Scientists studying a purported proposal by Colombian rebels to sell uranium for about $1 million a pound say the plan sounds like a scam.
The reason: Ordinary uranium can’t be used in a nuclear weapon; it is a poor choice for a terrorist “dirty bomb”; and it is worth only about $100 a pound.
Colombian forces earlier this month seized a computer during a raid in Ecuador, in which an e-mail from a midlevel leader in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) claimed to have access to “50 kilos of uranium,” — about 110 pounds — from an arms supplier, and proposed to sell it at the exorbitant price.
Matthew Bunn, a nuclear specialist at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and other scientists expressed skepticism about the proposal.
Mr. Bunn said the e-mail contains “considerable indications that a scam of some kind was involved, since the quoted price of $2.5 million per kilogram is roughly 10,000 times more than natural uranium is worth.”
“To me, this suggests the FARC people dealing with the issue knew little about the subject,” he said.
Mr. Bunn said the uranium likely available in Colombia or Ecuador is worth about $100 a pound.
The e-mail, dated Feb. 16, 2008, and translated by The Washington Times, is reportedly written by Edgar Tovar, a regional FARC commander, to Raul Reyes, a FARC leader who was killed in the March 1 raid.
It begins by recounting a litany of deaths, defections and plans for the Marxist guerrilla group. It then mentions financial difficulties befalling the group due to cocaine eradication efforts, presumably referring to joint U.S.-Colombian aerial spraying to kill coca plants.
“[The financial] situation remains difficult due to the eradication and fumigation,” Tovar writes.
He then says “another of the issues is Uranium,” telling of a man in Bogota named Belisario who “sells explosives that we prepare.”
Tovar said the contacts “propose the sale of each kilo at $2.5 million and that they deliver and we look to see who to sell to, and that it should be a business [venture] with a government.”
Tovar writes that his suppliers have 50 kilos (110 pounds) ready, “and they can sell much more; they have direct contact with those who have the product.”
Ivan Oelrich, a chemist and physicist at the Federation of American Scientists, said it is unlikely the rebels are talking about uranium to make an atomic bomb.
Natural uranium is a heavy metal that is only slightly radioactive. However, it contains trace amounts of a rare isotope that will support the nuclear chain reaction of an atomic bomb.