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The Twilight of the Bombs

An end to the threat of a nuclear bomb? Not quite yet.

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To read “The Twilight of the Bombs” is to be reminded that its twin topics, science and diplomacy, are often creatures of acronym. Here we learn about electromagnetic isotope separation, or EMIS, as well as highly enriched uranium, or HEU, and HMX – high-melting explosive. The cast of characters also includes the DNA (Defense Nuclear Agency), UNSCOM (the United Nations Special Commission), IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), and NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty).

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Like an account of the New Deal, Rhodes’s “Twilight” understandably ladles out a lot of alphabet soup. He handles this unobtrusively, although a small glossary of terms might have helped refresh the reader’s memory on key abbreviations.

Among the more ominous bits of institutional shorthand in Rhodes’s book is IND, which stands for improvised nuclear device, a homemade bomb that might be cobbled together by a terrorist.

“I would certainly prefer to believe that a [nuclear] bomb is beyond the technical and organizational skills of terrorists,” Rhodes writes. “Two personal experiences with physicists deeply knowledgeable about nuclear-weapons design leave me skeptical of such a conclusion.”

Rhodes quotes the observations of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Luis W. Alvarez, who commented that a little stolen highly enriched uranium could produce an explosion “just by dropping one piece onto another by hand.” Rhodes also cites an equally unsettling thought from the late Los Alamos weapons designer Ted Taylor, who concluded that just one terrorist could build a nuclear bomb and start World War III.

Although “The Twilight of the Bombs” has a sense of valedictory, a tying-up of loose ends as Rhodes wraps up his series on the world’s most dangerous weapons, his book must inevitably close as a cliffhanger.

“Nuclear weapons operate beyond good and evil,” he writes. “They destroy without discrimination or mercy: whether one lives or dies in their operation is entirely a question of distance from ground zero.”

Obviously, more chapters in the history of nuclear weapons have yet to be written. For those who want to write that story, Rhodes’s series is a worthy model.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”


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