Sunday, February 06, 2011

Secret Does Not Equal True

The Telegraph and others are getting very excited about some Wikileaks cables. It's too bad that their reporters didn't know one or two facts that might have put up a warning flag. Or call someone who might know those facts to verify.

Page van der Linden, with Stephen Schwartz, has done a good job of debunking one of those cables about which The Telegraph is so excited. There's another way to come at it. When I read a couple of The Telegraph's summaries, there were obvious problems. Here's the one Page dealt with.
In November 2007, the US embassy in London received a telephone call from a British deep-sea salvage merchant based in Sheffield, who claimed that his business associates in the Philippines had found six uranium “bricks” at the site of an underwater wreck.
Here are a few facts worth knowing:

1) The characteristic that makes materials suitable for a bomb also carries with it some hazards. If enough of a fissionable material is assembled in one place, a chain reaction takes place. That's what a critical mass does. The chain reaction releases large amounts of neutrons and radiation, perhaps even heat.

2) Water is a moderator that helps fission along.

3) Because of the hazard of inadvertently assembling a critical mass, fissionable materials are packaged very carefully, each package containing an amount of material much less than a critical mass and configured in such a way that if a number of packages come together, they won't form a critical mass.

4) Uranium metal reacts readily with water and air. It can catch fire in air.

So uranium metal is not transported in bare "bricks." It is formed into "pucks," flat and circular, far from the spherical shape that would encourage a critical mass. Like this:

And it probably wouldn't last very long under water. A stack of uranium bricks certainly wouldn't, because it would heat up from fission and would turn into oxide or dissolve.

Moving along to another Telegraph summary:
Officials in the US embassy in Uganda were approached in February 2008 by a source who claimed that a Congolese acquaintance had asked him to help find a buyer for some highly enriched pure uranium liquid.
See the facts above about criticality. And here's some more:

5) Uranium is a solid under most room temperature conditions. It has one compound, uranium hexafluoride, the one that is used in centrifuges and gaseous diffusion, that might be a liquid, but it's even more reactive than uranium metal and would need to be handled very carefully. Alternatively, some uranium compounds can be dissolved in water, but then we have to consider facts #2 and #3. Anyone handling a water solution as described would be feeling ill.

IIRC, the scrap-metal train was carrying one of the far-too-ubiquitous Soviet cesium-137 sources. It's been in the news; I don't have time just now to search for confirmation. And I think the news was that it was cleaned up.

Yellowcake isn't much good for bombs unless you've got an enrichment facility. Scratch the terrorists. Not much good for dirty bombs, except for the kind of hysteria The Telegraph and its repeaters are fomenting. Uranium isn't particularly good for you (do you chew on solder?), but it's not horrendously radioactive.

"Uranium plates from Chernobyl" - See above for "uranium plates". And not the kind of fuel used at Chernobyl.

The possibly most dangerous of these (if the reports are true, and there was anything there at all) are the sources, the cesium-137 and cobalt-60. They could be made into dirty bombs. But the fact that this stuff has been making its way around Russia and environs, combined with the lack of its use in dirty bombs, suggests that something is preventing those terrorists who so desire such things from making them.

And then there is the claim that the US is sending specs (or something) on Britain's nuclear arsenal to Russia. The article is so confusedly written that it's not possible to extract what the reporter thinks is being shared. Numbers of nuclear weapons? Russia is inspecting Britain's arsenal? Huh? Again, just knowing something about the START treaties would help, or asking someone who does. The START treaties are enormously complicated, but they do list the information that is shared betweeen the parties.

It's not surprising that diplomats would send reports on trafficking in radioactive material back to Washington. That's most likely where those reports would be checked out, and a subsequent cable (missing from The Telegraph's stash) would say "no problem," or "check out some specific and report back." It's useful to know what stories are circulating, even if they're not true. I haven't looked at the cable on Britain's nuclear arsenal, but the State Department says it's just part of the treaty. Presumably the British government knew about it. They're not getting excited about this "revelation." Unfortunately, it will probably become one of the undying, undebunkable talking points from the conservatives in the United States.

All that was needed in any of these cases was knowledge of one simple fact to raise a flag, or a telephone call or e-mail to someone who had a bit more knowledge than the reporter. What's disturbing is that some American information aggregators are repeating this without that resort to factuality.

So, Telegraph reporters, if you get an e-mail from a Nigerian banker who says his royal parents died and left a pile of uranium plates in their bank vault, and he needs your credit card number to get them out, just (please!) delete it.

[Thanks to Frank Munger for the photo.]

Update (2/10/11): Michael Levi makes the same point as the title of this post, calling it "document fetishism.


Anonymous said...

I like the last paragraph!!

Anonymous said...

A corollary to your points would be: before stating things as facts, please make sure those facts are indeed correct or you will have random people correcting you.
Here is a good source of some facts:

Your point #1 does not apply if the uranium was 238 (only 235 is readily fissionable)

point #2 there is a very big difference between water and heavy water (I'll give you a hint: one enables nuclear reactions and the other one stops them)

point #3 is correct if the material was fissionable, please see point #1

point #4 assumes that the uranium was pure. I'm going to copy-paste from wikipedia to save time: "Because of their stability, uranium oxides are generally considered the preferred chemical form for storage or disposal." "Both oxide forms are solids that have low solubility in water and are relatively stable over a wide range of environmental conditions."

I'm not saying that it indeed was uranium bricks because that would be assuming the person who saw bricks knew what they were. I'm just saying that your arguments stating the bricks weren't uranium are flawed (you might create more doubt by questioning the ability of the source to identify uranium).

Have a good day.

Cheryl Rofer said...

Ah, the old problem of correcting someone and then getting it wrong!

I left out some details. Anonymous's point #1 is correct, but I was assuming that this is fissionable material, because otherwise there is no reason to be upset.

Anonymous's point #2 is incorrect. It depends on the neutron spectrum and other things. Both heavy and light water are used as moderators in reactors.

Anonymous's point #4 misunderstands chemistry. I was speaking of uranium metal. Uranium oxide is indeed more stable, but it's the compound that would be formed by uranium metal's reaction with water. This is a not a matter of purity, but rather chemical form. "Uranium bricks" suggests the metal.

Ward said...

This is so clearly argued and so lacking in rhetoric and reasonable. I really liked this post.