the major nuclear players acquiring The Bomb.  Unfortunately, the authors get it wrong on the Xenon poisoning fix for the startup of the world's first nuclear reactor, Hanford's B Reactor, which author Jim Mahaffey details in Atomic Awakening:  A New Look At the History and Future of Nuclear Power (Interviewed and reviewed here).  To set the record straight, it was John Wheeler's calculations that determined the need to fill the unused process tubes on the corners of the octagonal reactor block with uranium fuel elements, not the installation of off-gasing tubes as Reed and Stillman allege, that solved the Xenon poisoning problem.   

The remainder of the book reads like a spine-tingling suspense novel; but in reality, it is a well researched text which makes sense because Reed and Stillman lived much of it while executing their official jobs for the US Government.  A more expert look at what can only be described as the most pressing potential problem facing western civilization would be hard to find.   

Reed and Stillman systematically peel away the layers of the onion skin that cloak the involvement of nuclear countries promoting proliferation in their allies.  From France's direct involvement in Israel's unannounced nuclear arsenal, thought to be about 100 weapons, to Russia's blueprint copycat reproduction of their nuclear city in China, Reed and Stillman provide details, dates and decisions that implicate both the provider and the receiver.   

Along the way Reed and Stillman unveil amusing anecdotes that lend credibility to their story, like the time Mao received Kruschev in his swimming pool (Kruschev didn't know how to swim). Kruschev cut his visit short, exiting the madman's kingdom after 3 days and taking with him several high-ranking nuclear ninjas.  Within the following year, all of Russia's scientists had conveniently left China either on vacation or business trips never to return.  Realizing that Russia knew the exact locations and intimate details of their nuclear program, China recreated the entire project elsewhere in remote areas protected by canyons and wilderness.  

Despite their convincing conjecture contradicting the Bush Administration's insistence of WMDs in Iraq, Reed and Stillman articulate the extraordinary indirect results achieved by Bush's War on Terror.  Perhaps the most significant indirect result involves striking fear in the hearts and minds of dictators like Libya's Gaddafi, who disclosed his country's clandestine attempts to acquire the bomb and came clean.   

Similarly, the co-authors probe Iraq's early nuclear history and, again, France's nuclear fingerprints appear at the scene of the crime.  Meanwhile, the ubiquitous Khan's presence can be traced to other nuclear wannabe's including India and Iran; while China's appear in Pakistan, and North Korea's surface in Syria.   

Once the proverbial nuclear genie was out of the bottle, the task of putting him back in becomes increasingly daunting.  Yet the major nuclear powers continue to try and, as Reed and Stillman relate, success stories currently outnumber failures.  Major successes in the former Soviet Union, as well at home, underline the importance to see the job completed.   

Although 99.9 % of the former Soviet Union's HEU has been accounted for, 1000 pounds remain at large - enough for several Hiroshima gun-type weapons. To put that number into perspective, Reed and Stillman postulate the following scenario:  suppose 5 primitive nukes (i.e., 30% efficient or about 5 kilotons each) are detonated simultaneously across the US -- two on the East Coast, one in Chicago and two in LA.  Reed and Stillman state that an attack of that magnitude would not only kill millions of Americans it would also decapitate the government as chaos and bedlam prevailed while the surviving members of Government hovered over the carnage in planes and helicopters.    

Published in 2009, Reed and Stillman predicted several situations, such as those involving Iran and North Korea, that the next president would be forced to confront during his first term in office.  These predictions are coming true as President Obama struggles to contain their nuclear aspirations.  These and other hard issues offer no easy solution.  The Nuclear Express leaves the reader with the feelings that a colossal nuclear train wreck looms over America and without prompt direct action to derail it is only a matter of when, not if. 

The Nuclear Express:  A Political History of the Bomb and Its Proliferation
Thomas C. Reed and Danny B. Stillman
Zenith Press (2009)
ISBN 978-0-7603-3502-4

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