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Government Power Science

Scientists Who Smuggle Radioactive Materials 66

Posted by Soulskill
from the probably-more-ethical-than-most-ways-they-can-get-funding dept.
Lasrick writes: Although the complicity of scientists in the smuggling of radioactive materials has been a long-standing concern, smuggling-prevention efforts have so far failed to recognize a key aspect to the problem: scientists are often sought out to test the quality and level of the material well before it is taken to the black market. Egle Murauskaite of the U.S. National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) describes why concentrating on this aspect of the smuggling process, long considered less egregious than the actual selling of the material, could really make a difference in keeping radioactive materials off the black market in the first place.
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Scientists Who Smuggle Radioactive Materials

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  • by Cyberax (705495) on Tuesday August 12, 2014 @10:27PM (#47659927)
    There is no black market for radionuclides - they are useless for criminals. And terrorists would want either something REALLY hot for a dirty bomb (in which case they don't need to do any tests except standing nearby with a dosimeter) or highly enriched uranium or weapons-grade plutonium. Both require expertise to turn into actual weapons.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      I don't think it is quite that simple. Two points:

      Yes, common criminals don't have a use for radionuclides. But they might act as conduits for such material to terrorists or rogue states, and to be effective conduits they have to know if they are buying the real thing. Why should the technically experienced nuke-maker be the one who makes the original purchase?

      A dirty bomb is largely a psychological attack. It needs to contain radionuclides that will make for scary press stories. Those stories will be

    • by s.petry (762400) on Wednesday August 13, 2014 @01:12AM (#47660531)

      In order to continue the "War On Terror" they need to invent bogey men. Reality does matter to those people, just watch TV "News" every now and again.

      A point that you miss is that there are countless beneficial uses for radioactive materials that are not related to terrorism, in fact every time you go near a medical facility pay attention to all of the signs.

      When is the last time you ever heard a "3rd world countries only want uranium so that they can terrorize the world" speaking politician mention how they believe those countries can achieve medical procedures we use every day in hospitals and labs (not including Universities and other research facilities) without radioactive isotopes. Things like X-Rays, Chemotherapy, CT scans, and everything else found in a Nuclear Medicine office (which is a pretty long list).

      Before you "but that's radioactive Iodine, not Uranium" you hopefully know that production of radioactive Iodine requires Uranium. The difference between weapons grade and medical grade Uranium is how much enrichment is done (much less for Medical use, much more for Military use)

      Not to stray from the point, but I'd guess that there really is a black market for radioactive materials. The reason for that would not be for "dirty bombing terrorist acts", but because some nations block production in other countries. Prohibitions don't work, and often have an opposite result from the intention.

      Iran for example was the target of a massive amount of espionage and insurgency trying to destroy their production, even though their enrichment was just enough for medical purposes (repeatedly verified by UN inspectors). And if you are one of the "Iran is Evil" believers, pray tell us who that so called aggressive nation hell bent on the destruction of Israel and takeover of the world has attacked in the last 200 years? They had to defend themselves against a US armed Saddam Hussein, but did not start that conflict.

      With that much money being spent to stop Iran from production, what do you think a Hospital in Cambodia does? Argue when the US yells "terrorist!" and try to produce their own anyway with incredible cost and risk, or buy it elsewhere. Probably the latter, especially when it's probably cheaper and faster to acquire on a black market without all the red tape.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by dbIII (701233)
        That actually sounds quite lucid. Have you given up on your "the US government faked 9/11, set fire to a building next to ground zero, and there was no plane at the Pentagon" conspriracy theories?
      • by Smurf (7981)

        (...) how they believe those countries can achieve medical procedures we use every day in hospitals and labs (not including Universities and other research facilities) without radioactive isotopes. Things like X-Rays, Chemotherapy, CT scans, and everything else found in a Nuclear Medicine office (which is a pretty long list).

        I agree with pretty much everything you said, but you picked up precisely the wrong examples.

        X-ray machines and CT scanners (which are essentially an x-ray tube [wikipedia.org] and detector mounted on a rotating gantry) do not contain any radioactive material whatsoever. Yes, they emit ionizing radiation (in the form of x-rays), but it is not originating from a radionuclide. Other types of tomographic scanners such as PET and SPECT do employ radionuclides injected into the patient, but you precisely didn't mention those.

        An

        • by s.petry (762400)
          TFA uses a generalization therefor my rebuttal required a similar generalization, at least in my opinion. Technically you are correct, however I did not think it relevant to get into the difference between radiation used in therapy and radiation used in detection.
          • by Smurf (7981)

            You are not getting it: It has nothing to do with therapy vs. detection.

            The article talks about contraband of radioactive materials. I gave you examples where radioactive materials are used both in therapy (certain kinds of radiotherapy for cancer) and in medical imaging (PET and SPECT). You mentioned none of these examples.

            Instead, you gave three examples (x-rays, CT scanners, chemotherapy) none of which use radioactive materials.

            Thus you used completely invalid examples to illustrate a very valid point.

    • by TheCarp (96830)

      spot on. I mean sure, there must be some "market" as in someone at some point has wanted to buy some material and someone at some point wanted to sell some. Personally I suspect the market is a lot more a few people who "have some radioactive material and see dollar signs in their eyes" and thus might seek out a scientist to check it out than any sort of real market.

      Just because someone has something he thinks he can sell to someone doesn't mean he has or ever will have a buyer.

    • by gstoddart (321705)

      And terrorists would want either something REALLY hot for a dirty bomb

      Is that true?

      Say your goal was purely to scare the crap out of people and cause panic -- the low hanging fruit of terrorism. You don't actually need to do anything with lasting effects. If you suddenly make a high visibility target read with a trivial amount of radioactivity, you'll pretty much accomplish your goals, wouldn't you? One can only assume this kind of this is actively monitored.

      By the time people figure out it's not life th

  • Old news (Score:5, Funny)

    by gmuslera (3436) on Tuesday August 12, 2014 @10:29PM (#47659939) Homepage Journal
    We know that it is happening since 1985, there had been at least a case of a scientist (E.Brown, if i'm not mistaken) smuggling plutonium to give it to libyan terrorists, or even doing very dangerous experiments with it.
    • by sinij (911942)
      This is not a good time to joke around, we need to get back to serious discussion.
    • Re:Old news (Score:5, Funny)

      by gargleblast (683147) on Tuesday August 12, 2014 @11:20PM (#47660147)
      I'm sure that in 1985 plutonium was available in every corner drug store, but in 2014 it's a little hard to come by.
      • Jokes aside, it's kind of interesting to see how much our views of Radiation have changed.

        1985? no, but 1965? The first thing that popped to mind were old Uranium toy kits [cracked.com].

        I remember a podcast where they used to use a fluoroscope (live X-Ray basically) to size your shoes - see bone structure in real time. A family friend has bad feet because they used a huge dose of radiation to kill his athlete's foot.

      • by tlhIngan (30335)

        I'm sure that in 1985 plutonium was available in every corner drug store, but in 2014 it's a little hard to come by.

        Except you don't need it anymore in 2014. You just bring your car in and get a Mr. Fusion conversion. Just turns your food and other waste into pure energy, no more requirement for a nuclear reactor.

        And while you're there, you might as well take it in for a hovercar conversion.

    • by BitZtream (692029)

      Except Brown got Plutonium FROM the terrorists and gave them a box of pinball parts. He used the plutonium to power the flux capacitor for time travel.

      Thats why they tried to kill him.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 12, 2014 @10:32PM (#47659959)

    So I bought some Plutonium-186 from Frederick Hallam. Performed exactly as promised. Used to make Electron Pump. Excellent energy source. Would purchase again.

  • There's a lot of legitimate uses for elements and isotopes, and I can see people not wanting to get all mixed up with government red tape. Do we have a very good reason to ban trade or ownership of THE BASIC BUILDING BLOCKS OF MATTER? I mean, I could see restrictions on the few isotopes that could be used to make nuclear weapons, but other than that it's just another hazardous material.

    • by nbauman (624611)

      There's a lot of legitimate uses for elements and isotopes, and I can see people not wanting to get all mixed up with government red tape. Do we have a very good reason to ban trade or ownership of THE BASIC BUILDING BLOCKS OF MATTER? I mean, I could see restrictions on the few isotopes that could be used to make nuclear weapons, but other than that it's just another hazardous material.

      The main "legitimate" use of radioactive isotopes is in medical tests and cancer treatments. In the U.S. breast cancer patients with a good prognosis can avoid chemotherapy by using radiation instead, and prostate cancer patients can avoid surgery. It's also used to treat painful metastases.

      The U.S./U.N. boycott of Iraq created a lot of problems in Iraq for Iraqi doctors who were trying to treat cancer patients. Iraqi doctors (most of whom were trained in the U.K. and hated Saddam Hussein) were complaining

      • by Anonymous Coward

        George W. Bush appointed a right-to-life Republican as head of the Iraqi health care system, and his idea of de-Bathification was to privatize it and charge fees.

        Part of American Imperialism includes having capitalism and the values of the American religious right foisted on you.

        Same for foreign aid.

        Because America is ran by narrow minded assholes on behalf of corporations and religious idiots.

  • by aepervius (535155) on Tuesday August 12, 2014 @11:00PM (#47660083)
    The black market for radioactive material is crushingly predominately for military or civilian usage of country which have difficulty of getting the material by normal means for a variety of reason. Not terror. In fact let us count the incidents :
    1) two incidents with the Chechen burying something in Russia in both case it was source which were orphaned.

    2) 2 counts of some intelligence source pretending al quaeda or similar wanting to do radiological bomb (among them Jose padilla which was not even charged for that ! It tells you how much evidence or even capacity the guy had for that).
    3) Russia Killing somebody using polonium. Oh wait that's not terror that's assassination by a major country

    That's it. NONE of those involved scientist smuggling radioactive material. So why the heck such story come up on regular basis , when it is quite certain that the black market for radioactive material is NOT for terror.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 12, 2014 @11:17PM (#47660139)

      Wow, dude. You need to do real research. You clearly didn't even bother reading the article, which gave incidents much more serious then you mention.

      The IAEA keeps a database of incidents. Here's a hit from a quick Google search.

      http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Magazines/Bulletin/Bull461/illicit_nuclear_trafficking_3.html

      Between the period 1993 to 2003 alone there were 540 confirmed illicit trafficking incidents. Of those 540, 18 involved highly enriched uranium or plutonium.

      And that was 2003. We've had another decade since then.

      Most incidents aren't reported in the regular news cycle. By the time an incident becomes public knowledge too much time has past for regular people to care. So the only way to understand the actual threat is by following the research. The 24-hour news cycle and political pundits (scare mongers, peaceniks) aren't going to provide anything even remotely related to the facts.

    • On the contrary, I fear the biggest nuclear threat in the modern world is from individual "terror" groups. In the age of Mutually Assured Destruction, the only people with nothing to lose are those who can't be tied to a specific region. If a group of unaffiliated individuals attack a country, that country has no recourse for nuclear retaliation.

      I highly recommend the documentary "Countdown to Zero" [imdb.com], it recounts the stories of a couple of extremist organisations caught in the process of acquiring nuclear ma

      • by Artifakt (700173)

        If a group of unaffiliated individuals attack a country, that country has no recourse for nuclear retaliation.

        Some governments, at least including the US, various UK states such as Canada and Australia, the PRC, and some continental European powers, have had agents working full time on just getting samples of radionucleotides from various fission plants, and analyzing those samples so that, if those nucleotides turn up in a dirty bomb or worse, an actual fission device, they can tell just where they were m

  • by the eric conspiracy (20178) on Tuesday August 12, 2014 @11:05PM (#47660093)

    I know of a scientist who smuggled a small amount of plutonium into the US. It was needed for an XRF instrument.

    I wonder how much of this goes on for legit scientific investigations simply because the legal channels are so difficult to deal with.

  • "Although the complicity of scientists in the smuggling of radioactive materials has been a long-standing concern"

    First I've heard of this, what are the names of these scientists caught smuggling of radioactive materials? I do believe we're in greater danger from nation states selling actual nuclear bombs to other nation states.

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