"Dirty Bomb" plot - smoke detector hype

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"Dirty Bombs" seem to be popular with the Fear Uncertainty and Doubt being hyped by the media and the Government. e.g. the BBC's fictional drama which showed the ill preparadness of the UK's emergency services to deal with even a small Radiological contamination attack, the recent emergency services exercises in Scotland and Newscastle which showed the same for real, and Home Secretary David Blunkett's mixed messages on the likelyhood of such an attack, and the dubious "News of the World" entrapment scam involving mythical "radioactive red mercury" have all been in the news recently.

In an almost exact parallel with the dreadful Osmium Tetroxide "poison gas" threat to the Tube, a US publication is running a "story" which was supposedly leaked to them by US Government Officials about a current terrorism case in the United Kingdom, details of which have not been released by the UK authorities, presumably due to some unfashionable concepts like "the right to a fair trial".

Is this "leak" actually from the UK Government, or have the Americans
just made yet another "intelligence background briefing" cock up, or is it actually Al Quaeda sympathisers or other people with a vested interest in hyping up and exaggerating the "dirty bomb" threat to the UK who are behind these "reports now circulating" ?

Reuters are reporting that "UK Terror Suspects Were Building Dirty Bomb - Time"

"WASHINGTON (Reuters) - British terror suspects arrested in August were trying to construct a dirty bomb and planned to attack targets in London, including the Heathrow Express airport rail line, Time magazine reported.

Senior U.S. law-enforcement officials told Time that according to reports now circulating, the arrests turned up a cache of household smoke detectors that the British suspect the group wanted to cannibalize for their minute quantities of americium-241, a man-made radioactive chemical.

While some officials said it was extremely unlikely enough americium could be harvested from smoke detectors to create a device strong enough to kill people or create radiation sickness, others argued that releasing even a small amount of radioactive material into a crowded stadium or subway station could trigger sensitive radiation sensors, incite panic and cause long-lasting contamination"

Getting information on the basic properties of chemical elements is incredibly easy - this information has been online since before any News or Government Departments have been, as it is exactly what the World Wide Web was invented for by Sir Tim Berners-Lee at the CERN. physics research centre.

"Smoke Detectors and Americium"

"Americium is a silvery metal, which tarnishes slowly in air and is soluble in acid. Its atomic number is 95. Its most stable isotope, Am-243, has a half-life of over 7500 years, although Am-241, with a half-life of 432 years, was the first isotope to be isolated.

Americium oxide, AmO2, was first offered for sale by the US Atomic Energy Commission in 1962 and the price of US$ 1500 per gram has remained virtually unchanged since. One gram of americium oxide provides enough active material for more than 5000 household smoke detectors."

So how many domestic smoke detectors are required to produce a "dirty bomb" ?

"Even swallowing the radioactive material from a smoke detector would not lead to significant internal absorption of Am-241, since the dioxide is insoluble. It will pass through the digestive tract, without delivering a significant radiation dose."

In other words this is even less of a real threat than the fictional "Osmium Tetroxide gas" or the alleged ricin plots (where no detectable amounts of ricin could be analysed) in the UK and even in France.

Where exactly is this vast network of "sensitive radiation detectors" which could be spoofed by the release of a tiny amount of Americium, and which would be fooled into causing mass panic ? It does not actually exist.

The Government have not spent money on Civil Defence for many years, and the few radiation detectors out there are not designed to protect the general public, only certain VIP locations.


A few things: americum oxide is an alpha emitter. The "radiation" doesn't pass through paper let alone skin. That's exactly why it's used: it can pass through clean air but not smoky air. So you're right, it's rubbish.
Osmium tetroxide is a little different. It would be terribly difficult to use it in an attack usefully (I mean by the standards of those making an attack) but it is very much a dangerous material. It has a great affinity for water so inhalation or getting it near your eyes is terribly dangerous: it can lay a layer of osmium metal over the mucous membranes which doesn't sound like a pleasant way to die/go blind.
I missed the NOW on red mercury....when was that? There are two red mercuries...red mercuric oxide which is a standard industrial material. There is also "red mercury" which is a pile of steaming dogshit, doesn't exist as a nuclear or any other type of warfare material.
Forgive my lengthy comment. I deal with these sorts of metals for a living.

News of the World "radioactive red mercury" entrapment scam:


It is noticiable that these alleged plotters have *not* been charged with any "dirty bomb" offences, despite the NoW hype, but with supplying money to or services to potential terrorists.

According to AFP:

Given the NoW's history of payments to "witnesses", these charges probably will get thrown out of court, just like their alleged Victoria Becham kidnap plot hype.

The relative toxicity of Osmium Tetroxide probably does make it more of a health risk than Americium Oxide, but it is nearly as rare - world production of Osmium is less than 500 Kg per annum in the entire world.

There are so many other toxic chemicals which are far cheaper and deadlier and easier to get hold of.

they would be better off picking up those disposed cannisters in russia, which were dumped all ove rthe show.They would have no problems with customs, being as slack as they are.The person would not even have to "cover" the leaking radiation as he could just ride around cities with it on the back seat.

There are meant to be some radiation detectors at UK ports and airports, but not at all of them. Several attempts to sell small amounts of ex-Soviet bloc radioactive material have been detected by other countries radiation detectors e.g. Germany

For every "genuine Russian mafia" contact there seem to be several undercover police sting operations.

The question must be asked why the News of the World was allowed to proceed with this entrapment sting, rather than it being handled by as a proper undercover police or intelligence agency operation.

I'd suggest: (1) Because counterintelligence are too busy watching genuine threats to monitor journalists doing fatuous stunts as well. They don't have spies everywhere. (A good thing.)
(2) Idiot scare stories help promote the security agenda at the cost of the newspapers and tv and with plausible deniability. It acts as a sort of public-private partnership in panic-mongering. (A bad thing.)

Inhalation of a finely seperated Am-241/dirty bomb mixture would cause significant internal damage from Am-241. Six nanocuries (nCi) is the inhalation allowed limit of intake that would cause a 5 rem interal dose. Of course the terrorists would target huge populations. The outward effect would be total panic from the public.

If the only source of Americium Oxide that these alleged terrorists had access to was from domestic smoke detectors, which only contain a small speck of radioactive material each, it would seem to be completely impractical for them to buy or steal enough of them to contaminate any more than a vey small area by means of explosive.
Only a small fraction of anything attached to explosives remains finely enough powdered to be inhaled after an explosion.

Surely if they had access to the aerosol technology needed to get large numbers of people to inhale the material, they would rather use the technology for a biological weapons attack ?

even the flu virus could do what they want..if properly distributed.it would cause chaos. medical commpanies would not be able to keep up with a simultaneous worldwide outbreak as the infection rate would outstrip the vaccine supply.

Please tell me if one comes across red mercury is it really saleable?
Who are genuine buyers not conmen?

The raison d'être of any nuclear weapon is part physiological effect, part psychological effect - a point not lost on the target Committee at Los Alamos during the selection of Japanese cities (http://www.dannen.com/decision/targets.html), or the wider scientific community (http://www.aip.org/isns/reports/2002/038.html).

As a Guardian article points out, an ideal active ingredient in a dirty bomb, more correctly termed Radiological Dispersal Device (RDD).would be cobalt-60, (http://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,3604,769645,00.html). This is the radioactive material found in food irradiation equipment and is a source of gamma rays. The radiation used to treat food varies depending on the process, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cold_pasteurization), but is between of between 1 and 30 kGy (http://www.food-irradiation.com/Today97.htm). However, as the Gaurdian article points out, the availability of colbalt-60 tubes is likely to be limited and since the aim of any proto-nuclear-terrorist is terror, the same effect may be possible by using Americium-241 from household smoke detectors.

The question is “how many smoke detectors does it take to fool a government agency in to believing that there is a credible threat from a detonated dirty bomb?”

Since the government is likely to presume that any release of radioactive material via a planned detonation in a public place is “serious”, the answer lies in how much disruption the bomb maker wants to achieve. Two factors are area and efficacy. There are several sources on the effect of exposure:

· To increases the risk of developing cancer by 1% (http://users.rcn.com/jkimball.ma.ultranet/BiologyPages/R/Radiation.html).

· The reported LD50 for a healthy male is around 500 REM (http://ehs.ucdavis.edu/hp/hydprob/index.cfm).

· It is also reported that an acute dose of 1 Gy gives a probability of fatal cancer of 1 person in 10 so exposed (http://wildlife1.usask.ca/ccwhc2003/short_course2000/tox-3.htm)

· 100 mSv - Risk of cancer later in life (5 in 1000) (http://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/phys_agents/ionizing.html)

· The international "safe" limit laid down for persons who work with radiation is 20 mSv per year, averaged over 5 years and not more than 50 mSv in any one year. (www.doh.gov.za/department/radiation/ codeofpractice/radionuclides/fire.pdf)

Therefore the RDD would need to convince the government agency that the RDD is able to deliver a dose equivalent upwards of 1 REM or 10 mSv Sievert.

Americium-241 is a low level alpha emitter and is not water-soluble, and is therefore “low risk”, even if ingested – hence its use in smoke detectors. It does not follow, however, that a Americium-241 could not be used as the radioactive ingredient in an RDD. The radiation from Americium-241 can cause a Geiger tube to overexcite and indicate a higher level of radiation than is actually present. (http://www.seintl.com/english/basics.htm). Furthermore, airborne Americium-241, say an aerosol created from an explosion, can pose a considerable risk. Whereas alpha radiation has difficulty perpetrating the epidermis, internal organs, such as the lungs are more vulnerable.

Leeds University Risk Assessment & Protocol Information Sheet No. 37 (www.leeds.ac.uk/safety/radiation/rpainfo/inf037.pdf ) suggest that he ingestion of the maximum activity (370 MBq Am241) would give rise to a fatal internal dose of 74 Sv. (NB 1 Bq = 1 event of radiation emission per second).

The Americium-241 in a typical household smoke detector is reported as delivering 1 micro curie or around 37kBq (kilo-becquerel), which is 37,000 disintegrations per second. (http://hps.org/publicinformation/ate/q4071.html and www.uic.com.au/ral.pdf); and one milligram (mg) is 1167 million Bq (www.llrc.org/jargonbuster.htm).

It follows, therefore, that the University of Leeds believe that the ingestion of the Americium-241 from 10,000 smoke detectors would be fatal, which is equivalent to 0.3 milligrams.

If the RDD needs to deliver 10 mSv, this equates to 1/7400th of 0.3 milligrams = 40 picograms ingested, or the Americium-241 from about one and a third smoke detectors per supposed victim.

It is to be expected that the RDD would be very inefficient at delivering ingested Americium-241, due to tidal volume of the lungs, the inefficient creation of an aerosol, evacuation of the affected area caused by the detonation of the RDD etc. The population density is also a factor. If RDD was to be effective over a small area, say 1000 square meters and assuming that an available uptake of 1mSv per square meter, which equates to around 400 milligrams of Americium-241, or 1500 smoke detectors.

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This United Kingdom based blog attempts to draw public attention to, and comments on, some of the current trends in ever cheaper and more widespread surveillance technology being deployed to satisfy the rapacious demand by state and corporate bureaucracies and criminals for your private details, and the technological ignorance of our politicians and civil servants who frame our legal systems.

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Free Gary McKinnon - UK citizen facing extradition to the USA for "hacking" over 90 US Military computer systems.

Parliament Protest - information and discussion on peaceful resistance to the arbitrary curtailment of freedom of assembly and freedom of speech, in the excessive Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 Designated Area around Parliament Square in London.

Brian Burnell's British / US nuclear weapons history at http://nuclear-weapons.info

RIPA Consultations

RIPA Part III consultation blog - Government access to Encrypted Information and Encryption Keys.

RIPA Part I Chapter II consultation blog - Government access and disclosure of Communications Traffic Data

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Follow Spy Blog on Twitter

For those of you who find it convenient, there is now a Twitter feed to alert you to new Spy Blog postings.


Please bear in mind the many recent, serious security vulnerabilities which have compromised the Twitter infrastructure and many user accounts, and Twitter's inevitable plans to make money out of you somehow, probably by selling your Communications Traffic Data to commercial and government interests.

Recent Comments

  • Ready Brek: The raison d'être of any nuclear weapon is part physiological read more
  • Joram: Please tell me if one comes across red mercury is read more
  • john: even the flu virus could do what they want..if properly read more
  • wtwu: If the only source of Americium Oxide that these alleged read more
  • Dennis Widner: Inhalation of a finely seperated Am-241/dirty bomb mixture would cause read more
  • Guy Herbert: I'd suggest: (1) Because counterintelligence are too busy watching genuine read more
  • wtwu: There are meant to be some radiation detectors at UK read more
  • john: they would be better off picking up those disposed cannisters read more
  • wtwu: News of the World "radioactive red mercury" entrapment scam: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,3604,1313272,00.html read more
  • Tim Worstall: A few things: americum oxide is an alpha emitter. The read more


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UK Legislation

The United Kingdom suffers from tens of thousands of pages of complicated criminal laws, and thousands of new, often unenforceable criminal offences, which have been created as a "Pretend to be Seen to Be Doing Something" response to tabloid media hype and hysteria, and political social engineering dogmas. These overbroad, catch-all laws, which remove the scope for any judicial appeals process, have been rubber stamped, often without being read, let alone properly understood, by Members of Parliament.

The text of many of these Acts of Parliament are now online, but it is still too difficult for most people, including the police and criminal justice system, to work out the cumulative effect of all the amendments, even for the most serious offences involving national security or terrorism or serious crime.

Many MPs do not seem to bother to even to actually read the details of the legislation which they vote to inflict on us.

UK Legislation Links

UK Statute Law Database - is the official revised edition of the primary legislation of the United Kingdom made available online, but it is not yet up to date.

UK Commissioners

UK Commissioners some of whom are meant to protect your privacy and investigate abuses by the bureaucrats.

UK Intelligence Agencies

Intelligence.gov.uk - Cabinet Office hosted portal website to various UK Intelligence Agencies and UK Government intelligence committees and Commissioners etc.

Anti-terrorism hotline - links removed in protestClimate of Fear propaganda posters

MI5 Security Service
MI5 Security Service - links to encrypted reporting form removed in protest at the Climate of Fear propaganda posters

syf_logo_120.gif Secure Your Ferliliser logo
Secure Your Fertiliser - advice on ammonium nitrate and urea fertiliser security

cpni_logo_150.gif Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure
Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure - "CPNI provides expert advice to the critical national infrastructure on physical, personnel and information security, to protect against terrorism and other threats."

SIS MI6 careers_logo_sis.gif
Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) recruitment.

Government Communications Headquarters GCHQ

Serious Organised Crime Agency - have cut themselves off from direct contact with the public and businesses - no phone - no email

Defence Advisory (DA) Notice system - voluntary self censorship by the established UK press and broadcast media regarding defence and intelligence topics via the Defence, Press and Broadcasting Advisory Committee.

netcu_logo_150.gif National Extremism Tactical Coordination Unit
National Extremism Tactical Coordination Unit - keeps a watch on animal extremists, genetically modified crop protesters, peace protesters etc.
(some people think that the word salad of acronyms means that NETCU is a spoof website)

Campaign Button Links

Watching Them, Watching Us - UK Public CCTV Surveillance Regulation Campaign
UK Public CCTV Surveillance Regulation Campaign

NO2ID Campaign - cross party opposition to the NuLabour Compulsory Biometric ID Card
NO2ID Campaign - cross party opposition to the NuLabour Compulsory Biometric ID Card and National Identity Register centralised database.

Gary McKinnon is facing extradition to the USA under the controversial Extradition Act 2003, without any prima facie evidence or charges brought against him in a UK court. Try him here in the UK, under UK law.
Gary McKinnon is facing extradition to the USA under the controversial Extradition Act 2003, without any prima facie evidence or charges brought against him in a UK court. Try him here in the UK, under UK law.

FreeFarid.com - Kafkaesque extradition of Farid Hilali under the European Arrest Warrant to Spain

Peaceful resistance to the curtailment of our rights to Free Assembly and Free Speech in the SOCPA Designated Area around Parliament Square and beyond
Parliament Protest blog - resistance to the Designated Area restricting peaceful demonstrations or lobbying in the vicinity of Parliament.

Petition to the European Commission and European Parliament against their vague Data Retention plans
Data Retention is No Solution - Petition to the European Commission and European Parliament against their vague Data Retention plans.

Save Parliament: Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill (and other issues)
Save Parliament - Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill (and other issues)

Open Rights Group

The Big Opt Out Campaign - opt out of having your NHS Care Record medical records and personal details stored insecurely on a massive national centralised database.

Tor - the onion routing network
Tor - the onion routing network - "Tor aims to defend against traffic analysis, a form of network surveillance that threatens personal anonymity and privacy, confidential business activities and relationships, and state security. Communications are bounced around a distributed network of servers called onion routers, protecting you from websites that build profiles of your interests, local eavesdroppers that read your data or learn what sites you visit, and even the onion routers themselves."

Tor - the onion routing network
Anonymous Blogging with Wordpress and Tor - useful Guide published by Global Voices Advocacy with step by step software configuration screenshots (updated March 10th 2009).

Amnesty International's irrepressible.info campaign

BlogSafer - wiki with multilingual guides to anonymous blogging

NGO in a box - Security Edition privacy and security software tools

Home Office Watch blog, "a single repository of all the shambolic errors and mistakes made by the British Home Office compiled from Parliamentary Questions, news reports, and tip-offs by the Liberal Democrat Home Affairs team."

Reporters Without Borders - Reporters Sans Frontières - campaign for journalists 'and bloggers' freedom in repressive countries and war zones.

Committee to Protect Bloggers - "devoted to the protection of bloggers worldwide with a focus on highlighting the plight of bloggers threatened and imprisoned by their government."

Icelanders are NOT terrorists ! - despite Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling's use of anti-terrorism legislation to seize the assets of Icelandic banks.

No CCTV - The Campaign Against CCTV


I'm a Photographer Not a Terrorist !


Power 2010 cross party, political reform campaign


Cracking the Black Box - "aims to expose technology that is being used in inappropriate ways. We hope to bring together the insights of experts and whistleblowers to shine a light into the dark recesses of systems that are responsible for causing many of the privacy problems faced by millions of people."


Open Rights Group - Petition against the renewal of the Interception Modernisation Programme