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.
Massive amounts — perhaps 100 times the amount FARC proposed selling — would be needed to extract enough of the rare isotope for one or two atomic bombs.
Moreover, the extraction process is highly technical, typically requiring thousands of connected centrifuges spinning at supersonic speeds for long periods of time.
"If it is regular uranium they are talking about, it would require a huge industrial task to convert into something that is bomb grade," said Mr. Oelrich.
An example often cited is Iran's attempt to enrich uranium, which would require 3,000 centrifuges continuously operating for nearly a year to produce enough material for one nuclear bomb.
Colombian officials speculated that the uranium offered by FARC could be used to make a so-called dirty bomb, in which conventional explosives are used to spread radioactive debris.
Even that would be unlikely, said Steve Kidd, of the London-based World Nuclear Association.
"In this form, [uranium] is only lightly radioactive and would be useless in a dirty bomb," Mr. Kidd said.
The e-mail does not mention a customer by name, but it is presumed that FARC is proposing a uranium sale to Venezuela. The nation's president, Hugo Chavez, is sympathetic to FARC and has negotiated with the guerrilla group for the release of hundreds of hostages, many of whom have been held for years.
Rep. Connie Mack, Florida Republican, on Friday proposed a resolution declaring Venezuela a state sponsor of terrorism, citing the proposed uranium sale.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, also a Florida Republican, backed the proposal.
"It is vital that Congress and the administration have access to the volumes of information that might determine whether [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chavez has aided the FARC in its war on the people of Colombia," said Ms. Ros-Lehtinen.
Other documents released from the seized laptop reportedly indicate Mr. Chavez either paid or pledged $300,000 to FARC.
"It is highly conceivable that [FARC guerrillas are] trying to expand their income flows by obtaining and selling high explosives on the black market," said John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org.
"And it is conceivable that Venezuela"s Chavez may be intrigued by such a prospect, and certainly Iran would be," Mr. Pike said.