Ghaddafi\’s uranium

So they\’ve found some uranium in Libya:

The powder they contain appears to be yellowcake uranium from neighbouring Niger. …….There are at least 10,000 drums with a total capacity of two million litres,…….. The International Atomic Energy Agency says it knew that Col Muammar Gaddafi had stockpiled yellowcake uranium near Sabha – a relic of the years when he tried to develop nuclear weapons after obtaining blueprints from the Pakistani scientist, AQ Khan. “We can confirm that there is yellowcake stored in drums at a site near Sabha in central Libya,”……A WikiLeaks cable disclosed that two years ago he was trying to sell 1,000 metric tons of yellowcake on the world market.

Annual global market for yellowcake is around 50,000 tonnes. So while it\’s a decent amount it\’s not an earthshakingly large amount.

Note that the IAEA knew it was there. Also, yes, it\’s radioactive, not the sort of thing you\’d use on the flower beds. But it\’s not going to fry anyone who walks by it either.

It\’s also entirely legal for a government to have this stuff. A country has the right to nulear power (most certainly if they\’ve signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty) so it has the right to having uranium.

I do wonder though how long it will be before someone starts claiming that this proves that Ghadaffi was after a bomb. Still. For we knew that he was, in the past. This find is really evidence that he wasn\’t still after a bomb.

He tried to sell the yellowcake he had: uranium it was quite legal for him to have but not legal for him to try to process into the bomb that he no longer wanted to. When he didn\’t sell it he abandoned it in the desert rather than try and process it into bomb material.

I would take from that that he wasn\’t trying to build a bomb.

But I wonder who will use the same facts to claim that he was still after one? Would be a nice justification for \”intervention\” after all.

Finally, if there\’s 1,000 tonnes there it\’s worth around and about $150 million. Happy to advise the new government on where to sell it….for a fee, of course.

No, legally, of course: the new government will be able to issue the relevant documents to allow sale and transport. Most likely destination would be a US reactor or three, after processing.

3 thoughts on “Ghaddafi\’s uranium”

  1. So Much For Subtlety

    “Also, yes, it’s radioactive, not the sort of thing you’d use on the flower beds.”

    Are you sure? It is yellow cake. Isn’t that the sort of thing mad middle aged women use to put a nice yellow glaze on those awful mugs they make in pottery class? How would it hurt the flowers?

    Of course that may be why they are mad.

    “But it’s not going to fry anyone who walks by it either.”

    I assume that it is not a good idea to eat or drink it. Maybe not even to breath it. But I expect that people could do all three without much in the way of serious consequence.

    Tim adds: We tend not to use yellowcake as a glaze any more. Gives a lovely colour, true, but we do tend to think that much radioactivity isn’t a good idea (at the making the glaze end, not the drinking out of the mug end).

    Breathing it? Will be giving off radon and yes, that does cause lung cancer. There will be a little bit of radium around as a result of decay: really, really not nice stuff.

    No, you’d be much, much, happier with this stuff in drums, out in the desert, underground, than walking around it.

  2. I think part of the confusion is that many people don’t understand the uranium refining and enrichment process.

    Of the various isotopes of uranium, the most common is U238 which is actually the least radioactive. The real goodie is U235, but that only forms about 0.7% of the world’s naturally occuring uranium.

    The first step after mining is to concentrate the uranium oxides into yellowcake. Yellowcake is a mixture of uranium oxides, typically containing 70-90% U3O8. Note, however, that at this stage no distinction is made between the relatively non-radioactive U238 and the more radioactive U235. Yellowcake contains the two isotopes in roughly the same proportions as they are found in the natural world (99.3:0.7).

    It’s only after the concentration phase that people start doing “bad” stuff ie enriching the uranium.

    Essentially “enrichment” is the process that removes some of the useless U238 (to be turned into depleted uranium shells for tanks*) and leaves behind something with a higher concentration of U235.

    Fortunately enrichment, even the low level enrichment needed to produce fuel for nuclear powerstations, is actually quite hard to do.

    As for the poisonousness of yellowcake. If I remembers correctly from my brief stint in the uranium industry, yellowcake mainly emits alpha particles which cannot pass through the skin. I wouldn’t recommend getting naked and rolling in the stuff, but unless one eats it or breathes it, it’s unlikely to cause more damage than lying in the sun for 8 hours without sunscreen.

    *U238 can also be turned into plutonium but you need a fast breeder reactor to do that, and nobody is suggesting Gaddaffi has one of those.

  3. It’s breathing it that’s the problem. Alpha outside the body is essentially harmless as it wont penetrate a sheet of paper and only has a range of a few cm in air. But if you get some dust deep into your lungs, where it is in intimate contact with tissue, the comparatively energetic alphas run around like a bull in a china shop. Uranium mainly decays via spontaneous fission, and the fission fragments are heavy and energetic. Seriously bad news. Fortunately even U235 is not particularly radioactive, with a half life of around 700 million years or a decay constant of about 3 10^-17 s^-1. U238 is even less radioactive. Its half life is 4.5 billion years which is a decay constant of 5 10^-18 s^-1

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