Keep your eye on the ball...
August 24, 2010 2:37 PM   Subscribe

It was revealed today that on July 20th about 1.8kg of yellowcake uranium was seized in Chisinau, Moldova. The asking price was 11 million dollars.

The issue is especially disconcerting because of the proximity of the breakaway state of Transnistria, which occupies a sliver of land between Moldova and Ukraine. Viewed by many as a kleptocracy, Transnistria is just the sort of semi-operative state likely to facilitate nuclear materials sales for profit alone. It is already accused of illegal conventional arms sales to conflict zones across the world.

Though the yellowcake is nowhere near weapons ready -- you need 5% U-235 for nuclear power, and 90% U-235 for military use -- the street availability of U-238 is probably raising eyebrows in many state departments. Officials are currently working to determine where the uranium originated, but in any case, you need about 2,700 kg of yellowcake to yield 16 kg of U-235 for a nuclear chain reaction in very sophisticated bomb designs. In more primitive designs without beryllium reflectors, like those used on Hiroshima, you'd need about 10,000 kg of yellowcake.

Nuclear proliferation and nuclear war are still considered by many to be the greatest threat to long term human survival. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the US Navy trapped a Russian sub and were trying to force it to surface with depth charges. The commander of the sub, believing his country to already be at war, gave the order to launch a nuclear attack against the United States. The world was saved by a man named Vasili Arkhipov, one of three men who had to agree to the launch, who allegedly convinced his commander to stand down.

Despite the threat of nuclear weaponry, non-proliferation receives little attention or funding. Even though the Obama Administration raised funding considerably, the budget for non-proliferation reached approximately 1 billion dollars in 2010, which represents about .001% of the defense budget.

Previously, and previously, previously, and previously terrifying.
posted by atypicalguy (55 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
Uranium is the cocaine of nations, and fighting it will go about as well as the average war on drugs.
posted by swift at 2:41 PM on August 24, 2010 [8 favorites]


In my ceramics class, we had a bin in the glazing room marked "uranium". Is 4 lbs. of U-235 even enough to make a significantly dangerous dirty bomb?
posted by fatbird at 2:42 PM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Hold on... So the street price is about $6m/kg, and you need 2,700 kg. That comes to $15.6b. Is that even obtainable by nonstate actors? How would a nonstate actor even transfer that amount of money? What would the purpose of buying 1.8 kg be? A "dirty bomb"?
posted by mr_roboto at 2:43 PM on August 24, 2010


The free market will save us!
posted by Xoebe at 2:46 PM on August 24, 2010 [4 favorites]


Clearly, we must invade Chile.
posted by verb at 2:47 PM on August 24, 2010


SO BUSH WAS RIGHT ALL ALONG!
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:47 PM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm not even positive that 4lbs would be enough for much of a dirty bomb, although I still wouldn't want to be near the explosion.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:50 PM on August 24, 2010


A while back, I asked "How destructive are current US and Russian nuclear arsenals relative to their maximum levels?"

If I had to summarize the answers: Destructive enough.
posted by Joe Beese at 2:53 PM on August 24, 2010


Mmmmmm, cake!
posted by blue_beetle at 2:55 PM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wait is this just a viral for Fair Game?
posted by shakespeherian at 2:57 PM on August 24, 2010


Yeah, mr_roboto, I just made pretty much the same back-of-envelope calculation and I am actually kind of relieved that nuclear holocaust seems to be a bit further away than I thought.
posted by sour cream at 2:59 PM on August 24, 2010


There's something seriously wrong with this story. No way in hell that 1.6 kg of uranium (no matter the form) is worth $11 million unless it's weapon grade U-235. (And no, that's not enough for a bomb. You need about 20 kg.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:06 PM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yeah, this is weird. This is basically right-from-the-ground, unenriched uranium. It's no good unless you already have an enrichment plant, and if you have that, then getting raw U is the easy part. It doesn't make sense for yellowcake to be on the black market at all.
posted by echo target at 3:12 PM on August 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


The free market's 'invisible hand' will save us!

Had to...
posted by JoeXIII007 at 3:12 PM on August 24, 2010


mr_roboto: The yellowcake in question is not enough to make a dirty bomb. The most likely source for that would be recycled Soviet weapons, like the kind that are reportedly stockpiled in Transnistria.

As far as funding goes, Wahhabi jihadists have some serious financial backing from oil monarchies across the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia where it is the dominant Muslim sect. If 15 billion dollars could buy a nuclear detonation in the United States, I'm pretty sure the rest is just details. I would imagine there is a warhead somewhere ready to go for less money.
posted by atypicalguy at 3:15 PM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Only war with Iran can save us from the evil yellowcake!
posted by telstar at 3:16 PM on August 24, 2010


I also think that the asking price of 11 million dollars was too high. But then, just because that was the asking price, doesn't mean that anybody was willing to pay it. Perhaps whoever it was that was trying to sell the uranium just wanted to start out with a high price so that they could then bargain it down to a more reasonable price. Some cultures are heavily into bargaining (I don't know about Transnistria).
posted by grizzled at 3:18 PM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


The world was saved by a man named Vasili Arkhipov

Yes.

It's really weird how the actions of one man, unknown to most, had a greater impact on the face of the world than anyone could possibly realize.
posted by quin at 3:22 PM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Maybe yellowcake is the new red mercury. There's already been a fair bit of fear-mongering about it, and no one said criminals have to be smart. Even nuclear criminals.
posted by Humanzee at 3:29 PM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


So these guys had a small amount of basically what comes out of a uranium mine after some minimal processing of the ore. The kind of material that used to be used in potters glaze. Not dangerous in any meaningful way and not worth anything close to $11M, except as imagined by people that know nothing about what they have or people intent on scamming very ignorant wannabe terrorists.

Bush would have probably used as some kind of scare story about how the terrorists are about get the bomb. Lets hope that the current US government spins that as the non-story it is. This has nothing to do with nuclear proliferation.
posted by Long Way To Go at 3:37 PM on August 24, 2010


Come on, Uranium is a heavy material. If you put those 1.8kg inside a sock or pillowcase, I bet you can beat someone up with it.
posted by qvantamon at 3:42 PM on August 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


The men were also in possession of some prime swamp land in Florida, a bridge in Brooklyn, an extra set of really high-end speakers being sold out of the back of a van as well as 5.1 million dollars courtesy of MR NEKESUMO NESAKE OF NIGERIA if you can help them clear it through your bank account.
posted by GuyZero at 3:44 PM on August 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


Ebay has ruined the market. There is a huge diffwerence between asking price and what stuff is actually selling for.
posted by kenaldo at 3:53 PM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yellowcake is just uranium ore, straight out of the ground. The going price, IIRC, is $25,000 per ton. To make it go explodey you need an enrichment plant ($500M-$5Bn, depending: not exactly an off-the-shelf gadget) and then a weapons program.

Either this is being misreported and it's actually HEU (which would be worth $11M for a few kilos, if it's weapons-grade), or it's yellowcake and somebody was trying to have some fun with an ambitious idiot's bank balance. Or the cops were doing their usual reporting-the-street-value-of-the-seized-drugs thing.
posted by cstross at 3:58 PM on August 24, 2010


Uh, this is nutty. Yellowcake is actively traded on the New York Mercantile Exchange and currently has a spot price of about $50 per pound.

Yellowcake is not particularly dangerous. It consists of 99.28% useless U238 and only 0.71% useful U235. You need at least 4% enriched U235 to be useful in nuclear reactors and about 90% enrichment to be useful for a fission bomb.

It is extremely difficult to enrich uranium because the isotopes are effectively chemically identical. There is no chemical process to separate the isotopes. So you have to use very tedious mechanical methods to separate individual uranium isotope atoms from each other based on their tiny differences in atomic weight.

Even if you could enrich the 1.8 kilograms of yellowcake, you would end up with only about 13 grams of highly enriched U235, a fraction that needed for a weapon. But it is not possible to separate U235 that efficiently from U238, meaning that you would need thousands of pounds of yellowcake to extract something useful.
posted by JackFlash at 4:01 PM on August 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


Ha ha, we've got all the uranium, and it's all ours! For all the nuclear energy we use, and our big stockpile of bombs!
posted by turgid dahlia at 4:10 PM on August 24, 2010


Maybe yellowcake is the new red mercury. There's already been a fair bit of fear-mongering about it, and no one said criminals have to be smart. Even nuclear criminals.

Yellowcake's fairly mundane; it's just unprocessed uranium ore. In Australia, you hear of mines digging huge quantities of the stuff out of the ground.
posted by acb at 4:12 PM on August 24, 2010


So the same guy that does the street pricing for yellowcake is the same guy that does street pricing for drugs?
posted by birdherder at 4:18 PM on August 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


To be honest, it sounds like the sellers were a bit confused over what they had, and priced it accordingly.
posted by smackfu at 4:19 PM on August 24, 2010


I think some of you aren't treating the (yellow) Cake menace with the gravity it deserves.
posted by Quantum's Deadly Fist at 4:19 PM on August 24, 2010


All reports are still saying it's U-238 uranium. But looking at the prices from multiple sources, I think I agree with cstross and JackFlash and believe that there's no way anyone would be paying 11 million for 4 pounds of anything but 90% U-235. If it was that concentration, it would be enough for a dirty bomb

So, who's lying? Would the cops wait a month to tell the funny story about some guys who were trying to rip off people with U-238?

I think I'm going to remove the post and wait for more information.
posted by atypicalguy at 4:22 PM on August 24, 2010


Haha, I know some amateur rock-hounds that will be delighted to find out they're actually multi-millionaires.

That's like trying to sell your old junker car from 1976 and asking "1 bajillion kazillion dollars" for it. You're free to ask...

A shovel costs $11
posted by -harlequin- at 4:23 PM on August 24, 2010


I wouldn't worry much about the 2700 kg of yellowcake it takes to make a minimum critical mass. I'd worry more about the 1 kg of plutonium it takes to make a minimum critical mass.
posted by charlie don't surf at 4:28 PM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


As far as funding goes, Wahhabi jihadists have some serious financial backing from oil monarchies across the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia where it is the dominant Muslim sect. If 15 billion dollars could buy a nuclear detonation in the United States, I'm pretty sure the rest is just details.

That's idiotic. Do you think all of Saudi Arabia is gunning to blow up the U.S or something? The idea that AQ or someone could scrounge up 15 billion dollars, or get that much money from its backers is absurd.

Besides, you can get uranium out of the ground. There's no need to buy it on the black market if you have that kind of money.

If this was actually yellowcake and not actually enriched uranium, my guess is some scam artists was selling the stuff to someone with more money then sense.
posted by delmoi at 4:30 PM on August 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


But looking at the prices from multiple sources, I think I agree with cstross and JackFlash and believe that there's no way anyone would be paying 11 million for 4 pounds of anything but 90% U-235.

Was anyone actually paying that? Or were they just trying to sell it to the cops for that much... and the cops don't have any incentive to correct them.
posted by smackfu at 4:31 PM on August 24, 2010


How far into dark nerd humor did I just go to have a ROFL moment from that FPP headline?
posted by lizbunny at 5:55 PM on August 24, 2010


"1 billion dollars in 2010, which represents about .001% of the defense budget"

Now hold on there. I'm no math whiz but I'm pretty sure you're off by a significant set of decimal places.
posted by mr_crash_davis mark II: Jazz Odyssey at 6:09 PM on August 24, 2010


Yellowcake just isn't worth that. Now, if it were yellow pie....
posted by Tashtego at 6:17 PM on August 24, 2010


They've got it wrapped in a special CIA napkin.

(NSFW or the easily offended. You can skip to 1:30 to get to the relevant part.)
posted by fuse theorem at 6:27 PM on August 24, 2010


I knew about the sub that tried to run the blockade during the Cuban Missle Crisis, but I had no idea about Vasili Arkhipov.

Thanks for sharing.

I mostly missed the Cold War...it was in its final throes by the time I was paying attention. But the little bit of anxiety I felt in pondering the chance of some wackos managing to build/buy a nuke and detonate it is nothing compared to the anxiety my parents must have lived with during events like the Cuban Missile Crisis.
posted by dry white toast at 7:36 PM on August 24, 2010


Betty Crocker wanted for questioning.
posted by zippy at 7:36 PM on August 24, 2010


But the little bit of anxiety I felt in pondering the chance of some wackos managing to build/buy a nuke and detonate it...

You might want to up that anxiety level a bit. I often remind people, every country that has acquired a critical mass has successfully detonated an atomic bomb. It is actually fairly easy to manufacture a nuke.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:01 PM on August 24, 2010


"It's really weird how the actions of one man, unknown to most, had a greater impact on the face of the world than anyone could possibly realize."

Scary thing for me is he's not the only Russian to save the world in similar circumstances. Sure glad I didn't know about this stuff going up, the nuclear world was scary enough as it was.
posted by Mitheral at 9:10 PM on August 24, 2010


the cake is a lie
posted by b1tr0t at 9:49 PM on August 24, 2010


"1 billion dollars in 2010, which represents about .001% of the defense budget"

Now hold on there. I'm no math whiz but I'm pretty sure you're off by a significant set of decimal places.
posted by mr_crash_davis mark II: Jazz Odyssey at 2:09 AM on August 25


Yep. According to Wikipedia, depending on what figures you use the US defense budget for 2010 is between about $600B and $1T. So $1B is between about 0.1% and 0.2% of the total.
posted by Drexen at 2:22 AM on August 25, 2010


There is no chemical process to separate the isotopes. So you have to use very tedious mechanical methods to separate individual uranium isotope atoms from each other based on their tiny differences in atomic weight.

I was just reading about the centrifuges used for enriching uranium and it's a fascinating tour de force of engineering skill. First of all they need to run at a minimum of 90,000 RPM. That means that not only do they need to be machined to exacting tolerances so that they are as close to perfectly balanced as possible, but they also need to be made out of exotic materials to have enough tensile strength to not disintegrate under that huge amount of force. The first generation used aluminum, the second generation used maraging steel, and the current generation uses carbon fibre apparently. Oh, and the material has to support a 300C temperature gradient from top to bottom because you need to induce a convection of the gaseous uranium. They also need to be quite tall in the axial dimension for improved efficiency.

But in order to spin that fast, with the outer edges traveling faster than the speed of sound, you have to spin them in a vacuum, which means you have to build an outer casing that can withstand the pressure, and you need magnetic levitation bearings so that the thing can spin as close to frictionless as possible. You need servo controls for the bearing coils and speed controls for the induction motor coils that spin it so that you can ramp it up and down and avoid resonance frequencies. You also have to somehow engineer very good seals for the one input tube and two output tubes that the gas flows through.

And as if all that wasn't enough, you have to build these things by the thousand and chain them together in series because one single centrifuge only enriches the uranium by a slight amount. Here's a picture of a room with at least 700 by my count. And for weapon fuel you need that many more thousands of these things. All in all it's a pretty insane amount of technology that goes into the process.
posted by Rhomboid at 2:49 AM on August 25, 2010 [6 favorites]


I often remind people, every country that has acquired a critical mass has successfully detonated an atomic bomb.

That is a terrible pick-up line.
posted by solistrato at 7:07 AM on August 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


Yep. According to Wikipedia, depending on what figures you use the US defense budget for 2010 is between about $600B and $1T. So $1B is between about 0.1% and 0.2% of the total.
I suspect the problem was some quick napkin math resulting in .001, then dropping a percent sign on without remembering that you've got to shift the decimal point around. Easy mistake to make in the heat of a discussion, but also embarrassing.
posted by verb at 7:18 AM on August 25, 2010


That is a terrible pick-up line.

It gets better once I claim I could make a nuke myself. It is almost impossible to screw up, even a simple "gun" type bomb is well within the means of any intelligent individual. You could even make a small nuclear explosion just by slapping two subcritical masses of plutonium together with your bare hands, although it would be a "fizzle" that would merely be sufficient to spread plutonium particles like a dirty bomb.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:29 AM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


You could even make a small nuclear explosion just by slapping two subcritical masses of plutonium together with your bare hands, although it would be a "fizzle" that would merely be sufficient to spread plutonium particles like a dirty bomb.
Best/worst/best party trick ever.
posted by verb at 1:42 PM on August 25, 2010


Yeah, those criticality accident/party tricks always kill 'em!
posted by GuyZero at 1:55 PM on August 25, 2010


every country that has acquired a critical mass has successfully detonated an atomic bomb

Well, we don't know that South Africa or Israel have ever popped one off. We strongly suspect it... but don't know.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:17 PM on August 25, 2010


You have a point, I did some research and it looks like South Africa was preparing a test and abandoned their nuclear project before completion, but the SA and Israeli projects are so closely intertwined, the Vela Incident was probably a joint SA/Israeli test. Japan has sufficient plutonium but has never even tried to make a bomb. It is suspected that Japan has a secret plan that they could assemble a bomb quickly.

I suppose it's more accurate to say that anyone who had a critical mass and tried to make a bomb has succeeded.
posted by charlie don't surf at 3:35 PM on August 25, 2010


"You could even make a small nuclear explosion just by slapping two subcritical masses of plutonium together with your bare hands, although it would be a 'fizzle' that would merely be sufficient to spread plutonium particles like a dirty bomb."

It's easy enough that it, depending on how loose you want to be with the term nuclear explosion, happened by semi accident once.
posted by Mitheral at 9:51 PM on August 25, 2010


Ahem: prompt criticality incidents aren't actually explosive -- just very, very radiologically messy (terminally so if you happen to be standing too close). To make an explosive chain reaction you need to assemble a supercritical mass so rapidly that it can't disassemble itself thermally before the chain reaction runs to completion.

Using your hands won't work, even with U235. In the case of U235, a projectile made of U235 is fired through a donut-shaped target of U235 by a gun-type mechanism -- at over a thousand metres per second. But you can't do that with Pu239; IIRC the assemblage would require a muzzle velocity of something like 0.1c (where c is light-speed). Hence the use of very fast-detonating high explosive lenses to implode a hollow sphere of Pu239 -- the neutron flux within the collapsing hollow sphere increases so damn fast that it doesn't have a chance to evaporate itself before all the Pu has fissioned.
posted by cstross at 10:45 PM on August 25, 2010


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