Oh aye?

Could French victim of the Alpine massacre have been the main target? French police admit cyclist may have led \’double life\’

Sylvain Mollier worked in the nuclear industry, specialising in zirconium metal-working for nuclear reactors

That is fascinating.

No idea whether there\’s any truth to it mind.

Vaguely plausible I guess, the nuclear industry does use some interesting Zr based alloys. But they\’re not exactly secret really.

I guess you could tell a tale of someone working in the field helping out the Pakistanis, Indians, Iranians, on the side perhaps. But I\’m not sure, for there\’s a technical fault line in the nuclear world.

Western (perhaps should be \”Western\”) zircalloy is a Zr/Sn alloy. That\’s what the tubes for sticking uranium into a reactor are made from and a lot of the surrounding metal work as well. It is also Zr with a very low Hf content….

Ah, background. Zr and Hf are always found together. Chemically very similar indeed. Zr ore will be 2-4% Hf. They are a right bugger to separate, one from the other. So, we don\’t bother. Go and buy a piece of zirconium and it will be 2-4% Hf. The Zr we stick into Al alloys will be 2-4% Hf. The zirconia (the oxide) that is used to make ceramics is 2-4% Hf.

However, Zr is transparent to neutrons, Hf opaque to them. So you can\’t use the normal Zr in the nuclear industry. You have to extract the Hf. A right bugger to do, as above. But you do this, use the Zr to make the tubing etc that you want the neutrons to pass through and the Hf to make the control rods that you don\’t want them to pass through. Or ship it off to the jet engine makers who use it sometimes.

OK, so all nuclear industry uses Zr purified of Hf. Indeed, get a piece of low Hf Zr and try to export it and you\’ll go to jail for many years. I\’ve had a license to do this at times and the warnings are blood curdling.

OK, back to Zr/Sn. That\’s what the western industry uses. The Soviets didn\’t, they used Zr/Nb. Just one of those things, metallurgy split there.

Which brings us to the Indian/Pakistani/Iranian thing. Or any other naughty people who have been breaching the Non-Proliferation stuff. I have no idea which way they went. \”Western\” or \”Soviet\”? Zr/Sn or Zr/Nb? If they went the Nb route I cannot see how a Froggie scientist or metallurgist can help them. If the Sn then I can conceivably (note that I\’m not saying there\’s anything to this story, just trying to work through whether it\’s even possible).

Or perhaps there is some possibility. If it\’s \”metal working\” then the major thing about Zr and its alloys is that when finely divided it\’s friable. Turnings for example, shavings, can near spontaneously catch fire, even explode. Indeed, that\’s how car airbags work. Finely divided Zr powder will go bang when given a sharp shock. So, mix it with carbon and make a little pellet. When this is shocked the Zr lights, the carbon burns, creates CO2 and the airbag inflates. Or use the same thing in an artillery shell. Or cluster bombs.

Fun stuff this. One US executive of a Zr producing company spent 3 years in jail. What he thought he\’d sold to go into airbags ended up in cluster bombs. Doesn\’t matter that he was lied to, this is a strict liability offense.

There are indeed certain risks in the metals trade.

32 thoughts on “Oh aye?”

  1. Haven’t the French police been considering the possibility that either man (or both) was the target from the outset? I think it was just the British press that assumed that since a British family got shot to death they must have been the intended targets rather than the eliminated witnesses.

    If anything, leaving one (hiding) kid alive and unharmed leans towards the French man being the intended victim – a professional targetting the British man would have known about all family members and who he was travelling with.

  2. @JamesV ‘If anything, leaving one (hiding) kid alive and unharmed leans towards the French man being the intended victim – a professional targetting the British man would have known about all family members and who he was travelling with.’

    That’s an interesting line James.

    But if you were going to shoot a cyclist travelling up an Alp, ie slowly, it would be (I think) a relatively simple job to pull up alongside, hit him from just behind, probably with a silenced shotgun, and be gone; shooting an entire family, particularly when they’re in a vehicle and see you coming, takes time and makes it more likely that a witness will show up on the scene?

    If it was just the British father who was the target, it would also have been simpler and easier to take him out at some other time and place, rather than to kill the whole family (or try to), for all sorts of reasons, and not just practical ones.

    Which makes me wonder who would want to kill the whole family, and why. (In which I’m not the only one, of course.)

  3. Interested.
    ‘Silenced shotgun’ ??
    Possible I know, but a MOST unwieldy weapon! Especially in a car or 4×4. You’d probably blow the bloody roof off trying to git it out and in.
    Now a silenced machine pistol, just what a professional might use.

  4. Very soon after the news came out I thought it might have been the French cyclist who was the real target. This was before I knew about his background as the press were concentrating on the British family. Or maybe the two were having a secret meeting and a third party didn’t like that.

    Anyway, one other interesting piece of information (for the armchair detectives) is that the British cyclist who found them and saved the girl’s life said that the car engine was still racing and that the wheels were spinning. Indicating that Saad al-Hilli was trying to escape which means that he saw the killer and either recognised him for what he was or saw the killer killing the French cyclist.

    Whatever, I bet the real story at the end might be a simple case of a nutter (double taps to the head are well known and don’t mean the killer was a pro) and that the background of the dead people is pure coincidence and just muddied the whole case.

  5. That’s amazing. My Dad made a joke about this while we were on holiday a week ago: “They’re saying the cyclist might have been the real target – he was an Iranian nuclear scientist.” The rest of my gullible family fell for it straight away.

  6. The cyclist was too junior in the firm to be a target, even if the firm was up to something. So far as I’m aware (and the Dauphiné Libéré would certainly report it) no investigation of the firm is being done.

  7. Lazy lazy… India and Pakistan have not “been breaching the Non-Proliferation stuff” because they, along with Israel, have never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty” in the first place.

  8. “who would want to kill the whole family, and why”: as an Awful Warning to the next chap who tries it on, whatever “it” may be.

    Or, a killer who was recognisable by the family.

  9. @Nick Luke: ‘Possible I know, but a MOST unwieldy weapon!’

    A shortened .410 is anything but unwieldy.

    Silenced MPs are popular in films but are very inaccurate and leave lots of evidence (shell casings, though admittedly they can be captured, rounds with ballistic markings).

    Both will do the job, obviously, but there’s nothing, in the man-portable range of weapons, so incapacitating and deadly as a shotgun. There’s a reason why point men on dynamic entry ops usually carry them!

  10. Interested.
    A shortened .410?? With a silencer?? More bizarre by the moment. Driving a car, passing a cyclist and having one shot from an under-powered, silenced weapon. I applaud you, sir.
    You’d be better off with a bag of rice and a pea shooter. I suppose he might die laughing…

  11. And yet….they failed to ‘kill the whole family’.

    I don’t think that the observation that a criminal is incompetent takes you very far. Mostly they are, aren’t they?

  12. I do a bit of interpreting for the local bill when the usual bloke is on holiday. I ran this daily mail theory past the Inspecteur in the pub last week, and his reply was to laugh. Just because you press a few buttons on a CNC machine and you live in an area which does precision engineering for Swiss watchmakers, French defence firms, Japanese cars… does not make you a terrorist target.
    The hit seems to have elements of professionalism and sloppy drills, which would be typical of some crappy third world special forces.

  13. OT, but is anyone getting blocked by their mobile provider when accessing this blog?

    T-Mobile are blocking this site under CONTENT LOCK. Not suitable for under 18.

    Cripes.

  14. @Stuck-Record, yeah, I’ve had to enter my credit card details to prove I’m an adult to access Tim’s blog via my mobile. It’s because of his swearing you know, all very upsetting to those of a sensitive disposition such as Guardianistas.

  15. Nick Luke – if you think .410s are under powered, try standing in front of one from 30ft. Come back on the show and tell us about it!
    And who said anything about one shot??

  16. If you want to kill a cyclist, you run him down with your car. Everyone will think it is a hit and run. Especially on a mountain path – where is he going to go?

    Why bother with the shotgun?

    The Iraqi family was probably the target and it is possible that, say, a murder was done by a family member – speaking in general and not about this specific case per se – they might not want to kill their nieces.

  17. All this talk of silencers! Oh the Bourne Legacy’s out, isn’t it? I was once present at a major shoot out on a London street. That included some bugger opening up with an automatic weapon. First I knew about it was reading the papers. Never underestimate the public’s inability to appreciate what’s going on. In rural France, gunfire is the usual background noise & if you’re more than a couple hundred metres from the shooter you wouldn’t even know which direction it was. The only person might get curious’d be a landowner suspecting poachers.
    Shooting from inside a vehicle, ear defenders wouldn’t be a bad idea though.

  18. SMFS: ‘If you want to kill a cyclist, you run him down with your car. Everyone will think it is a hit and run. Especially on a mountain path – where is he going to go? ‘

    Trouble with that is, it’s very inefficient. You can’t be sure you’ll kill him, and if you end up having to run him over three times to make sure then that takes time and it’s clearly not an accident… Plus there will be forensics – your car’s paint on his bike and vice versa, his DNA on the vehicle. Just because it isn’t a shooting doesn’t mean the cops won’t try to find out who did it. So now you have a colour and possibly a make and model (depending on the paint) for the cops to search for on CCTV (not as prevalent in Francfe, but they have it) and given the DNA you certainly have to destroy the vehicle, with the traceability and logistical issues etc involved in so doing.

    @BIS ‘All this talk of silencers! Oh the Bourne Legacy’s out, isn’t it? I was once present at a major shoot out on a London street.’

    Ha ha you’re right about Bourne. To be fair, all I’m doing is speculating on the best way to do it, if it really is a professional hit. Either way, irrespective of the background noise, and you’re quite right about that, I think any murderer who planned the job, be he a shadowy Mossad agent or a jealous husband, would at least think about silencing the weapon.

  19. Really I think the pyroscopic nature of Hf and Zr powder are a bit overrated. It doesn’t seem more reactive than Ti. If you try get them out of Europe the bureaucracy is immense. Buy them from China and they don’t even stick a warning sign on them, half the price and good chemical composition when we analyzed.

    PS I’m not a terrorist :), Hf and Zr are bio compatible metals and could have big apps as implant materials

  20. Errm, ‘pyrophoric’, shurely? These days hafnium is very popular for high-k dielectric in MOSFET gates which lets you make the gate thicker for the same capacitance so you can make smaller devices without leakage due to tunneling.

    My guess re. the shootings is if the case is ever cracked we’ll find out it was the usual tawdry nonsense and nothing to do with any James Bond nonsense. As for silenced weapons, the best there is a .22LR. You really can go Hollywood quiet with one of those, so that the most noise comes from the action cycling. I used to go lamping rabbits with a silenced BSA .22 rifle and it was quieter than the ‘clang’ of an air rifle’s piston letting go. But all this is supposition and hand-waving.

  21. Interested – “Trouble with that is, it’s very inefficient. You can’t be sure you’ll kill him, and if you end up having to run him over three times to make sure then that takes time and it’s clearly not an accident…”

    Naah, you just get out of the car and make sure with a baseball bat. His corpse will get a quick look over at best – blunt force injuries all look remarkably similar.

    “Plus there will be forensics – your car’s paint on his bike and vice versa, his DNA on the vehicle. Just because it isn’t a shooting doesn’t mean the cops won’t try to find out who did it. So now you have a colour and possibly a make and model (depending on the paint) for the cops to search for on CCTV (not as prevalent in Francfe, but they have it) and given the DNA you certainly have to destroy the vehicle, with the traceability and logistical issues etc involved in so doing.”

    Well we have an example of this to see how efficient the French police are. How is their search for the car that was hit in the tunnel with Princess Diana going? They had CCTV too. In Paris, there are a lot more eye witnesses than in rural France.

    You would have to ditch the car anyway because of possible eyewitnesses.

    “I think any murderer who planned the job, be he a shadowy Mossad agent or a jealous husband, would at least think about silencing the weapon.”

    Why? In rural France who would hear anyway? What is more, if you are pulled over for a routine police stop you can tell them you are going pig hunting with a rifle, but you mess with a shotgun in anyway, much less carry a silenced weapon, and the police ain’t going to buy your story whatever it is.

  22. David Gillies – “I used to go lamping rabbits with a silenced BSA .22 rifle and it was quieter than the ‘clang’ of an air rifle’s piston letting go. But all this is supposition and hand-waving.”

    The British Army used to make a silenced rifle that was bolt action. Because the bolt was the biggest sound on the thing, and an automatic action would have been louder still.

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