Friday, January 16, 2009

Smuggled Uranium not a Serious Concern

So I did a little research about the smuggled uranium featured in several news stories in Kenya. From what I can tell, there's not much to these stories, if anything.

For example, the material is said to be uranium hexflouride, packed in a 20 cm metal cylinder that weighed about nine kilos. But U-hexafluoride is a corrosive gas, used when enriching uranium, and there are no enrichment facilities in that part of Africa. And if it's in that small a cylinder, then it's not much uranium at all, because U-hexaflouride containers are usually huge.

The stories also describe the uranium as having more than 1,000 and possibly more than 2,000 Becquerel (Bq) of radioactivity per kilogramme--more than the amount that local Kenyan authorities could safely measure. But Bequerels are the tiniest units of radiation -- amounting to 1 disintegration per second. I'm told you could hold 1,000 Bq in your hand without risk. In fact, 1,000 Bq is about equal to the dose of radiation you might swallow as a pharmaceutical to help with medical imaging.

By contrast, the quantity of radioactive material considered "significant" for creating a terrorist "dirty bomb" is usually 1000 Curies -- almost 10 billion times larger than what was mentioned!

So, bottom line: the smugglers probably filled an old container with a bit of unprocessed uranium ore dug out of the dirt in Katanga--and tried to pawn it off to unsuspecting buyers. Apparently, this sort of scam isn't all that uncommon in this part of the world.

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