Former U.S. Air Force Secretary Thomas Reed knows nuclear bombs better than most people. For starters, he designed two of them when he worked at the Livermore National Laboratory as a weapons designer.
His new book The Nuclear Express: A Political History of the Bomb and Its Proliferation, co-written with Danny Stillman, the former director of the technical intelligence division at Los Alamos National Laboratory, rewrites much of the public understanding about how countries with nuclear weapons came to acquire them. All countries that built bombs, including the United States, spied on or were given access to the work of other nuclear powers. In particular, the book is a scathing indictment of the Chinese government, alleging that it intentionally proliferated nuclear technology to risky regimes, particularly Pakistan.
Reed recently spoke with U.S. News's Alex Kingsbury. Excerpts:
How has the Chinese government reacted to the allegations in your book?
At first, they objected to some of this reporting, which was first published in Physics Today, but they later withdrew all objections. The Chinese experts in the weapons labs were probably surprised that we found out all this information and were able to put it all together. In public they say one thing, but behind closed doors and after hours, they are more open. All scientists want the credit for having solved certain problems by themselves without outside help. In fact, in 1949 Klaus Fuchs spied for the Soviets at Los Alamos and when he was released from prison in 1959, fled to East Germany where he met China's chief atomic bomb scientist to whom he explained the inner workings of the Fat Man bomb [which the United States dropped on Nagasaki in 1945].
What was the Chinese strategy behind encouraging proliferation once they had mastered the atomic bomb? The way you describe the Chinese intentionally spreading nuclear technology to countries like Pakistan and North Korea seems both shockingly lax and shortsighted.
Shockingly lax? Yes. Shortsighted I'm not so sure.
Think of it as three constituencies: China in about 1982, under Deng Xiaoping, decided to proliferate nuclear technology to communists and Muslims in the third world. They did so deliberately with the theory that if nukes ended up going off in the western world from a Muslim terrorist, well that wasn't all bad. If New York was reduced to rubble without Chinese fingerprints on the attack, that left Beijing as the last man standing. That's what the old timers thought.
The current Chinese government is far more cautious, though it continued to push technology to North Korea. When the North Koreans decided to test, they clearly did so without a Chinese permit and it really frosted the Chinese because it threatened to prompt Japan and South Korea to start their own programs. They didn't worry about terrorism at all.
The younger generation is adamant about keeping a lid on nuclear technology. They don't want to see Los Angeles blown up because they just sold us 10,000 pairs of sneakers. Those last two forces are contending with each other and it remains to be seen what will happen.
Why , as you say in the book, did the Chinese give the technology to Pakistan?
Pakistan can be explained by a balance of power: India was China's enemy and Pakistan was India's enemy. The Chinese did a massive training of Pakistani scientists, (just like the Russians had done for them) brought them to China for lectures, even gave them the design of the CHIC-4 device, which was a weapon that was easy to build a model for export. There is evidence that A.Q. Khan used Chinese designs in his nuclear designs. Notes from those lectures later turned up in Libya, for instance. And the Chinese did similar things for the Saudis, North Koreans, and the Algerians.
Did the Chinese further assist in the Pakistan program?
Under Pakistani president Benazir Bhutto, the country built its first functioning nuclear weapon. We believe that during Bhutto's term in office, the People's Republic of China tested Pakistan's first bomb for her in 1990.There are numerous reasons why we believe this to be true, including the design of the weapon and information gathered from discussions with Chinese nuclear experts. That's why the Pakistanis were so quick to respond to the Indian nuclear tests in 1998. It only took them two weeks and three days. When the Soviet Union took the United States by surprise with a test in 1961, it took the U.S. seventeen days to prepare and test, a device that had been on hand for years. The Pakistani response makes it clear that the gadget tested in May 1998 was a carefully engineered device in which they had great confidence.
Is sharing nuclear tests common?
The United States conducted nuclear tests in Nevada openly and with full disclosure in the 1990s on behalf of our U.K. allies. We speculate on Israeli access to the U.S. test results. For their part, the Chinese admitted to having conducted hydronuclear and radiation effects tests for France, but most tellingly they also implied—they certainly did not deny—the test of a Pakistani device. The South Africans also apparently worked with the Israelis on a nuclear test in the South Pacific in 1979.
Are Chinese proliferation programs ongoing?
Since 1991, China has been assisting the raw-materials side of the Iranian nuclear program with shipments of uranium, instructions on the design of a conversion facility in Eshfahan, and an enrichment facility at Karaj. China has been using North Korea as the re-transfer point for the sale of nuclear and missile technology to Iran, Syria, Pakistan, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen.
You also write that Israel was given assistance in developing their bomb while the United States looked the other way.
In the wake of the Suez crisis in 1956, the French and the Israelis initiated a joint nuclear weapons program that resulted in a test in the Algerian desert. At that test in 1960, two countries went nuclear with one shot.
Is the world safer or more dangerous with all these powers?
The world is safer for having all the permanent UN Security Council members possess nuclear weapons. I think having North Korea, Pakistan, and India is probably not a good idea. Nuclear proliferation, above all, is not inevitable as many thought at the dawn of the nuclear age.
- Read more about the history of the nuclear bomb.