The mystery of the hidden uranium: Elementary, my dear Watson?

January 13, 2023, 12:00PMANS Nuclear Cafe

The discovery of a small amount of uranium inside a package of scrap metal bars at Heathrow Airport in London has raised a number of puzzling questions that are being investigated by Scotland Yard, headquarters of the London Metropolitan Police (the Met). Investigators said that the uranium, which was found by Border Force staff during routine screening at the airport on December 29, originated in Pakistan, though it arrived at Heathrow on a passenger flight from Oman and, according to a January 11 report in the Guardian, was bound for an Iranian-owned business with offices in the United Kingdom.

Deliberate effort to conceal? According to the Met, Border Force agents detected an “extremely small” amount of uranium inside kilo metal bars, and they then contacted the Met’s Counter Terrorism Command. Investigators have determined that the material did not represent a threat to the public, but they are still trying to learn if there was a deliberate effort to conceal the radioactive material and what the intended purpose of the material was.

The Guardian report suggested possible malicious intentions, noting that “Iran has been enriching uranium to 60% at two sites in the country, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, but denies any plan to develop a bomb, which requires uranium to be 90% enriched. . . . Uranium is used as fuel in nuclear power stations and can be used for ‘dirty bombs’—munitions with a radioactive element—and certain types of nuclear weapons.”

Ongoing investigation: After pointing out these alarming possibilities, the Guardian added that according to the Met, the uranium “did not appear to be linked with any active plot.” Commander Richard Smith was quoted as saying, “Although our investigation remains ongoing, from our inquiries so far it does not appear to be linked to any direct threat. As the public would expect, however, we will continue to follow up on all available lines of inquiry to ensure this is definitely the case.”

Poor handling? A January 12 article by the BBC of the uranium’s discovery noted that “a Pakistan foreign ministry spokesperson told BBC News that the reports were ‘not factual,’ adding that no information to this effect had been shared with Pakistan officially.” The BBC story raised the possibility that the package might have been the result of “poor handling” in Pakistan (with no clarification as to what that phrase is supposed to mean) and said that “the shipment’s intended destination is not clear”—contradicting the Guardian report—before adding that no arrests have been made in connection with the finding.

Former British army officer and chemical weapons expert Colonel Hamish de Bretton-Gordon was quoted as saying that the detection of very small sample at Heathrow shows “the system worked” and that the incident “should not worry the public.” The U.K. Home Office released the statement, “We do not comment on live investigations.”

So, the mystery of the hidden uranium continues. Where is Sherlock Holmes when you need him?

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