New book tracks nuclear wildfire

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By Roger Snodgrass

Danny Stillman, whose book on nuclear science in China got bottled up by the intelligence community, has a new book up on Amazon.com.

It won’t be out until January, but “Nuclear Express,” co-written with a former Secretary of the Air Force, may find an even bigger audience, given the growing dangers of nuclear proliferation in the world.

Stillman, who lives in White Rock and still feels constrained after years of legal wrestling with the CIA, referred questions to his partner, Thomas C. Reed.

A former nuclear weapons designer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Reed described his own career trajectory as having been “caught up by politics that led to the White House and then to the Pentagon (as Gerald Ford’s Air Force Secretary).” His book “At the Abyss: An Insider's History of the Cold War,” was published in 2004.

Stillman worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1965 to 1993, including 13 years as director of the technical intelligence unit. From 1990 to 1999, he made nine trips to China where he was invited to visit many of China’s most important nuclear weapons facilities, talked to key officials and compiled a great deal of information on the Chinese nuclear testing program, including dates and events, their purposes, yields and lessons learned.

Some of this information is included in a new article in the current issue of Physics Today, “The Chinese Nuclear Tests, 1964-1996,” written by Reed in a way, he said, that avoided some of the pitfalls Stillman encountered.

“I’m aware that he has obligations and I have obligations,” Reed said, noting that that the government’s rights and informational courtesies have been respected, “But in the sense that we are trying to warn against nuclear proliferation, we’re all on the same team.”

He has walked a careful line with legal assistance to avoid classification problems. As an author, he was allowed to quote from Stillman, as long as he confirmed the information from a second source.

But the new book has a much broader canvas, with a global perspective on nuclear weapons that covers the period “from the discovery of fission in 1938 to the nuclear train wreck that seems to loom over our future,” according to the blurb on Amazon.com. “It is an account of where those weapons came from, how the technology surprisingly and covertly spread, who is likely to acquire those weapons next and most importantly why.”

“It is not written for physicists, although there are technical footnotes,” he said. “It is really about political history.”

Reed originally wanted to do a book called, “From Trinity to Teheran,” he said, because Iran seemed to be the big problem. “But the problem is not Teheran, but Islamabad and Pakistan,” he said. “We renamed it ‘Nuclear Express,’ to get at how every country starts, how their efforts are interconnected and how politics tie into the process.”

Reed was reluctant to get into details before the book is published.

“I don’t want to have one grenade after another rolling out,” he said. “The point is how it all fits together.”

Two items from the magazine article are especially tantalizing.

One brief section discusses the continuing role of Klaus Fuchs, the German physicist who came to Los Alamos as a part of the British scientific contingent. After the war he was exposed as a Soviet spy and sent to prison in England. But upon release nine years later he moved to Dresden in East Germany and taught physics.

According to the article’s sources, Fuchs met at length with Qian Sanqiang, who masterminded Chairman Mao’s atomic program, and the former Manhattan Project physicist passed along information that also accelerated China’s nuclear program.

Another consequential thread that the book may have a lot more to reveal has to do with Chinese Premier Deng Xiaoping’s decision in 1982 to begin transferring nuclear weapons to third world countries, including Pakistan.

Reed said there would be a book tour that would include an event in Los Alamos.