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FARC had uranium?

The Reyes laptop is the gift that just keeps on giving. Within a few days of killing FARC commander Raúl Reyes and seizing a laptop allegedly belonging to him, Colombian authorities began referring repeatedly to FARC’s desire to obtain up to 110 kilograms of uranium and perhaps even a past purchase of 50 kilograms for ...

The Reyes laptop is the gift that just keeps on giving. Within a few days of killing FARC commander Raúl Reyes and seizing a laptop allegedly belonging to him, Colombian authorities began referring repeatedly to FARC’s desire to obtain up to 110 kilograms of uranium and perhaps even a past purchase of 50 kilograms for a "dirty bomb," citing information obtained from the laptop.

On Wednesday, the purchased uranium was apparently found, but it’s spectacularly unclear how dangerous the material really is. Informants apparently tipped off investigators to the uranium’s whereabouts, which happened to be a few feet off a road in southern Bogotá. There, investigators uncovered about 30 kilograms (66 pounds) of uranium buried in plastic bags.

But just what kind of uranium? It certainly wasn’t enriched uranium, which is what they would need for a dirty bomb. Some outlets are reporting it to be "impoverished," i.e. "depleted" uranium, which is the byproduct of enrichment, and far less dangerous. Nuke analyst Charles Ferguson told Bloomberg:

You could stand next to this material for days and nothing would happen to you, unless you dropped it on your foot,” said Ferguson.

So, what did FARC want with depleted uranium? A Colombian security analyst told Reuters it was likely a money-making scheme. Other uses, according to Ferguson:

Possible uses for the FARC might include making armor- piercing conventional weapons or an ingestible poison, Ferguson said. Less likely, the metal could be used as a shield while handling more potent radioactive materials that would be used to make a dirty bomb.

I asked Matthew Bunn, senior research associate with Harvard’s Project on Managing the Atom, what the significance of the find is:

[D]epleted uranium is pretty useless for terrorists, and there aren’t variants of uranium that are even more so.

30 kg of either natural or depleted uranium is not of much interest, either from the point of the security threat it poses (almost none — uranium is only very weakly radioactive, and unenriched material is useless for making a nuclear bomb) or from the point of view of its value (something like $6000 for natural uranium, at current commercial market prices in the range of $200 per kilogram of uranium, much less for depleted uranium). Depleted uranium is the waste from a uranium enrichment plant, but is also used for things that require very dense material, such as armor-penetrating shells and ships ballast.  How it ended up in Bogota is a bit unclear, but it’s not controlled especially carefully, since it’s not a material of much interest to anyone.

(The fact that in the original seized memo the quoted price was $2.5 million per kilogram suggests that the seller either was running a scam or was totally clueless about the value of what he had, and that the memo author was fairly clueless either about the nature of the material on offer or the value of it, or both.)

The only thing that IS potentially of interest in this whole story (in my view) is that a very professional terrorist organization like FARC, with a good deal of experience in smuggling, apparently was interested in getting involved in buying and selling nuclear material for money. That suggests that some one who had serious nuclear material (unlike this material) and needed to move it from one country to another might have been able to make use of the FARC’s capabilities.

Watch this space.

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