Review of ’How to Build a Nuclear Bomb‘, Frank Barnaby, Granta £9.99
On the day that I write this review, the Guardian‘s front page headline reads ’Blair Admits Weapons of Mass Destruction May Never Be Found‘. Inside it reports French police foiling a ’chemical or biological attack‘ plot by Al Qaida and documents plans by the German government to protect nuclear power plants from terrorist destruction.
Since 11 September ’weapons of mass destruction‘ (WMD) is a phrase never far from the pen of headline writers or the lips of politicians.
In his introduction the author writes, ’It is impossible to judge the threat of WMDs unless we know the answers to some key questions.‘ In the face of government lies and spin, this is a valid point and Frank Barnaby, a nuclear physicist who witnessed one of Britain‘s atomic weapons being tested in 1953, tries to answer basic questions about WMDs to help us to judge the threat.
You may be surprised to find how easy it would be to make a nuclear bomb, or for terrorists to produce enough chemicals to poison your town. However, the likelihood of a terrorist group being able to obtain the materials for WMDs has in no way been hindered by the actions of governments over the last few decades.
This is particularly clear when it comes to the possibility of terrorists manufacturing a ’dirty bomb‘ or, worse, a fully-fledged nuclear weapon. Barnaby explains how the basic radioactive components for such weapons are the by-products of nuclear power plants and explains that ’the sheer amount of plutonium in the world itself is an incitement to nuclear terrorism.‘
It‘s a frightening fact that no one really knows just how many nuclear weapons were produced by the former Soviet Union (even the bureaucrats of the time didn‘t bother to record them all), and it is very likely that material has fallen into the wrong hands.
The clear, concise information in this book is a real strength. But there are a number of flaws. The author sees terrorists armed with some form of WMD or similarly armed ’rogue states‘ as the future‘s biggest threat. Yet time and again he rightly refers to the WMDs held by major governments - in his introduction he describes how the US‘s strategy to combat WMDs envisages nuclear weapons being used not as a deterrent, but as ’America‘s war-fighting strategy‘. Similarly, when looking at urgent measures to combat terrorism, he calls for a strengthening and improvement of international treaties regarding WMDs, even though earlier he has shown how ineffective these can be, with major governments ignoring their legal obligations.
It seems to me that the very real threat of terrorists getting hold of WMDs should be put into the context of the huge stockpiles already in existence in the hands of governments, like our own, who are prepared to use them. Yet Barnaby‘s demands to oppose terrorism aren‘t matched by calls for arms reduction.
While reading How to Build a Nuclear Bomb, I was reminded of another attempt to educate people about the threat of WMDs. As cruise missiles were deployed in Britain in the 1980s, a short book Protest and Survive was written by EP Thompson and others. Its very title showed that the authors believed that ordinary people had a role in getting rid of WMDs. Unfortunately Frank Barnaby doesn‘t and so while his book provides a useful service to all those who want to create a world free from WMDs, it doesn‘t offer us any strategy for doing it.