Physical Insights

An independent scientist’s observations on society, technology, energy, science and the environment. “Modern science has been a voyage into the unknown, with a lesson in humility waiting at every stop. Many passengers would rather have stayed home.” – Carl Sagan

‘Dirty bomb’ parts found in slain man’s home?

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The Bangor Daily News reports that one James G. Cummings, who police say was shot to death by his wife two months ago, “allegedly had a cache of radioactive materials in his home suitable for building a “dirty bomb.””

According to an FBI field intelligence report from the Washington Regional Threat and Analysis Center posted online by WikiLeaks, an organization that posts leaked documents, an investigation into the case revealed that radioactive materials were removed from Cummings’ home after his shooting death on Dec. 9.

The report posted on the WikiLeaks Web site states that “On 9 December 2008, radiological dispersal device components and literature, and radioactive materials, were discovered at the Maine residence of an identified deceased [person] James Cummings.”

It says that four 1-gallon containers of 35 percent hydrogen peroxide, uranium, thorium, lithium metal, thermite, aluminum powder, beryllium, boron, black iron oxide and magnesium ribbon were found in the home.

Also found was literature on how to build “dirty bombs” and information about cesium-137, strontium-90 and cobalt-60, radioactive materials. The FBI report also stated there was evidence linking James Cummings to white supremacist groups. This would seem to confirm observations by local tradesmen who worked at the Cummings home that he was an ardent admirer of Adolf Hitler and had a collection of Nazi memorabilia around the house, including a prominently displayed flag with swastika. Cummings claimed to have pieces of Hitler’s personal silverware and place settings, painter Mike Robbins said a few days after the shooting.

Now, of course, this seems like a bit of a beat-up – but I’m not sure who’s to blame here, the newspaper, or the perhaps overly dramatic (internal) FBI report.

The memo leaked on WikiLeaks reports that:

“State authorities detected radiation emissions in four small jars in the residence labelled ‘uranium metal’, as well as one jar labelled ‘thorium’. The four jars of uranium carried the label of an identified US company.”

“Further preliminary analysis on 30 december 2008 indicated an unlabeled jar to be a second jar of thorium. Each bottle of uranium contained depleted uranium-238. Analysis also indicated the two jars of thorium held thorium-232.”

Now, regarding this US company. I have a pretty good suspicion who this company is – there aren’t too many companies that sell small samples of depleted uranium to the public – but I’m not going to mention the company by name, simply because they do not deserve to be unfairly tarnished or persecuted in relation to this incident.

This company provides quite a few products which are very interesting and very useful in scientific teaching, education and research, including some items which are extremely difficult to find on the market anywhere else, and they already cop enough persecution and flak as it is. Nothing they sell poses any special danger to the community at large, and small samples of uranium metal are, personally, one of the least dangerous things they sell.

The company in question, from what I recall, sells (depleted) uranium metal samples in 5 gram bottles, and used to sell thorium as one-gram samples.

If these samples were what these bottles possessed by this person were, then you’re talking about approximately 20 g of depleted uranium metal, and approximately 2 g of thorium metal. That’s about 10 microcuries of uranium, and about 0.22 microcuries of thorium.

There’s nothing that constitutes any radiological hazard to anybody. A bucket full of uranium-bearing rock picked up out of the ground would contain more radioactivity than this. Uranium-238 and thorium-232 are some of the least radioactive substances you can find that can still actually be called radioactive. They’re completely, utterly irrelevant to any threat of a radiological weapon, at all.

That said, however, I’m sure it is within the limits plausibility that this person was intent on trying to build a radiological weapon, he simply didn’t go about it in a particularly effective fashion.

Written by Luke Weston

February 27, 2009 at 7:25 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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