Atomic detectives and the mystery of garden pellets

Here is (rather was) a case straight from an Agatha Christie mystery, ripe for a Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple to step in and solve, at least the way a nuclear forensic scientist Klaus Mayer, from JRC’s Institute for Transuranium Elements (ITU),  narrated it at the  Euroscience Open Forum in Barcelona on Monday (July 21).

A telephone call about 14 pellets of radioactive material in a garden in Germany last year. Who put them there, where did they steal it from and what sinister task were they meant for?

A crack team of ‘atomic detectives’ in Germany started unravelling the mystery. They were specialists in nuclear forensics that forms the backbone of nuclear safeguards and tracking illicit trafficking of nuclear material, both causes of rising global concern.

But back to our Christie mystery first. The pellets were sent to the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre – at 6.30 p.m. local time in the evening, apparently a good time for the police to send radioactive pellets to a laboratory.

It triggered a nuclear forensic investigation to identify the origin of the material and its intended use. A series of tests on the samples’ compositions, isotopes present, structure, impurities and products formed after radioactive decay gave vital clues.

The pellets contained 3.5 percent enriched uranium. It was relatively pure uranium – the degree of purity a clue to the kind of facility used. The pellets contained some fine markings on one surface and digits on the other – again a clue to the kind of reactor used. The overall conclusion was the pellets were rejects of quality control procedures.

More investigations and more clues.

The findings were referred to an international database to check when the pellets were last purified and separated. So the pellets were diverted from the atomic plant after sintering and gravity.

To cut a long story short, this one had a harmless ending. The pellets were from a German reactor. And the garden owner was under psychiatric treatment, a drug addict who ended with the pellets during some drugs dealing and decided to come clean through a telephone call.

It is not clear how or since when nuclear pellets are being traded for drugs, but maybe that can be addressed some other day. But India can vouch some strange things do happen – way back in the 1990s, a disgruntled employee at an atomic power plant near Chennai (former Madras) took away some rods of radioactive material and dumped them in the Cooum river in the city to express his irritation!!

T V Padma, South Asia Coordinator, SciDev.Net

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