back to article Crooks swipe plutonium, cesium from US govt nuke wranglers' car. And yes, it's still missing

While staying at a Marriott hotel in San Antonio, Texas, US government staffers left nuclear material, recovered from a non-profit research lab, in a rented SUV overnight. The following morning, these individuals – described as "security experts" at the US Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory – found their Ford …

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  1. Not Enough Coffee
    Black Helicopters

    Interesting article on missing nuke stuff, however I'm NOT going to click on any of the links provided.

    1. IceC0ld Bronze badge
      Mushroom

      Interesting article on missing nuke stuff, however I'm NOT going to click on any of the links provided.

      ------------

      surely any nasty radioactive links would already be clicking ........................ :o)

    2. Jack of Shadows Silver badge

      Not a problem here. My primary field in the military. The remarkable thing would be not following the links. I spend most of my time on Twitter talking to others on this since all the activities by "rogue nations" became a thang. In real life, I'm more worried about the Plutonium, not due to bomb making material, rather as to radical treatment required upon exposure.

      Extremely toxic as in radical amputation required.

      1. Robert Sneddon

        Uh, no.

        Extremely toxic as in radical amputation required.

        Actually no. Plutonium is a lot less toxic than, say, arsenic or beryllium. There's a lot of scare stories about Pu and of course similar fairy-tales about uranium (see Gulf War Syndrome for a worked example) but generally they're not a real biochemical threat or even a serious radiological worry. There's a "hot particle" theory that's mostly wild imagination crossed with movie-script physics and biology about how a particle of Pu could cause instant lung cancer. Healthy lungs are good at clearing dust and particles out if the airways and such a particle wouldn't stay resident in the lungs for more than a couple of days.

        People who worked on the Manhattan Project back in the 1940, doing things in a hurry without modern Elf and Safety rules got Pu in cuts and grazes, inhaled and ingested Pu particles etc. and they were mostly OK decades later.

        1. CrazyOldCatMan Silver badge

          Re: Uh, no.

          and they were mostly OK decades later

          Apart from the mutant superpowers and randon extra limbs of course..

        2. Robert Helpmann?? Silver badge
          Childcatcher

          Re: Uh, no.

          People who worked on the Manhattan Project back in the 1940, doing things in a hurry without modern Elf and Safety rules got Pu in cuts and grazes, inhaled and ingested Pu particles etc. and they were mostly OK decades later.

          The US government has a long history of saying everything is fine concerning health issues (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9314220) and decades later admitting it was slightly less so (https://www.nytimes.com/2000/01/29/us/us-acknowledges-radiation-killed-weapons-workers.html). The examples happen to be pertinent to the subject at hand, but are definitely not isolated.

          1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

            Re: Uh, no.

            The US government has a long history of saying everything is fine concerning health issues ... and decades later admitting it was slightly less so.

            True, in a broad sense. But the US government is a very large and heterogeneous organization, and also one in which individual departments may change relatively quickly. Generalizations about what "the US government ... say[s]" are of rather limited predictive power.

            The ATSDR broadly concurs with Mr Sneddon's post, and (unlike everyone in this threat) provides some actual data to back up their conclusions. I'd refer you in particular to section 3 of its toxicological profile for plutonium, which includes this statement:

            As discussed in Section 3.5, Mechanisms of Toxicity, plutonium-induced health effects are considered to be the result of energy deposited by alpha particle emissions in tissues that retain plutonium for extended periods (i.e., lung, bone, liver following inhalation exposure). Similar health effects would be expected from any alpha-emitting source that would result in similar cumulative tissue-specific radiation dose and dose rate.

            In short: About as toxic as you'd expect from any similar fissile element.

            The claims of extreme plutonium toxicity seem to have originated with Ralph Nader, who is not, in fact, a toxicologist, and may occasionally indulge in hyperbole.

  2. Notas Badoff Silver badge

    That dirty yard in the neighbourhood

    Sigh. It's not going to be a "dirty bomb". The problem will be much quieter and therefore sinister. Somewhere someone is stupidly 'accidentally' spreading this crap all over some neighbourhood. And no one will know until the damage to people has been done.

    This one - Goiânia accident - will give you the idea. Perusing List of civilian radiation accidents will raise the hair on your neck until it starts falling out.

    Gotta love "In the summer of 1992, a utility worker for the Taiwanese state-run electric utility Taipower brought a Geiger counter to his apartment to learn more about the device, and discovered that his apartment was contaminated." Or "The incident was discovered months later when a truck delivering contaminated building materials to the Los Alamos National Laboratory drove through a radiation monitoring station."

    1. diodesign (Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

      Re: That dirty yard in the neighbourhood

      Oh yeah, thanks for the reminder of the Goiânia accident – will add it to the story.

      C.

    2. itzman

      Re: That dirty yard in the neighbourhood

      again ignorance is bliss.,

      Lets start with plutonium - presumably 239.

      The queens handled a couple of kg in 1957 on a trip to Harwell 'oh its warn; she said

      She isn't dead,.

      Plutonium is barely radioactive at all. Its far more a heavy metal poison than it is a radiological biohazard.

      The few grams of Caesium 137 MIGHT be a tad dangerous if someone swallowed the lot.

      But in a dirty bomb?

      Forget it. You probably were exposed to far more as a result of nuclear test fallout back in the day

      1. DougS Silver badge

        Re: That dirty yard in the neighbourhood

        That's kind of hilarious how blase they were about radioactivity back in the day. Even though the dangers are way overhyped (as the queen surviving just fine for 61 years since that demonstrates) I imagine if William and Kate wanted to pick up a hunk of plutonium to see if it was warm their security would quickly disabuse them of that idea.

        The big problem with plutonium is inhaling it, if it would be made airborne and spread out. It'll stay in your tissues and cause problems - sort of like if instead of just picking up a hunk of it the queen was given a necklace made of it. I doubt she would have been cancer-free having plutonium against her neck since 1957.

        1. Alister Silver badge

          Re: That dirty yard in the neighbourhood

          I doubt she would have been cancer-free having plutonium against her neck since 1957.

          When I was six or seven, I was bought my first wristwatch - a Timex if I remember correctly - which had each hour marker, and all three hands (hour, minute and second) painted in Radium paint to glow in the dark.

          A few years later, in a school physics lab, we were introduced to a Geiger counter, which registered my watch quite strongly!

          I had been wearing all that radioactive goodness every day for a number of years, as I'm sure many other people of my generation will have done.

          1. werdsmith Silver badge

            Re: That dirty yard in the neighbourhood

            Here you go, fill yer boots:

            https://www.amazon.com/Images-SI-Uranium-Ore/dp/B000796XXM

          2. DougS Silver badge

            Radium dial watch

            You didn't have the radium directly against your body, it was sealed up in the watch.

      2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: That dirty yard in the neighbourhood

        "The few grams of Caesium 137 MIGHT be a tad dangerous if someone swallowed the lot."

        If the caesium is in the form of a metal "dangerous" probably isn't the right word. "Spectacular" would be better.

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        re: queen

        did she get any mutant superpowers?

      4. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

        Re: That dirty yard in the neighbourhood

        Its far more a heavy metal poison than it is a radiological biohazard.

        A myth. See the link to the ATSDR toxprofile in my prior post.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: That dirty yard in the neighbourhood

      Geiger counters are cheap & cheerful nowadays.

      I have one.

      It registers slight radioactivty in my kitchen due to the granite countertop, I reckon.

      1. CAPS LOCK Silver badge

        "It registers slight radioactivty in my kitchen due to the granite countertop"...

        ... or the Bentonite in your cats litter tray, or the Braziil nuts in the bowl of nuts, or the Bananas ripening on the side, or the fact that you live down wind of a coal fired power station (Radon dontchakno') etc etc....

        1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

          Re: "It registers slight radioactivty in my kitchen due to the granite countertop"...

          "Radon dontchakno"

          Or tapwater if it comes from a reservoir in a granite area, e.g. S Belfast getting its water from the Mournes.

        2. tiggity Silver badge

          Re: "It registers slight radioactivty in my kitchen due to the granite countertop"...

          I live in a designated radon area, but still no superpowers

      2. GerryMC

        Re: That dirty yard in the neighbourhood

        Not the bananas?

      3. CrazyOldCatMan Silver badge

        Re: That dirty yard in the neighbourhood

        slight radioactivty in my kitchen due to the granite countertop

        Yup - granite is a known source of radiation due to the low levels of Potassium-40, thorium and (in some granites) low levels of uranium.

        My wife's parents both died of cancer - her father was a stonemason who worked with granite for most of his life and her mother was exposed to granite a lot for most of her life. I'm hoping that my wife's years away from it will reduce her chances of cancer..

  3. DCFusor Silver badge

    I work in the field

    In my case, fusion work, but we need to calibrate our detectors too. It's really hard to get hands on a cal source over about 1/4 micro-curie... (yes, that's .25 millionth...of an equivalent gram of Ra).

    If what they were talking about here were actual cal sources, while you wouldn't want to swallow one there's no real danger involved...(if you swallow one, you might choke, after all...)

    If you want radiation exposure, fly in a commercial airliner...

    This is actually pretty good and very nicely done: https://xkcd.com/radiation/

    Now, collecting uranium ore - including that from the natural reactor in Africa which has all sorts of nasty fission products still going in it - is totally legal, and the stuff can be bought by the pound. And isn't hard to extract the fun stuff from, just illegal.

    Grams in a test source? Micro grams, maybe. Speculation isn't fact or in this case, likely to be correct at all. Maybe counting the epoxy encapsulation and the box it came in?

    So I rate this "scare mongering" on the level that they had to rename "nuclear resonance imaging" to Magnetic resonance imaging" because as soon as people hear nuclear, what sense they had flies out the window. Even though it's nuclei that are resonating like spinning tops in the magnetic field, the equipment is the same no matter the name.

    1. Mayday Silver badge

      Re: I work in the field

      Nice explanation, have an upvote.

      The article mentions "dirty bomb" Although I cant see there being enough to drop in the town square and give the populous cancer, is there enough to say grind into granules and put in a letter and post to some politician you dont like and get them sick?

      1. itzman

        Re: I work in the field

        s there enough to say grind into granules and put in a letter and post to some politician you dont like and get them sick?

        Not even that I fear

        Far better to buy up loads of smoke alarms and start your own atomic pile

        1. Korev Silver badge
          Joke

          Re: I work in the field

          >Far better to buy up loads of smoke alarms and start your own atomic pile

          I had atomic piles once, they itched like hell

          1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

            Re: I work in the field

            I had atomic piles once, they itched like hell

            I believe those can be treated with Preparation H-bomb.

    2. diodesign (Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

      Re: I work in the field

      If you think this is scare mongering, then I regret being restrained, and not going balls out with

      DIRTY BOMB SHELL: NUKE NASTY STOLEN, FILTHY WEAPON FEARS GROW

      C.

      1. DropBear Silver badge

        Re: I work in the field

        Yes. Yes, it is scaremongering. If those calibration sources contained as much material as most of the commentariat (including me) seems to be expecting, then even mentioning dirty bombs is the equivalent of evacuating a building for fear of the devastating explosive device someone might build using a single match stick that went missing.

      2. This post has been deleted by its author

      3. Robin Bradshaw

        Re: I work in the field

        I think a more measured headline would have been:

        "Pissing tiny speck of radioactive material goes missing, government to spend $275 on replacement"

        I have no idea of the cost of the plutonium one but if your in the US and want a 10µC Cesium¹³⁷ standard United Nuclear have got you covered for $145 + $130 if you want better calibration:

        http://unitednuclear.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=2_5&products_id=819

        Im seriously tempted by their Spinthariscopes though, but i have no idea if I can get one shipped to the UK:

        http://unitednuclear.com/index.php?main_page=index&cPath=2_12

        1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

          Re: I work in the field

          Im seriously tempted by their Spinthariscopes though, but i have no idea if I can get one shipped to the UK:

          Now that I've read it's "a device for observing individual nuclear disintegrations", iWant! I could add it to my pile of 'What's that?' and 'and what's that?' gizmos. Or get a pair and mount them in steampunkesque goggle frames ready for if/when the Strontium Dog movie comes out. Be prepared for the Apocalypse! Or more likely migraines induced by the sparkling. And also curious what else was in the Chemcraft nuclear chemistry set that would be banned today..

        2. GrumpenKraut Silver badge
          Boffin

          Re: I work in the field

          > ...seriously tempted by their Spinthariscopes...

          You should be able to build such a thing yourself: all it really is, is a zinc sulfide covered glass plate (you need glow in the dark paint and some transparent plate), and some piece of radioactive material (ask you local mineral collector).

          I once had a chunk of Pechblende (from "Katanga, Kongo", whatever that is in English). Add a small piece of glass with some zincsulfide (and a loupe)... fun, fun, fun!

          About radioactive minerals: use something solid like Thorium ore (e.g., Monazite). Do avoid stuff that is dusty like those lovely green Uranium minerals. You could inhale particles from it and you DON'T want that.

      4. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: I work in the field

        >FILTHY WEAPON FEARS GROW

        That's OK - he's probably still flying back to the US from Helsinki..

      5. cray74 Silver badge

        Re: I work in the field

        If you think this is scare mongering, then I regret being restrained, and not going balls out

        In the opposite direction of scaremongering, some useful context might've been provided with a sentence to the effect of, "Typical plutonium check sources have X curies of radiation, which compares to a dangerous dose of Y curies."

        Most news articles on radioactivity threats - like the recent radioactive sinkhole in Florida - neglect context like that and people get alarmed over something less radioactive than a banana.

      6. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

        Re: I work in the field

        DIRTY BOMB SHELL: NUKE NASTY STOLEN, FILTHY WEAPON FEARS GROW

        You still need to mention PUTIN otherwise nobody gives a fuck.

    3. Robert Sneddon

      Re: I work in the field

      And isn't hard to extract the fun stuff from, just illegal.

      Not even illegal, just chemical engineering. I read a report a few years back about an American undergrad who, for extra credit in his Chem Eng course got some low-grade uranium ore from a desert location by hunting for it with a Geiger counter. He refined it into yellowcake, the minehead product of uranium producers and got the extra course credits for the effort. He gave a couple of grams of the stuff in a glass phial to a student friend (not a Chem Eng undergrad). His friend's college dorm found out about this incredibly dangerous material, called in the NRC and law enforcement and kicked him out.

      1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

        Re: I work in the field

        Being the 21st Century, there's a video!

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bl3NamzoFrM

        Cody's Lab. Creator of interesting and educational vehicles, and probably entries on various watch lists. Not something I'd be tempted to try at home, or anyone else's home. Just sayin..

  4. Mayday Silver badge
    Alert

    I was told never to leave a work laptop in the car

    Or sensitive documents, or removable storage, or x or y

    Nuclear material on the other hand, no worries!

    PS. I actually wasn't necessarily told not to leave that stuff in the car, I just have a brain that I use occasionally.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I was told never to leave a work laptop in the car

      I was told never to leave a work laptop in the car

      Many years ago at an interview for a field service job, I was told to leave stuff in the car and not to leave it in the house. The reason being is that if the stuff is in the house and not the car and something happened to it, it wasn't covered by insurance.

  5. Chris G Silver badge

    Want your nukleer stuff back?

    Keep making people angry until one of 'em turns green and shreds his shirt.

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      Re: Want your nukleer stuff back?

      I don't know. Raging Environmentalists are not particularly impressive.

      1. Mark 85 Silver badge

        Re: Want your nukleer stuff back?

        Raging Environmentalists are not particularly impressive.

        Oh, I don't know about that. Watching them turn red, start stomping their feet and then shaking and sputtering is pretty good humor.

        If I want to bull bait them, I have T-shirt that on the front says: "Save the whales" and on the back "Collect the whole set". It sets off the environmentalists (Green Peacers are the best fun) AND the PITA folks in one fell swoop.

        1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

          Re: Want your nukleer stuff back?

          "Save the whales"

          Careful. Given the looks of the Southern Poverty Law Center's directorate, you may well go down for hate crimes.

  6. King Jack Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Monkey Dust

    Reminds me of a sketch on Monkey Dust, where two men are trying to sell plutonium door to door. Bits of their bodies are falling off.

  7. SVV Silver badge

    Plutonium left in SUV in Marriot Hotel

    I'm sorry, do you know how toxic and fatal this stuff is if you get even a smidgen of it into your system? You don't leave it in your car in a hotel car park. Possible that the fools that nabbed it will suffer an appropriately grisly end. Otherwise I advise revised security procedures after viewing that fine documentary "Edge of Darkness".

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Plutonium left in SUV in Marriot Hotel

      I would think the format is Pu embedded in a ceramic matrix. Kinda like a stone, only more radioactive.

      It would not be free metal or anything that you can "get into the system".

      Unlike what The Swede did in his kitchen.

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: Plutonium left in SUV in Marriot Hotel

        "Kinda like a stone, only more radioactive."

        Even that depends on the stone.

    2. WolfFan Silver badge

      Re: Plutonium left in SUV in Marriot Hotel

      Plutonium is a low-level radiation hazard. Most isotopes emit alpha particles during their decay process; alpha particles can be stopped by a single sheet of paper. One isotope (241, I think, but I can't be arsed to look it up) emits beta particles. Betas can be stopped by a single sheet of plywood. Furthermore, as plutonium's half-life, again depending on isotope, is measured in hundreds of thousands to millions of years, it takes a Very Long Time to emit anything much. Plutonium is considerably more dangerous as a heavy metal than as a radiation source. If you ingest sufficient plutonium you will be dead of heavy metal poisoning within hours to days, though you'll need to have eaten a _lot_ of the stuff to die quickly. Note: if you get plutonium heavy metal poisoning, you won't think that you're dying quickly. Nope.

      In order for it to go boom, you need a critical mass, something more than five kilos worth. (No, I'm not going to say how much more. Find out yourself.) Usually you get to the critical mass by slapping several subcritical masses together really hard and really fast; this requires explosives, and careful timing. If you want to make a big boom, and are short of really good explosives and all the special timer-thingies needed for a plutonium boom, use uranium. Classically you only need two subcritical masses with uranium, rather than the dozen or more with plutonium. It's much easier to make. One of the boys on the Manhattan Project (I can't be arsed to look him up, either, I saw the quote in Richard Rhode's _The Making of the Atomic Bomb_) once quipped that any schoolboy could make a uranium bomb, but it takes real talent to make a plutonium bomb.

      A radiation source of the type mentioned would weigh grams, and would contain milligrams of plutonium at most. It's major dangers would be as a choking hazard, and might be interesting to pass out the other end. I picked up more radiation the last time I was in the New York subway system than I would from swallowing one of those things.

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