Monday, January 26, 2015

Small amount of uranium taken from home of deceased Fayetteville professor

Posted By on Mon, Jan 26, 2015 at 2:51 PM

click to enlarge CONTRABAND: One of the two uranium samples confiscated by ADH. - ARKANSAS DEPT OF HEALTH
  • CONTRABAND: One of the two uranium samples confiscated by ADH.
Readers in Northwest Arkansas alerted us today to a report filed by the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission regarding the discovery of a small quantity of uranium-235 in a private residence in Fayetteville. U-235 is an isotope of the radioactive element capable of sustaining a fission reaction — that is, it can be used as fuel in a power plant, or in a weapon.

ADH asked the University of Arkansas to secure the material (since UA holds a license to handle radioactive substances) and it's now being held at ADH, where the substance's level of radioactivity is being tested. Swabs and samples taken by ADH at the Fayetteville home indicate the amount of radiation emitted by the uranium is minimal, well below the threshold of what poses a danger to human health. Still, the department is performing further testing to be certain.

A spokesman for the UA said that the uranium was apparently found at the home of a late professor of nuclear science the late Cecil Cogburn, a professor of Nuclear Engineering at the university.

"From what we understand, an individual in the community found these items in the home," said ADH spokesperson Kerry Krell. "These items were probably packed away for quite some time … probably pre-9/11, because after that it became a whole lot harder to get your hands on any uranium." She said both items were clearly marked and found in a desk.

The report filed with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says the U-235 was found "in a medium size glass jar with lid." It also identified a second sample, a small quantity of UO2, or uranium dioxide, "in a small glass vial with lid." Uranium dioxide is a type of ore — basically a diluted form of the dangerous stuff. The UO2 sample contained only 3 percent U-235; while such ore can be refined into a more dangerous form, it's "essentially harmless" on its own, said Krell.*

Pure U-235 is another story, however. "It raises a lot of red flags when you hear about that," she said. "Uranium is not just something you want floating around." However, she continued, these samples seem to be too small to be dangerous. "Bottom line, there's no radiation emitting from these things."

The concentration of uranium or other radioactive elements in a substance dictates whether it's illegal to possess, Krell said. "What they measure that by is percent of uranium found in the product. Uranium ore is probably exempt." If you should find a box of U-235 squirreled away in your attic, though, tell the authorities.

There's a list of common items containing trace amounts of radioactive elements which are explicitly deemed exempt by the authorities who regulate nuclear material, she explained. "Here's one interesting example: Brazil nuts. They naturally contain a certain amount of radium."

Here's the Nuclear Regulatory Commission report on the incident.

*This paragraph originally said the UO2 sample was "3 percent uranium," which a reader pointed out was incorrect. Of the uranium contained in this sample of UO2, only 3 percent was the isotope U-235; the rest of the uranium in that ore was likely U-238, a more common and less dangerous form of the element.

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