Back to the beginning: Authors appear together at the home station of the ‘Nuclear Express’

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By Roger Snodgrass

There are both fascinating and disturbing stories in the new book about nuclear proliferation by Danny Stillman, a retired Los Alamos National Laboratory intelligence director and Tom Reed, a weapons designer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who became Secretary of the Air Force.


Their book, “The Nuclear Express” spans the gaps between the domestic politics of dozens of individual countries and the cloak-and-dagger technical cross-pollination among many of those countries, as the world has sought to have and hold in check the demon’s seed of nuclear weapons.


“Finding a cure for the nuclear ambition disease is one of the defining challenges of the new millennium,” the authors note in a summary statement.


While stopping well short of a cure, they nevertheless offer a useful historical account of the syndrome and its diffusion around the world during the seven decades since an international crew collaborated on the first atomic bombs at Los Alamos.


The book combines Stillman’s subtle observations from two decades and multiple visits behind the curtains of the cold war and Reed’s wide-angle historical context and story-telling talents.


Reed is also the author of “At the Abyss, an Insider’s History of the Cold War.”


“He’s the lyricist; I’m the composer. He’s Gilbert and I’m Sullivan,” said Reed, describing the collaboration between two old friends.


They met professionally to share travel information while Stillman was at Los Alamos and Reed was at Lawrence Livermore.


Their book is clearly informed and influenced by the fact that both men have been deeply involved in nuclear weapons design and testing.


“Few of our readers have seen a nuclear detonation,” they write. “Your authors have seen many.”


The book was promptly reviewed by NPR, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today. An excerpt appeared in Physics Today.


The New York Times published two articles, one of which made news of the book’s new information about an unidentified Soviet spy, known as “Perseus” in the secret wiretaps that were used in the Rosenberg case and in identifying other Soviet agents.


Stillman had reached a point in his official investigation of the man he thinks was “Perseus” when he began to turn the case over to the FBI, only to be brushed aside by a higher priority case involving a Chinese scientist from Taiwan, Wen Ho Lee.


The authors decline to give the name, they said in an interview Thursday, because the subject is deceased and they don’t believe it would be fair to his descendants to raise a charge that would not be resolved.


Reed gave an abridged version of the book in a talk Thursday to a packed audience at the Bradbury Museum. Museum director Linda Deck, introduced him by quoting a line from the book, “Since the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons have fallen into less well-manicured hands.”


Reed told a breathless tale of purloined secrets, tri-lateral conspiracies and nuclear chestnuts pulled from the fire.


The good news is that only eight countries now have the bomb, less than the 15 or 20 that President John F. Kennedy predicted in a 1963 press conference by 1975.


“A dozen countries climbed down from the nuclear tree on their own,” Reed said, briefly sketching how each gave up or were threatened, badgered or paid to desist.


Reed and Stillman agreed that of the eight existing nuclear powers Pakistan is the most troubling nuclear situation today.


Since their book was published, Pakistan has a new president, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, former President Benazi Bhutto's widower, adding to concerns that a combination of zealotry and powerlessness in nuclear Pakistan portends.


“Nuclear power can be stopped and has been,” Reed said, but there is not one way of going about it. “Military force does work, but sometimes has adverse consequences.”


The day must have been especially satisfying for Stillman, who brought a book home to Los Alamos, after many years in which his publishing efforts were stalled by America’s classified information system.


By teaming with Reed, who was also a special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he found a way to get at least some of his special insights into the world.


“More Americans have walked on the moon than on China’s nuclear test site,” he wrote in 2001, explaining why he felt compelled to appeal the government purge of 76 pages of the book he had to abandon.


A long-line of book-buyers curled through the Otowi Station Bookstore to get their volumes signed and inscribed after the talk.