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Atomic death rays–updated February 10, 2006

Posted by dr. gonzo in Science.

UPDATE (02.10.06):

After talking with a journalist friend of mine I thought I should update this blog entry.

According to this reporter the smoke detector industry and others began reading about the Americium-smoke detector-atomic bomb connection back in 1996. Thusly, the way most smoke detectors were manufactured changed.

Most likely from the ionization type (which includes the americium) to the photoelectric type (which doesn’t). Stupid me! I didn’t ask him his source but either way the EPA still maintains a webpage on smoke detectors and radiation.

A cursory web search didn’t really reveal whether this de facto manufacturing ban on ionization smoke detectors actually existed. But the EPA page linked above was last updated on Nov. 30, 2004 and I pulled this quote from it:

“Many companies make separate products using either photoelectric or ionization technologies, or they combine the technologies in one product.”

That implies that, as of 2004, smoke detectors using the ionization technology, and by proxy americium, were still being manufactured.

Even if they weren’t, as I discussed with my friend, that wouldn’t necessarily stop a determined person from acquiring enough americium-241 via smoke detectors to construct a rudimentary nuclear device.

Think about it, who actually replaces their detectors every 10 years, like most of the packages recommend. You know the smoke detector on your parents and grandparents wall or ceiling has been there since at least the late 1980s.

So, even if there is some kind ionization smoke detector moratorium, the majority of smoke detectors that would pile up in landfills would still be the americium-containing, ionization type.

Photo 1: A smoke detector (Credit: Hemera Technologies/Alamy.com).

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Original Post (01.19.06)

Every once in awhile I read something that raises my eyebrows beyond their normal range. So when I came across a story about an Eagle Scout who created his own neutron gun, in 1994, it really got me thinking.

Just how easy is it to build dangerous radioactive weapons and devices?

I don’t know really but Americium is pretty easy to get hold of and according to this webpage attaining critical mass is pretty easy with some dedication. It seems sound, in theory, though I wouldn’t recommend trying it to find out.

That’s kind of scary.

Ok, Google “homemade reactor”. Alot of strange links there on page one. That geocities site was rather bizarre, it is the second page one hit on the search above.

I don’t know how valid any of this is, I am not a nuclear physicist but it’s foreboding and a little frightening at the very least.

Even a chemical operations specialist in the U.S. Army requires a secret security clearance to learn about nuclear weapons and nuclear power technology.

Seeing this stuff so readily available also makes me wonder how much our government is really over blowing the threat from nukes. I mean Eagle Scouts building neutron guns? If our enemies had even a bit of ingenuity they shouldn’t have a problem melting us into atomic dust.

From time to time I hear about engineering students and amateurs alike attracting attention by building homemade fusion reactors or other nuclear devices. Interesting.


1. Anonymous - January 26, 2006

Make sure you use Google search & not Yahoo, or the feds may be on your case!

2. Glock21 - February 12, 2006

Most of the how-to stuff on the internet for nuclear related devices just isn’t accurate enough to merit much worry.

Most of the links in this post can help someone irradiate themselves but are too simplistic and/or downright inaccurate to lead to anything else.

Even if you had an entire warehouse of smoke detectors at your disposal it’d be nearly impossible for someone to create any significant weapons grade material out of it, let alone enough for a weapon.

Only certain isotopes of certain elements have the needed nuclear characteristics that will work for a nuclear bomb. The smoke detectors just don’t have what you need and converting it would be nearly impossible even with an unlimited budget for equipment and a team of physicists and chemical engineers on the payroll.

The real concern would be dirty bomb issues, not full blown nuclear bombs.

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