“I tend to think it happened. In fact, I’m damn sure it happened.”
March 24, 2015 3:21 PM   Subscribe

What Lies Beneath
In the 1960s, hundreds of pounds of uranium went missing in Pennsylvania. Is it buried in the ground, poisoning locals—or did Israel steal it to build the bomb?
posted by andoatnp (30 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Or was it simply, quietly sold to them?
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 3:22 PM on March 24, 2015 [31 favorites]

In an environment of lax security protocols and record-keeping, there certainly was an opportunity for removal. But whether Shapiro was involved -- who knows? He was an obvious target, and if after fifty years of investigation nothing definite can be found (or shown)... But a clandestine removal didn't necessarily involve a friend of Israel -- it could have been anyone with a psychological pressure point ripe for exploitation.
posted by Capt. Renault at 3:43 PM on March 24, 2015

This isn't at all a unique case; see also Port Hope, Ontario.

The fact is, the mundane former scenario -- they just dumped the nuclear waste in the ground -- is far more likely than any kooky conspiracy theory.
posted by Sys Rq at 3:50 PM on March 24, 2015 [7 favorites]

The good news is, if a bomb goes off, the radiation signature can be linked back to the originating source.

The bad news is, a bomb goes off.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:59 PM on March 24, 2015 [19 favorites]

The French were pretty instrumental in Israel's nuke development so I doubt they needed to resort to stealing from the Americans (though no doubt US funds paid for most of it indirectly anyway) and hassle with smuggling it across the Atlantic.
posted by Abon Sapi at 4:01 PM on March 24, 2015

I don't think there's any real doubt that the uranium was diverted and that Israel got it; the air sample taken in the Negev alone is virtually conclusive.
posted by jamjam at 4:09 PM on March 24, 2015 [5 favorites]

What a well-told story. We still don't have a good solution for getting rid of private, volatile nuclear waste, but damn did we used to be worse at it.

One minor quibble: "which, under the right conditions, could be used as ingredients for a dirty bomb" is a bit misleading, isn't it? Can't you just put pretty much anything in a dirty bomb, as long as it's a dangerous, contaminating chemical?
posted by NoraReed at 4:10 PM on March 24, 2015

No. In general usage, a dirty bomb is radiological.
posted by chrchr at 4:30 PM on March 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

They may have also gotten some from Argentina and Belgium, the latter being an operation involving an at-sea transfer in the Mediterranean.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 4:32 PM on March 24, 2015

(Former agents of) Mossad claimed in Gideon's Spies that it was entirely an Israeli-side operation, and the US authorities were powerless to stop it after they figured it out.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 4:36 PM on March 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

I work, quite literally, next door to the Parks Township cleanup site in a former NUMEC pacemaker building. I think we still have one or two of the old pacemakers, though void of fissile material, from the small handful of employees who remain from the nuclear days.

The story is an interesting, sad piece of town lore. I've heard third-hand stories of paint peeling off of cars parked next to the nuclear stacks in Apollo, midnight rides to dispose of spilled uranium, and cemeteries that don't appear in any official documents that may contain "hot" material. Employees were laughingly told to drink plenty of beer after work to "flush out the radiation". Radioactive material was spilled in a truck, so the truck was buried. Some of this can be verified online, but it's the type of legend with the size and gravity to lend credence to all awful rumors.

It is true that there is a conspicuous, Triscuit-textured concrete wall shielding a trailer with an armed guard at the entry to the site. So while the Shapiro stuff is interesting conspiracy fodder, there's still serious shit in that hilltop, and that worries me. With godlike energy comes godlike power to disrupt life, and we humans haven't figured out good ways to control God, much less to stuff God in a barrel and send Him to the Nevada desert. Our building is supposedly clean, but if it was checked by the same guys who dumped it in the ground, it's as suspect as the rest of the Kiski watershed.

I'm sure I'll hear about this article at the lunch table tomorrow; all stories about our neutron-dense neighbor make their way through our halls. Nobody knows exactly what's up there, but it sounds like there remain a few trenches containing some kind of radioactive material, be it in paint cans, oil drums, or just mixed in the soil. There are just enough declassified documents to draw a sketch and enough rumors to either fill in the blanks or gouge through the canvas, but important details (like "is this seeping into the water supply for my workplace?") will forever be unanswered.

NUMEC sounds like a bunch of bastards, but then again so do most mid-century heavy industries. Interestingly, some people pine for the days of the radioactive smokestacks. The company provided well-paying, challenging work for a number of years, and since then, the small mill towns surrounding Pittsburgh have shriveled into a lot of nothing, propped up by inertia and the stray factory or coal mine. The people I've heard say this don't have debilitating cancers and don't live on scorched brownfields, but memories of thriving towns burn bright.

I pass within twenty feet of the property when I walk laps at lunch. It feels like something ominous lurks over the modest chain-link fence, a force that united a town and simultaneously eroded its people. But at the same time, it's just there, another field in which my co-workers long to shoot the buck that feeds on the lot, overgrown with scrub brush that doesn't much care whether the uranium is in Israel or its leaves.
posted by Turkey Glue at 4:38 PM on March 24, 2015 [85 favorites]

Western PA is just full of little old industrial towns like Apollo with horrible toxic waste legacies. If you can think of a dangerous chemical, there was probably a factory producing it somewhere out here.
posted by octothorpe at 4:45 PM on March 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

I wish the writing wasn't so gosh-wow; it obscures the story. Early on, the author excitedly says that the ground contained
radionuclides of concern, including americium-241, radium-228, uranium-235, and various types of plutonium, which, under the right conditions, could be used as ingredients for a dirty bomb.
OK, sure, any radioactive material could be used for a "dirty bomb". How much of each was present? Is it likely that the 241Am is a decay product from 241Plutonium? Were they manufacturing 241Am for use in smoke detectors or other devices that use it for ionization?

When the author refers to "very rare uranium used in naval fuels that had been enriched to
 97.7 percent", what isotope is he talking about? Was that produced in NUMEC? If not, how is it relevant? If so, why isn't it listed among the "radionuclides of concern"? Is it possible - and I only know this from some casual Googling -that the author has this wrong? Because one British reactor design uses uranium oxide enriched to a level of 2.3% 235U. If you subtract 2.3% from 100% you have - dahdahdum! 97.7%!

Wikipedia has an article on Israel's nuclear weapons program that refers to nuclear purchases from Britain, France, Gabon, Belgium, Argentina, and the USA. Lots of people do seem to think that Israel got some from NUMEC. Who knows.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:46 PM on March 24, 2015 [5 favorites]

Was that produced in NUMEC?

The article says it was being produced only in one place in the world, in Pennsylvania, so yes.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 4:53 PM on March 24, 2015

Flagged as fantastic, Turkey Glue. Thanks.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:12 PM on March 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

They now expect that the cost for cleaning up the site will be $500 million, not $40 million. In my experience, when things like this get reassessed they are always too optimistic; heaven knows what the actual figure will be:

Report: More dangerous radioactive waste near Apollo than first thought
But the records on which the corps based its original plan vastly underestimated the amount of nuclear waste at the site, according to interviews with NUMEC's former president and with one of the company's former scientists.

The company's former president also concluded that the documents on which the corps based its decision "grossly underestimates the amount of SNM [special nuclear materials] and special isotopes buried at the site," according to the report.
The scientist, after reviewing the Army Corps' Record of Decision of its planned method of cleanup that had been approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, noted that "it did not even reflect 5 percent of the material that was in the trenches, he approached the [corps] to communicate this disparity."
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:22 PM on March 24, 2015

Here's some slightly more positive vintage pacemaker material.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 6:01 PM on March 24, 2015

I am so excited for Utahans to build a nuclear power plant on the Green River, near Moab, where the Green flows into the Colorado river. The culture of shut up in this state makes disaster a given. You can shout stories like this, and the Cameron, Arizona story, from the rooftops, won't change a thing. There is no magic to change or remedy, the hideous errors already written into our script.
posted by Oyéah at 6:52 PM on March 24, 2015 [3 favorites]

I used to work with a bunch of nuclear security experts, and this case was definitely discussed. The consensus was definitely agnostic as to whether the missing material ended up in Israeli hands or just disappeared due to bad accounting practices (and agnostic as to which was scarier) but I heard at least one world-renowned expert on this stuff (himself agnostic on what happened) say that in his mind the visit by a bunch of Israeli intelligence agents was actually the strongest argument against an Israeli operation.

After all, a handful of top Israelis visit your facility, and shortly thereafter hundreds of pounds of nuclear material show up missing? could you make it a little more obvious? Mossad would show a little more tradecraft than that.
posted by firechicago at 7:16 PM on March 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

But that is what they would want you to think.
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:11 PM on March 24, 2015 [4 favorites]

Joe in Australia: Was that produced in NUMEC?

According to the article, yes.

If so, why isn't it listed among the "radionuclides of concern"?

If it's what I think it is, highly enriched U-235, then it was.

Is it possible - and I only know this from some casual Googling -that the author has this wrong? Because one British reactor design uses uranium oxide enriched to a level of 2.3% 235U. If you subtract 2.3% from 100% you have - dahdahdum! 97.7%!

The answer to that is always yes, but probably not because of the coincidence of numbers you found. Nuclear submarines use unusually-highly enriched uranium fuel so that they can run for decades without having to refuel. That level of enrichment is expensive and unnecessary for surface reactors where accessing the fuel assembly is more feasible.
posted by traveler_ at 8:18 PM on March 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

Yeah I'm afraid I'm going to go with Occam's razor on the whole "maybe the presence of superspies means there isn't any spying" thing.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:20 PM on March 24, 2015 [3 favorites]

Metafilter: haven't figured out good ways to control God, much less to stuff God in a barrel and send Him to the Nevada desert.

sorry. couldn't resist.
posted by el io at 8:22 PM on March 24, 2015 [3 favorites]

Thanks for going into detail on the dirty bomb thing, Joe in Australia.
posted by NoraReed at 10:18 PM on March 24, 2015

Traveler_: Yeah, I think you may be right, even though U-235 is not "a type of very rare uranium" in any meaningful sense: it's actually the uranium isotope you're most likely to use in reactors and weapons. However.

More casual Googling informs me that the US Navy has a Super Sekrit reactor design (known only to the US Navy and people on the Internet) that does use ~97% enriched fuel. This would normally be a quick route to a critical event and the bottom of the sea, but the fuel (from what I understand) incorporates neutron absorbers (e.g. gadolinium) that are gradually depleted as the uranium decays, so you get a constant level of reactivity.

So maybe the author was told that they found some level of this highly-enriched uranium mixture, which was very unusual, and he interpreted it as "a type of very rare uranium"?
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:27 PM on March 24, 2015

U-235 really is rare. Googling around, it appears to be in the same ballpark as palladium as far as abundance in Earth's crust goes, but of course it's fantastically difficult to purify. During WW2, Oak Ridge used something like 10-15% of the entire electrical output of the US, for a long time, to produce a few hundred pounds of U-235. So a lump of mostly-pure U-235 is for reals rare.

Boring power reactors run ninety-odd percent U-238.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:10 PM on March 24, 2015

no, not Moab. ugh. only been there once and read about how Ed Abbey had to leave because it got too big and i was like "what does he mean..."

Beautiful place.

and yes i have to agree... western PA is probably one big superfund site. we also have Centralia. we like burying dangerous things in the ground and saying "out of sight, out of mind."

and then our tap water becomes flammable, and fires start underground, and people get mysterious illnesses. i wonder what else fracking is dislodging...

posted by sio42 at 6:26 AM on March 25, 2015

But that is what they would want you to think.
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:11 PM on March 24 [2 favorites +] [!]

Maxwell Smart level of diabolical reverse psychological thinking...
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:18 AM on March 25, 2015

Or was it simply, quietly sold to them?

Contrary to current appearance, Israel wasn't always the 51st state. The 1967 war was really a turning point in US foreign policy in the region, up until which we had strained to be seen as the honest man and fair dealer, generally to great success (e.g. Suez Crisis), in contrast to colonial powers.

And barring the madman theory allegedly cooked up by Nixon's handlers, the US generally took the position that Israel getting the bomb would start a terrifying regional arms race.

In any case, I don't think that at least prior to the 1973 war (where the USSR supported Egypt and Syria) that the US would have done this voluntarily, with approval at the highest levels. It didn't serve our interests in the region, and subsequent closer alliance with Israel is at least as much a consequence of them getting the bomb (as well as the Camp David Accords, which institutionalized our military aid to both Israel and Egypt), not to mention domestic political factors. The whole hawkish neoconservative line on Israel (e.g. "only stable democracy in the Middle East", etc.) really only dates from the Reagan administration. Prior to that the conservative movement in general had been extremely anti-Semitic and suspicious of Israel's social democratic tendencies.

In short, to me, the timing does not support the idea that the US just decided to give Israel the bomb.
posted by dhartung at 2:09 PM on March 25, 2015 [3 favorites]

The US government frequently seems to be at war with itself (e.g., Contragate) so I suppose it's not impossible that some department thought this would be a really good idea. None the less, it's not consistent with the USA's past behavior.

Good foreign policy dictates that your allies should rely on you. So the USA gives Israel money to buy US planes, it gives them the ability to draw on US ammo dumps in a crisis, it does all sorts of things that effectively mean Israel is locked in to its relationship with the USA. Giving Israel the uranium for an Israeli-built nuclear weapon would be precisely contrary to that: it would increase Israel's strategic options for operating apart from the USA and it wouldn't make them keep coming back for spare parts or resupplies.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:49 PM on March 25, 2015

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