A 16-year-old Japanese boy is being investigated for dealing uranium online and even processing uranium ore into yellowcake. However, he was likely not a terrorist but rather a “chemistry geek” fascinated by the challenge, according to one security analyst.
Kyodo news agency on Wednesday reported the high school student – who was initially referred to prosecutors on Monday on charges of violating the gunpowder control law by creating 2.4 grams of the explosive penthrite at his home last year – traded uranium online. The boy, who has not been identified as he is a minor, initially came to the attention of the authorities in November 2017 as a result of an advertisement on a Yahoo online auction website for “Uranium 99.9 per cent”.
Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority notified the police of the advert in January 2018 and the youth was being questioned on a voluntary basis before his arrest. Several people that he communicated with regarding the transaction have also been questioned, along with others who bid for similar material.
To be honest, you would simply not believe what chemistry geeks will do
Investigators have not revealed whether the uranium ore was bought from a source within Japan or from abroad.
Authorities believe the boy obtained uranium ore on more than one occasion and was successful in processing some of it into yellowcake, the concentrated powder that is the precursor state before uranium is fabricated for fuel or enriched to be used in a weapon. The youth subsequently advertised the yellowcake for sale online.
However, Lance Gatling, a security and weapons analyst and founder of Tokyo-based Gatling Associates, insisted the boy’s intentions were benign, and borne of curiosity rather than any desire to cause harm.
“This is not a case of terrorism, even of the home-grown variety,” he said. “To be honest, you would simply not believe what chemistry geeks will do ... [There are] probably a few dozen guys who have tried to fabricate sarin gas in their bathrooms.”
Sarin was developed in Germany in 1938 but the chemical weapon – lethal at even very low concentrations – was outlawed by international convention in 1997, five years after the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo released sarin in liquid form on the Tokyo subway system, killing 12 people and injuring more than 6,000 commuters.
“For chemistry geeks, it’s all about the technical challenge,” Gatling said. “The more complex the formula and the process, the more that someone is going to want to do it.”
The likelihood the boy would have been able to create fissionable material is “minuscule”, Gatling said, pointing out that a vast amount of uranium ore is required to make even a tiny amount of fissile material, while the radioactivity in yellowcake uranium is still extremely low.
The Japanese authorities are, nevertheless, taking the matter very seriously and in February the Nuclear Regulation Authority instructed the operators of internet auction sites to prevent buying and selling of nuclear material.
“Rest assured that the Public Safety Agency is at this very moment drawing up revisions to regulations that are designed to stop dangerous items being sold,” Gatling said. “I doubt very much when those regulations were first written that they expected to ever have to deal with something like this.”
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