Jeffrey LewisThe Curious Case of Red Mercury

Reader Chris Camp, who submitted as essay on disarmament “winners and losers“, has been thinking about the curious tale of Red Mercury lately.  He sends along this dispatch:

The curious tale of Red Mercury

by Chris Camp 

In the lore of any field there are stories that, while not driving the narrative forward, give it flavor and keep it interesting. In the nuclear arms field some of my favorites are the history of the term SCRAM, or Safety Control Rod Ax Man; literally a guy with an ax standing by to cut the rope (!) holding the one control rod (!) to shut down the first nuclear reactor if it got out of hand. Another is the theoretically-possibly-but almost-certainly-not-really first man-made object in space from the Plumbob Pascal A test in 1957. And then there is the strange tale of red mercury.

Red mercury doesn’t actually exist, which makes it the perfect substance for con-men since it’s properties can become whatever your customer wants them to be. Want to build a nuclear weapon without having to get those pesky fissionable fuels? Of how about you need to enrich uranium but can’t get centrifuge parts? Or perhaps you want a perfect radar-evading stealth paint? Maybe you need a highly accurate guidance system for your second hand SCUD missiles. Whatever the need, Red Mercury is the answer.

The story seems to have begun in the late 1980s in the then Soviet Union. News articles began popping up in Soviet newspapers about a mysterious substance which was used in multi-stage nuclear weapons. One article in Pravda described it as:

“[A] super-conductive material used for producing high-precision conventional and nuclear bomb explosives, ‘Stealth’ surfaces and self-guided warheads. Primary end-users are major aerospace and nuclear-industry companies in the United States and France along with nations aspiring to join the nuclear club, such as South Africa, Israel, Iran, Iraq, and Libya.”

The reports of course never really got around to mentioning what this substance was or how it worked, but it created a market. It is now commonly believed that the articles were planted for exactly this purpose by the KGB or later FSB as part of a nuclear sting operation. The articles served to create an artificial demand for a fictional material, and by looking at who was demanding it you could see who was interested in a cheap bomb. One of the rules of disinformation is that it has to be plausible, and in this case it has been reported, by our own Mark Hibbs as well as others, that “Red Mercury” was the soviet codename for lithium deuteride, the thermonuclear fuel in modern bombs.

Of course, these things tend to take on a life of their own, and red mercury did so with a vengeance. Western newspapers picked up the story and next thing anyone knew buyers all over the world were asking for the mysterious substance. Demand created supply and soon, for the right price, your friendly local mobster could get you a vial of red powder, possibly radioactive, that would solve all your problems. A 1997 article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists described the situation this way:

“The asking price for red mercury ranged from $100,000 to $300,000 per kilogram. Sometimes the material would be irradiated or shipped in containers with radioactive symbols, perhaps to convince potential buyers of its strategic value. But samples seized by police contained only mercury(II) oxide, mercury(II) iodide, or mercury mixed with red dye — hardly materials of interest to weapons-makers.”

Every serious authority on the subject including the IAEA and Lawrence Livermore National Labs said quite clearly that no such substance existed, but that did nothing to diminish the demand, and possibly even increased it. The original sting seems to have worked better than anticipated with prospective buyers and sellers being arrested in several countries including the UK and Turkey. In the British case the sting was carried out by a tabloid reporter posing as a fake Sheik.

The twist in this story comes from Samuel Cohen, who was a physicist with RAND corporation and is sometimes known as the father of the neutron bomb. Cohen was an interesting character who claimed that in in 1979 he received a peace medal from the pope for his invention of the neutron bomb. In 2003 he wrote an article for Financial Sense in which he states:

“The new material is known as a ‘ballotechnic’ explosive, even though it does not actually explode in the conventional sense of the word. It was developed in Russia and became popularly known as ‘red mercury.’ When President Boris Yeltsin took over the helm of the new Russia, in a secret directive he authorized the sale of red mercury on the international market. Sometimes the price was very high. Sometimes fake versions of it were offered to gullible buyers. The United States may have been one of these.

“One very interested country which had a long history of purchasing Russia weaponry was Iraq. Russia helped Iraq develop chemical and biological weapons and Russian advisors were in Baghdad advising Saddam at the time of the first Gulf War. Only recently the two countries signed a multi-billion dollar oil field development contract.”

The editorial goes on to describe red mercury being used to produce “pure fusion” weapons in which the secondary is directly compressed by the red mercury without the use of a fissionable primary. The article is still available online at http://www.financialsensearchive.com/editorials/douglass/2003/0311.html.

Despite being 25 years old, the curious tale of red mercury continues. In 2009 a rumor began circulating in Saudi Arabia that Singer sewing machine needles contained red mercury which could be detected using a cell phone. Prices jumped by as much as a thousand times as people scoured the markets with their cell phones looking for the elusive substance. A more tragic twist comes from southern Africa where it was rumored that land mines contained red mercury and a number of people were killed trying to extract it from abandoned munitions. It has been reported that the rumor was started by arms dealers to sell off excess inventory to the unsuspecting public. The wikileaks cables mention a number of cases of people walking into embassies trying to sell plutonium and red mercury to officials there.

Red Mercury probably holds the record as the most influential material that never existed, and serves as a reminder of two universal truths: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is” and “There’s a sucker born every minute”.

Comments

  1. B (History)

    This article reminded me of an interesting anecdote. My friend works for DOS and just returned from a tour in Iraq. His job was to screen applicants trying to gain legal entry into the U.S. The rumor amongst the Iraqis was that the U.S. was interested in Red Mercury. So a ton of applicants (some former enemy combatants) would tell my friend they knew where to get red mercury in exchange for US citizenship. Needless to say, they were denied entry.

  2. bob (History)

    Mmmmm the ever reliable interwebs, that (linked) article is full of it.

    As to pure fusion, Ted Taylor campaigned against certain research projects because of the proliferation risk.

    Though strictly speaking, I guess he was more worried about enabling devices with minimal enriched material.

  3. jeannick (History)

    .
    “probably holds the record as the most influential material that never existed”

    Human all too human ,
    there is a long tradition of imaginary stuff flogged to the credulous
    unicorn horn being a case in point

  4. @FHeisbourg (History)

    Samuel Cohen is also the man who tried to deflect attention from South Africa and Israel by claiming that the 1979 “event” detected by the US Vela nuke-test detection satellite was a French neutron bomb being tested in the Kerguelen islands…So forget that one.
    I’m rather more convinced by the sting operation thesis, whether led by Russia also or also conducted by Western agencies. The now famous-and-dead Gérard de Villiers (who anticipated the anti-US terror attacks in Benghazi) wrote a remarkable spy-cum-sex novel in 1992 called “Alerte Plutonium” which was built around that hypothesis.The red mercury ploy may have helped smoke out both the wannabee proliferators and the post-Soviet mafias, at a time when loose nukes from the former USSR were a big threat. De Villiers had his chums in spookland (and was a former SDECE special ops guy).

  5. RE (History)

    Not to be the hipster nerd here, but it was Pascal B that supposedly launched the metal cap into space, not Pascal A.

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