On that Isis dirty bomb

Islamic State fanatics claim to have constructed a dirty bomb after stealing 40kg of uranium from an Iraqi university.

Militants boasted of the device on social media, with one even commenting on the destruction such a bomb would wreak in London, four months after the chemical was reported missing from Mosul University.

Hmm. So, what is that uranium?

The transfer of some Al Jesira process samples to Mosul University could explain the higher than expected uranium chemical inventory. Thus, the 40 kilograms of uranium chemicals “stolen” from Mosul University probable consist of lab reagents such as uranyl acetate (plus other species), yellowcake, ammonium diuranate, uranium trioxide, uranium dioxide and there might be samples of UCl4 uranium tetrachloride], but only gram quantities…

None of that is concentrated, in the sense that the bits that go bang have been separated out from the bits which don’t go bang.

It’s not that unusual to find 100 ppm (parts per million) uranium in granite rock. There’s parts of Cornwall and Aberdeen that are so. That’s 100 grammes per tonne rock, so that 40 kg is about the amount of uranium we might expect to find in 400 tonnes of reasonably standard rock.

And I’m sure there’s one building or another in London that’s made out of 400 tonnes of granite. Doing no one any great harm over the centuries. And I’ll absolutely guarantee you that there’s 40 kg of uranium in the soil in Hyde Park. Heck, there’s probably that much in the bitumen on Oxford Street.

Imagine someone did set off such a dirty bomb in London. A quick spray down with some high pressure hoses (after the effects of the actual explosion of course) and you’d not actually be able to tell, from the residual radioactivity, that it had actually happened. For in that 40kg we are actually talking about 300 grammes of radioactive uranium (thereabouts).

Just to give some idea of the “danger” of this material. We used to use the same stuff as a glaze for pottery. We think it’s not a very good idea these days, that’s true, phased it out decades ago. But I’ve certainly seen stories of not very well managed school or art college potteries finding a bag or two of it (it sometimes came in 50 lb sacks) out in back left over from the old days.

24 thoughts on “On that Isis dirty bomb”

  1. That’s all very well, but people will still panic in the event of a dirty nuclear bomb. Some people will avoid the city; exact numbers will depend on how the media report the event. I remember the tube being noticeably quieter for a few weeks after the 7/7 bombings.

  2. Well, if you ate it or inhaled it it would be the heavy metal poisoning that did you more harm than the radioactivity, yes.

  3. > exact numbers will depend on how the media report the event.

    Oh, I think we all know how the media would report it.

    RADIOACTIVE HIROSHIMA MELTDOWN APOCALYPSE
    ‘NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT’ CLAIM LYING SCIENTISTS IN EVIL COVER-UP SCANDAL

  4. Bloke in Germany in Hong Kong

    Yah, but it’s artificial radiation. So it’s bad. The natural radiation from the rocks – that’s good radiation.

  5. Bloke in Germany in Hong Kong

    And obviously the point is the indirect economic costs will be >1000x the damage caused by the thing going off, and subsequent clean-up. Actually, if you did it in 6 strategically-chosen tube stations you could gridlock London for months while elfin safety checked their SOPs for dirty bomb clean-ups.

  6. In another life I collected some drill samples which had been taken from the uranium ore body at Honeymoon Well, in South Australia. The on-site geos said, no problem, just don’t eat it. I took them into my office, and called the site safety officer. He came up with his geiger counter.

    Ha ha hardy har. The bricks in my office wall were more radioactive than the uranium samples.

  7. A sensible government should just press the comparison with bananas and Brazil nuts.

    (And, may I say, I know a far more effective way to cause a radioactivity panic than fannying around with stolen uranium, so I’m delighted to know that ISIS are so stupid.)

  8. BIGIHK,

    > And obviously the point is the indirect economic costs will be >1000x the damage caused by the thing going off, and subsequent clean-up.

    Since the indirect costs are almost entirely caused by the media’s egregious misreporting, we should consider holding them responsible. And maybe billing them.

    dearieme,

    > A sensible government should just press the comparison with bananas and Brazil nuts.

    BANANAGATE: GOVERNMENT RISK KIDDIES’ LIVES WITH EVIL NUCLEAR COVER-UP LIES

    > And, may I say, I know a far more effective way to cause a radioactivity panic than fannying around with stolen uranium, so I’m delighted to know that ISIS are so stupid.

    I am regularly grateful that all the Al Qaeda affiliates are so pathetically awful at terrorism. If I had significant numbers of people willing to die for the cause, I’d’ve killed thousands in the UK by now. Their planning and imagination stink.

  9. So Much for Subtlety

    And I’m sure there’s one building or another in London that’s made out of 400 tonnes of granite. Doing no one any great harm over the centuries.

    Because it is embedded in 400 tonnes of granite. No one would mind that much of even nuclear waste if it was properly embedded in 400 tonnes of synroc.

    It would depend on what the regulations say. If they treat it as medium grade waste, which is probably about right, the cost would be enormous and large parts of London would have to be evacuated. Sure, the sensible option is to hose it down but they aren’t likely to go the sensible route.

  10. So Much for Subtlety

    Squander Two – “Yes they would.”

    Depends on the waste. But 300 grammes of radioactive waste dispersed through 400 tonnes of artificial rock? That would have to be a pretty strong gamma emitter.

  11. SMFS,

    I think you are confusing “nobody sensible” with the much wider and less distinguished “nobody”.

    All sorts of people would mind, or pretend strongly and vociferously to mind. And their screeching would drown out the few sensible voices, who would be derided as ivory-tower, not local, establishment, stooges of the nuclear industry, etc, etc.

  12. SE,

    Exactly. Germany’s entire nuclear electricity generation program has been shut down and they’ve switched back to coal because the second-worst nuclear accident in history gave two people sunburn.

    SMFS,

    > But 300 grammes of radioactive waste dispersed through 400 tonnes of artificial rock?

    So you find out the worst possible damage done by a miligram of radioactive material — pick the most dangerous isotope and find out what happens when someone ingests it, say — and then this is 300,000 TIMES MORE DEADLY NUCLEAR MATERIAL THAN etc etc.

  13. If I had significant numbers of people willing to die for the cause, I’d’ve killed thousands in the UK by now.

    The darker side of Norwegian humour made that point about Anders Breivik, along the lines of “See what one organised Norwegian can do when he puts his mind to it.”

  14. Bloke in Germany in Hong Kong

    @SQ2 “I am regularly grateful that all the Al Qaeda affiliates are so pathetically awful at terrorism. If I had significant numbers of people willing to die for the cause, I’d’ve killed thousands in the UK by now. Their planning and imagination stink.”

    Absolutely, +++ etc. They make Four Lions look like a documentary.

  15. With talk of defections and defeat ISIS is losing momentum and being pushed back in some areas. I suspect that this is as much about maintaining moral on their own side and propaganda for recruiting more nut jobs.

    Anyway, ISIS appears to hate other Muslims more than it hates us. Given the problems with trying to get such a bomb to London and then detonating it, it would certainly make more tactical sense to use it against their enemies in the region.

  16. “I am regularly grateful that all the Al Qaeda affiliates are so pathetically awful at terrorism. If I had significant numbers of people willing to die for the cause, I’d’ve killed thousands in the UK by now. Their planning and imagination stink”

    I’m glad I’m not the only person to have thought this. The trouble is that such thoughts are making me into a conspiracy theorist – maybe the reason they are so incompetent isn’t that they are trying to kill us all, but that they are there to provide a suitable reason for the authorities to pass new laws to control us?

    I’ll get my tinfoil coat.

  17. I don’t think a conspiracy theory is required in this instance. I think they’ve inherited certain strategies from the Seventies that are no longer relevant or required but they’re sticking with out of dogma or habit. I also think they’re obsessed with doing things the hard way.

    And I won’t go into a load of detail here, because the last thing I want to do is provide them with instructions.

  18. Uranium’s OK to eat, but I’d avoid Plutonium. Horrible stuff.

    The reason for this, apparently, is that uranium exists naturally, so we’ve evolved some tolerance to it. Plutonium doesn’t, so as I read somewhere (it may have been a Science of Discworld book, I can’t remember), “there’s no amount of it that won’t make you want to lie down”.

    Squander Two, I don’t even need people willing to die for the cause.

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