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April 17, 2004

Iraqi Nuclear Scrap

Via Outside the Beltway I'm alerted to a report of Iraqi nuclear scrap turning up at Rotterdam. WaPo picked it up, and there this AP report.
Have look at both of them, and the links to others who comment.
Then come back as this is one of my areas of technical expertise, ( yes, stop sniggering in the back, I do actually know something about something ) and I can explain what I think is happening.

The first thing to note is that Jewometaal is not some fly by night set of underground nuclear weapons traders. They are a highly respected processor of stainless steel and other scraps. They've done absolutely the right thing : found something odd and then informed the authorities. That there was yellow cake uranium found in the shipment is not odd. Rather, that such uranium ore ( turning this stuff into metallic uranium of the correct isotopes for a bomb is a $ 5 - $ 10 billion task. You need a big big programme and factory to do this ) was in the shipment is odd. That once it was there it was found is not. A big yard like Jewometaal will run a geiger counter over everything that comes in. Just standard operating proceedure. If you don't and anything radioactive gets into the actual scrap stream going on out to the steel makers : well, then you have to pay for a new blast furnace for them, anything from $ 10 - $ 100 million.
The yellowcake is pretty good evidence that there was nuclear activity. It does have other uses , for example it makes a fantastic pottery glaze, but no one really thinks we're talking about ceramics, right ?
What was likely to be in the shipment other than that yellowcake ? That it went to Jewometaal makes me think it was stainless scrap. That's what they're expert at after all. However, they do deal in other alloys, some of which ( I've talked to them about pricing before, although never dealt with them on these sorts of nuclear scrap ) have more serious implications.
Getting the rocket motors out of the way, it does depend on precisely what sort of rocket the motor came from. Different levels of technology use different metals in them. It might be a nickel alloy, niobium, titanium for parts of it. All of these are treated just as regular scrap metal. Cut up, melted down and off they go to make other things. That they came from rockets makes no difference whatsoever to what will be done with them : the analogy is that when you're recycling paper it doesn't matter that some were secret documents and others were my scribble pad . Makes no difference to what you're going to do with the new paper once manufactured. A higher level of rocket technology might use more exotic metals like rhenium. This you very definately want to recycle, it currently running at $ 1,500 a kilo ( a declaration of interest here, yes, we're making some of this for a customer at the moment ) and yes, you did read that price correctly, $ 1,500,000 per tonne. Again, that it came from a rocket motor makes no difference, the most likely end use, after reprocessing, being petroleum catalysts after being alloyed with platinum.
As a little side story a decade ago in Russia we were peripherally involved in the destruction under the START I and II treaties of some of the Soviet missiles. We were buying some of the scrap. And yes, that contract was handled by Brown and Roote, a Halliburton subsidiary ( Bush Lied !! ) although one might want to note that it was a Democratic administration that offered them the contract.
The next question is what were the other metals found in the shipment ? If it was various forms of stainless steel and nickel alloys, then these could conceivably have come from just about anywhere. The yellowcake being there by accident maybe. If there is something called " maraging " steel, then this would be pretty strong evidence that the whole shipment came from a nuclear operation. And yes, it's been illegal to ship that stuff to Iraq for decades.
There might also have been high purity and highly machined aluminium scrap in there ( remember the fuss over whether certain aluminium tubes were evidence of a nuclear programme ? ) but I can't think of why these would end up at Jewometaal.
We can go a little further in supposition though. Pretty much any scrap specialist from myself upwards, via Jewometaal and up to the UN inspectors and the IAEA would be interested if there were certain other metals in the shipment. A few simple tests and one could narrow down not only what they were being used for, but also who supplied them in the first place.
If you had either hafnium ( Hf ) or zirconium ( Zr) in the shipment, you would be thinking there's something odd here. You would want to go further, and find out just what type of Hf or Zr you had.
A little background.
Hf and Zr are almost identical in a chemical sense. You normally find both of them in the same ore, something like 1 % Hf to 4 % Hf in your Zr ore. For most uses you don't care. As they are so chemically similar you just put up with the Hf contamination, and commercial purity Zr can have up to 2 % Hf in it and no one bothers.
However, if you want to use them in the nuclear industry, you have a problem. For Zr is virtually transparent to neutrons, and Hf is opaque. You need to use Zr as it is just about the only metal that can withstand the heat and corrosiveness of the nuclear operating environment : the tubes containing uranium in a reactor are made of Zr, as are the various parts of an enrichment plant, it being just about the only thing that can resist the corrosive effects of uranium hexaflouride. And no, teflon wasn't developed by NASA for the Apollo programme, it was developed by the DOE to act as the seals on the pumps in just such an enrichment plant.
Anyway, the above means that you have to extract the Hf from your Zr before you can go ahead and use it in a nuclear environment. This is an expensive process, making " nuclear grade " Zr ( and Hf as well ) about 10 times the expense of commercial purity. So you only use it if you are indeed in a nuclear environment. The Zr is used for the fuel rods, and the Hf for the control rods.
And before you ask, there are very strict controls on where you can send such materials. Some countries it is completely verboten, others are OK and a third group is possible, with a licence, but still verboten to certain companies or industries.
A further declaration or personal interest here. We just shipped some ( non nuclear grade ) hafnium and had to certify that it was not for nuclear activities, nor for certain named companies in the country of destination. Even if I was lied to, and the material gets diverted through no fault of my own, I face a 20 year jail sentence. Yes, I do trust the guy I sent it to. And yes, I do know someone who served three years Federal time for being duped by a buyer.
So if we find nuclear grade Hf or Zr in the shipment, then we are now almost certain that the whole shebang came from something naughty. It's been illegal to supply these materials to Iraq for decades. 10 minutes work with a little tool called a Feuss will tell us whether it is commercial grade or nuclear.
But can we go even further ? Can we tell whether our Zr ( remember, all this is assuming that there is any Hf or Zr in the shipment at all ) comes from Osirak, that reactor blown up in 1981, or from a later programme ? Can we tell whether it was originally imported legally, or is evidence of some later illegal programme ?
Within certain limitations, yes.
Osirak was built by German contractors. They built it to Western specifications. This means that our Zr tubes and so on were made of Zircalloy, which is 1.5 % tin. That's the only legitimate nuclear programme there has ever been in Iraq.
One of the oddities of metallurgy is that there were a few fault lines between the way the West did it and the way the Soviets did. And this is one of them. Soviet ( and by extension all E European and Chinese ) nuclear Zr was not alloyed with tin, but with niobium. So if we take out our Feuss again, and check our tubes, we can tell whether it is western manufacture or ex Soviet. And no, there has never been a legitimate nuclear project in Iraq using Soviet type technology, although Atomenergoexport has made offers to complete Osirak, none of them ever went through.
Yes, I'm sorry, this is all very long and very boring. And it's a complete house of cards, because I don't know what was actually in that container, whether there was any Hf, Zr or maraging steel or not.
What I'm trying to describe is what the inspectors are going to be doing : what will they be looking for, and what conclusions can they draw from what they might find ?
If there's Zr/tin in there, then it probably came from Osirak and is not evidence of anything other than a bit of opportunistic looting. If there's Zr/niobium in there, then it could be evidence of again looting of previously discovered nuclear ambitions using Soviet technology, or it could be evidence of a programme that no one has yet discovered.

In all of this the people to pity are Jewometaal. Despite the fact that they, on discovering something out of place and radioactive, informed the authorities, they are the people who are going to get fined. Possession of radioactive material without the correct licence gets you fined. Period.

Just in case anyone thinks they might have done something wrong by buying such scrap if it was not radioactive. No, they haven't. The regulations are all about where you send it to, not where you get it from. Even if the container were full of nuclear grade Hf and Zr, they're entirely within their rights to purchase it. In fact, it's a good idea, as it takes those materials out of the marketplace : The Hf would probably end up in jet engines at Rolls Royce and the like, and the Zr in car wheels ( yes, really ). That's better than having these things floating around where the baddies can get them.
I once bought 40 tonnes of such materials out of Russia to Rotterdam, wholly legally, even got a pat on the back from men with three letters after their name for doing so.

One thing I really don't understand in the report though. Osirak is radioactive ? The Israeli's bombed it well before they loaded the fuel didn't they ? I mean, surely no one thinks they actually bombed an operating reactor do they ? I don't remember people talking about plumes of radiation in 1981 as they did in 1986 when Chernobyl went up.

April 17, 2004 in Nuclear | Permalink


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complement correct story!!!!!

Posted by: p | Apr 11, 2006 2:38:50 PM