A mushroom cloud rises above a crowd gathered for a re-creation of the world's first nuclear explosion in Flanagan, July 16, 2005.
Lee Celano / Reuters

Few topics in international relations consistently attract as much academic and policy interest as nuclear proliferation. The literature on the subject tends to focus on four central questions: Why do states seek nuclear weapons? How do they acquire the components necessary to build them? What are the consequences of proliferation? And how can nuclear weapons be kept out of the hands of nonstate actors? These issues will remain salient in the years to come, as the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs advance, the threat of nuclear terrorism persists, and the full implications of the type of nuclear entrepreneurship practiced by such intermediaries as A. Q. Khan are revealed. One fact is clear: going nuclear has never been easier.

"A Primer on Fissile Materials and Nuclear Weapons Design." By Owen R. Coté, Jr. In: Avoiding Nuclear Anarchy: Containing the Threat of Loose Russian Nuclear Weapons and Fissile Material. By Graham T. Allison, Owen R. Coté, Jr., Richard A. Falkenrath, and Steven E. Miller. MIT Press, 1996.
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Nuclear proliferation is part politics, part science and technology. This appendix is the single best introduction to the science and technology part: the principles of fission and fusion, the physical properties of fissile material, the design for both fission and fusion nuclear weapons, and the production of fissile materials. Owen Coté clearly explains the physics behind fission and thermonuclear weapons and the production of enriched uranium and plutonium. His bottom line is that simple fission weapons are not a major design challenge for most states and even some nonstate actors; the only truly significant barrier to acquiring nuclear weapons is obtaining a sufficient amount of fissile material, whether by developing the means of their production or stealing or purchasing the materials themselves.

The Nuclear Express: A Political History of the Bomb and Its Proliferation. By Thomas C. Reed and Danny B. Stillman. Zenith Press, 2009.
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Thomas Reed and Danny Stillman provide an outstanding history of the nuclear age, from the discovery of fission in 1938 to the present troubles that confront the nuclear nonproliferation regime. The authors succinctly discuss the histories of nuclear states, including Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and South Africa, while offering keen insights into their motivation for proliferation and the path each state took to acquire the bomb. They also evaluate the scope of the A. Q. Khan network and Libya's role in helping to end it. Reed and Stillman are pessimistic about the possibilities of derailing the "nuclear express" as it rolls on in this century, citing the spread of nuclear technology, major problems at the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the role states such as China play in fostering proliferation.

The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate Renewed. By Scott D. Sagan and Kenneth N. Waltz. W. W. Norton, 2002.
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This revised edition is the best source for a succinct analysis of the causes of nuclear proliferation and its consequences. Kenneth Waltz and Scott Sagan have sharply contrasting views on the ramifications of nuclear proliferation. A proponent of rational deterrence theory, Waltz is guardedly sanguine over the stabilizing impact of secure second-strike capabilities. He argues that they make wars hard to start and give leaders great incentive to de-escalate a crisis. Drawing upon organization theory, Sagan is much more pessimistic about the stabilizing role of nuclear weapons in all cases. He highlights the dangers posed by military organizations -- their biases, routines, and interests -- that are likely to lead to deterrence failures. Moreover, he maintains that nuclear states may lack adequate civilian control, which can exacerbate the problems associated with military organizations.

The Nuclear Tipping Point: Why States Reconsider Their Nuclear Choices. Edited by Kurt M. Campbell, Robert J. Einhorn, and Mitchell B. Reiss. Brookings Institution Press, 2004.
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Kurt Campbell, Robert Einhorn, and Mitchell Reiss have assembled a first-rate collection of authors to consider one crucial question: When do states reverse their decision to acquire a nuclear weapons capability? The writers consider the cases of Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Germany, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, all of which eventually abandoned their nuclear weapons programs. The authors find that the regional security environment is critical. Absent some form of intervention by the United States, states will likely cross the tipping point if a neighboring hostile state acquires nuclear weapons. The implications of this study are particularly helpful in light of Iran's nuclear pursuit and the ensuing concerns over the start of a chain of proliferation in the Middle East.  

Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Threats. By Joseph Cirincione, Jon B. Wolfsthal, and Miriam Rajkumar. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005.
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This is an essential resource on nuclear proliferation, comprehensively documenting the spread of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons as well as their aircraft and missile delivery systems. In addition to providing detailed descriptions of the capabilities of various states, it contains valuable analyses of the technologies necessary to develop nuclear weapons and the strength of the nonproliferation regime.

Nuclear Black Markets: Pakistan, A. Q. Khan, and the Rise of Proliferation Networks -- A Net Assessment. International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2007.
Shopping for Bombs: Nuclear Proliferation, Global Insecurity, and the Rise and Fall of the A. Q. Khan Network. By Gordon Corera. Oxford University Press, 2006.
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The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) has provided a great service with this analysis of the nuclear network masterminded by A. Q. Khan, the man former CIA Director George Tenet described as "at least as dangerous as Osama bin Laden." For almost two decades, Khan's network -- based in Africa, Asia, and Europe -- sold nuclear enrichment technology, nuclear weapon design information, and expertise to Iran, Iraq, Libya, and North Korea, while effectively bypassing the export control regime. Equally valuable is this report's examination of the efforts to halt the illicit nuclear trade. What remains worrisome is the degree to which global proliferation networks and nuclear black markets continue to function as instruments of state policy or as the new favored business model for nuclear entrepreneurs. Gordon Corera's book complements the IISS study, offering a detailed historical context of Pakistan's nuclear program and the central role A. Q. Khan played in its development. Corera explores how Khan and his confederates constructed and maintained the network, demonstrates the immense difficulty the U.S. intelligence community had in detecting and monitoring it over decades, and illuminates the great problems involved in mustering the political will necessary to stop Khan's network when Islamabad was a major ally in the war on terror.

Defusing Armageddon: Inside NEST, America's Secret Nuclear Bomb Squad. By Jeffrey T. Richelson. W. W. Norton, 2009.
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In this excellent book, Jeffrey Richelson provides the first thorough history of the Department of Energy's Nuclear Emergency Support (formerly Search) Team (NEST), a core component of the United States' defense against nuclear terrorism. He describes the evolution of NEST from its origins to its current objective of defending the United States against a nuclear or radiological attack conducted by terrorists. The analyses of al Qaeda's efforts to acquire a nuclear weapon (or device) and how it would be used in the United States are particularly valuable, as is the discussion of NEST after 9/11.