Am-241 terrorism

From the UK George Sassoon writes: As if 'red mercury' wasn't enough, Time mag. has now uncovered a plot in
London for an Am-241 bomb, according to the Daily Mail.  This has half-life 432.7 yrs and alpha decay so goes to Np-237 (2.14  Myr, alha) so rather weak, to Pa-233 (27 days beta-) etc. Being used in smoke detectors available to the public it is obviously chosen for safety. According to the newspaper report, the terrorists 'planned to treat the material to make it more potent'.  How many smoke detectors would it take to make a bomb, at about a picocurie each? A an alpha emitter, americium 241 is only dangerous if it enters the body.  Alpha particles only travel an inch or two in air, far less in solids. I haven't looked for the Time mag. report, maybe another WAISer has it. The people charged with 'red mercury' are in custody awaiting trial.

RH: Clearly this form of terrorism requires a good knowledge of chemistry.  I hope George will keep us informed about the trial of the red mercury people.

I wrote: Clearly this form of terrorism requires a good knowledge of chemistry. Glenye Cain comments: It is not only the terrorism that requires it. It strikes me that the media, in order to cover this kind of story, also needs far more education in chemistry than it probably has. My concern is that there are pitifully few chemistry-literate reporters in the general pool of media covering terrorism issues, and so those reporters are vulnerable to, for example, the agendas of the people who tip them off to such stories. I have not seen the Time article but would be interested to know what scientific sources it (and, for that matter, the reports covering the "red mercury" issue) cites to explain the properties of Am-241. I suspect that many reporters would lazily rely on "government sources" and "senior officials" for information about such plots, instead of also developing a wide range of scientific sources, learning from them, understanding their agendas, and trying to educate themselves about chemistry. Unfortunately, I don't see a trend toward the hiring of specialized reporters with scientific backgrounds, although obviously some of the largest news outlets do have this. I wish more did. Has Mr. Sassoon or anyone else seen any good scientifically-based reporting that points out the less-alarming aspects of Am-241 and red mercury in connection with the "terrorist plot" stories?

From the UK George Sassoon comments: 
Nuclear physics too, not just chemistry!  Nothing yet in our papers about the trial of the red mercury people, they're all about your election over there. A friend kindly sent me a copy of the British edition of "The Radioactive Boy Scout" by Ken Silverstein, from which we assume that the terrorists got their information. Subtitle is: "The true story of a boy and his backyard nuclear reactor." should have copies. RH: It is frightening that boys can get hold of this kind of information.  I must put in a good word for science reporters.  There are some excellent ones who make scientific developments understandable to people like me.

Your comments are invited. Read the home page of the World Association of International Studies (WAIS) by simply double-clicking on: Mail to Ronald Hilton, Hoover Institution, Stanford, CA 94305-6010. Please inform us of any change of e-mail address.

Ronald Hilton 2004


last updated: November 19, 2004