Relax Everyone, 1.4 kg Of Californium Isn’t Radioactive, Doesn’t Exist And Isn’t Californium


Every time there’s one of these scares about radioactive material being found out there on the black market we always find one of the same two things. Either it’s the security services trying to entrap people or it’s not actually radioactive material being sold out there on the black market. There are occasions when a certain amount of radioactive scrap gets bandied about – pieces of cobalt 60 aren’t unknown. But that’s different from this idea that there’s some black market out there eager for, or being supplied with, radioactive material.

Still, doesn’t stop the headlines sometimes:

Four men are caught with £50 million of radioactive material they planned to sell in Turkey – so were they planning to sell to Iran or North Korea?
Turkish police seized 1.4kg of the radioactive material Californium
Four men were arrested after a search of a car in the capital Ankara
Group had reportedly agreed to sell it for £49million on the black market

Well, none of that can really be true. Hmm – some of it maybe. There is a metal called californium and it is radioactive. It even has the occasional commercial use. But there’s most certainly not 1.4 kg of it lying around for:

Only two sites produce californium-252: the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the United States, and the Research Institute of Atomic Reactors in Dimitrovgrad, Russia. As of 2003, the two sites produce 0.25 grams and 0.025 grams of californium-252 per year, respectively.

We’ve not been making it for 6,000 years so, quite clearly, we’ve never had 1.4 kg of it lying around.

This is also amusing:

At regular market value, 1.4kg of Californium could fetch $5.8 billion (£4.13bn), the Daily Sabah reports.

No. Most have heard of the idea of discounts for volume. And something which the world uses – no, production does not lag behind usage here – in less than gram quantities per annum will not command the “market” price in quantities 1,000 and more times that. Think of the price of beer. Say, imagine, that 1 million pints are drunk a year. OK, what’s the value of 1 billion pints? It’s not 1,000 times the pint price, is it? In fact, it would likely to be negative as we were all working out how to dispose of so much beer. Same with metals.

What actually happened is more prosaic:

A cache seized by Turkish police in capital Ankara, reported by broadcaster NTV to be the radioactive Californium element, was in fact a polystyrene sulfonate, a kind of polymer used for medical and technical purposes.

Californium, a rare and dangerous non-natural element, is being used in nuclear warheads and nuclear energy plants as well as in the oil and mining industries, with a worth of approximately $4 million per gram.

Ankara’s anti-smuggling teams conducted the operation in Pursaklar district upon a tipoff, detaining four suspects believed to be a part of a larger criminal organization.

According to Monday’s NTV article, the suspects were reportedly in possession of a cache of Californium weighing 1.441 kilograms that they planned to sell for $72 million on the black market.

However, the Turkish Atomic Energy Authority (TAEK) found the material to be non-radioactive.

Detailed analysis showed it to instead be the polymer sodium 4-styrenesulfonate, an organic substance with no nuclear or radioactive properties.

The problem with the Mail’s story is that it just could not possibly have been true. But then that’s not that unusual in that paper, is it?