Hey, buddy, want some bomb grade uranium?

These probably won’t help, but just in case.

Today’s quiz is on who is making it easier for terrorists to get the bomb.

1. Which country is currently known to be exporting highly enriched uranium, in other words, bomb-grade nuclear material?

a) North Korea
b) Nigeria
c) the United States of America
d) Iran
e) all of the above

2) In what country is the legislature currently headed toward weakening current law that seeks to phase out the export of highly enriched uranium?

a) Russia
b) South Africa
c) the United States of America
d) France
e) all of the above

If you answered c) to both questions, you are smarter than the average member of Congress.

That’s right, even as suicide bombers cause havoc in Iraq, London and around the globe, the United States still regularly exports more than enough highly enriched uranium to make a crude but reliable nuclear bomb.

Typically, the uranium is enriched to 93 percent, high enough to make turning it into a bomb not much harder than getting two lumps of sufficient size and smashing them together.

Even more shocking, Congress is close to agreeing, in the Energy bill, to gut a current law that seeks to phase out these exports over time.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, where I work, has produced a handy-dandy fact sheet that explains all this in glorious detail, but the skinny is that one Canadian company, MDS Nordion receives U.S. bomb-grade uranium and uses it in a small nuclear reactor to produce medical isotopes. Some of those isotopes are imported in to the United States and used to treat cancer patients and the like. No one denies we need the isotopes.

Under U.S. law, however, Nordion is supposed to be cooperating with the United States to convert to using low enriched uranium, which cannot readily be used to make bombs. They are not.

Instead, like any good for-profit business, rather than spending the tens of millions it might cost to convert, they are spending much less on lobbying efforts to try to change U.S. law, and so far it seems to be working.

Some folks have noticed this dastardly effort, like the New York Times editorial page, but supporters have managed to avoid the nuclear terrorism angles and focused on the supposed – but imaginary – threat to the supply of isotopes.

In fact, as Physicians for Social Responsibility documents, there is an excess of production capacity for these isotopes around the globe. The problem is, Nordion currently controls the distribution of isotopes in the United States, and so prevents competition in the U.S. market.

Opponents of Nordion have had some success. Led by the “Odd Couple” combination of Senators Kyl and Schumer, the Senate removed the dangerous provision from its version of the Energy bill. However, as soon as it went into conference, the chairman’s mark settled on the bad House version, and an attempt to revert to the Senate provision failed today, Tuesday 19 July 2005.

So, just in case, it might be time to think about buying a shovel.


  1. Josh Kellar (History)

    But then we really might have a shovel-gap just as our insufficient stockpiles of duct tape were exposed!

    Seriously though – you wouldn’t even need to have a real gun-type assembly with HEU – something on the level of shovel-tech would cause a big mess: a ladder.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, because I haven’t been looking at this issue closely in a while, but first we aren’t allowed to blend down ex-soviet HEU too fast because we’ll flood the market and now we have to start exporting it?

    I hate subsidies in our budget, but I’d much rather the nuclear industry just ‘jacked the money directly out of the budget the way we do farm subsidies instead of threatening our security while making a buck.

  2. Anders Widebrant (History)

    Let me get this straight. America, despite being the nation where the 9/11 attack made it crystal clear that nuclear terrorism is a real and present threat, blithely continues to ferry around BOMB-GRADE URANIUM. The reason for this is to help a CANADIAN company to uphold a MONOPOLY.

    I am not ignorant of the fact that Congress is practically a bordello, but must not even whores have some limit for what they will do for money?

  3. Felix Deutsch (History)

    I’m a bit unclear on the actual components, but isn’t it possible to spike HEU with certain elements so that it is useless as a nuclear explosive right away, but can still be used to breed those medical isotopes?

  4. Chris Turner (History)

    The curious thing about WMD terrorism is that while it has the potential to do great harm / attract a lot of attention, it is very rare.

    Nuke terrorism (that is, detonation of a nuclear explosive) has never occured. This may be b’c terrorists have had difficulty getting enough HEU or Pu, or because even a “simple” gun-type HEU weapon is harder to fabricate than it seems. There’s also the issue of motivation. Very few terrorist orgs have the neccessary world view to engage in such an operation.

    All that being said … there are two sides to every threat assessment: probability and effect. Even if the probability of nuke terrorism is low, the effect would be catastrophic.

    This means that we have to do everything practical and resonable to prevent it. Congress is failing in its preventative role.

  5. C. Curry (History)

    I work for a hospital that has several of those “isotope” machines from MDS Nordion. One of the things the hospital Radiation Safety Committee is now discussing is how to make those machines secure from an attack by a terrorist. If someone blew up an isotope machine with a regular bomb, the radioactive core of the machine would also explode, spreading radioactivity. Voila – a dirty bomb! How far the radioactivity would spread would be dependent on numerous things, but you can be sure terrorists would most probably choose a windy day to do something like that. Even though the machines are made to withstand a lot of force, it is not impossible to blow them up given the right type of bomb.