What is uranium? Everything you need to know as a radioactive element is present at Heathrow Airport

Scrap metal contaminated with uranium has sparked a major counter-terrorism investigation after it was discovered at Heathrow airport last month.

The shipment put Britain’s biggest airport on alert, raising fears that nuclear material could be smuggled into the country to build a “dirty bomb”.

However, the sources confirmed later that the uranium present in a very small amount was not weapons-grade and could not be used to manufacture a thermonuclear weapon.

So what is uranium, how can it be turned into a “dirty bomb” and why was it in scrap metal? MailOnline answers all questions.

Counter-terrorism investigation: A shipment of uranium-contaminated scrap metal has triggered an alert at Heathrow Airport, raising fears that nuclear material could be smuggled into the country to build a ‘dirty bomb’. However, the sources confirmed later that the uranium present in a very small amount was not weapons-grade.

Sources said the unannounced package originated in Pakistan before arriving at Heathrow Terminal 4 on an Oman Air passenger plane arriving from Muscat on December 29 (stock photo).

Sources said the unannounced package originated in Pakistan before arriving at Heathrow Terminal 4 on an Oman Air passenger plane arriving from Muscat on December 29 (stock photo).

Uranium: Basic Facts

  • The heaviest naturally occurring element on Earth
  • The chemical symbol for uranium is U
  • It is dense, hard, silvery-white in color
  • It makes up about two parts per million of the Earth’s crust

What is uranium?

Dense, solid and silvery-white in color, uranium is the heaviest naturally occurring element on Earth.

It was first discovered in 1789 by German chemist Martin Heinrich Klaproth in a mineral called Pitchblende, and named after the planet Uranus.

There are two main types: Uranium-235 and U-238.

Called isotopes, these types of the same element have a different amount of neutrons in the nuclei of atoms.

More than 99 percent of the uranium on Earth is U-238, which is harmless and relatively stable.

About 0.7 percent of the uranium on Earth is U-235, which is radioactive and can sustain nuclear fission (fission) reactions.

What are the different types of nuclear uses?

Uranium-235 (U-235) is the only fissile radioactive isotope found in nature in its standard form.

To be used as nuclear material, it must be refined, or enriched, through the use of a centrifuge that spins at supersonic speed.

Uranium 235 was used in a bomb

Uranium-235 was used in the “Little Boy” bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, which was made of highly enriched uranium.

Low-enriched uranium can be used to produce fuel for commercial nuclear power plants, while the highly enriched version has a purity of 20 percent or more and is used in research reactors.

Splitting a kilogram of uranium-235 releases a massive amount of energy – about 2.5 million times the amount of energy released by burning the same amount of coal.

Meanwhile, weapons-grade uranium is enriched to 90 percent or more.

Uranium-235 was used in the “Little Boy” bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 which was made of highly enriched uranium.

Why is it so dangerous?

The reason uranium can fuel nuclear reactions is that it naturally decays into thorium and a single alpha particle.

Once this reaction takes place, a large, unstoppable chain reaction takes place which releases massive amounts of alpha radiation.

Alpha radiation seriously damages organic matter and can cause mutations that can lead to cancer.

Although it can wreak havoc if it comes into contact with organic matter, it is so large that it struggles to travel through air and can be stopped by a piece of paper.

However, every time uranium emits a particle of radioactivity, it decays and turns into another element.

These decay elements, such as thorium and protactinium, produce other forms of radiation known as beta and gamma which can penetrate the human body and cause a lot of damage.

This is because they can kill cells, cause radiation sickness, or damage them in a way that leads to cancer or cause genetic mutations that we pass on to our children.

Dense, solid and silvery-white in color, uranium is the heaviest naturally occurring element on Earth

Dense, solid and silvery-white in color, uranium is the heaviest naturally occurring element on Earth

When was it discovered at Heathrow Airport?

The undisclosed package originated in Pakistan before arriving at Heathrow Terminal 4 on an Oman Air passenger flight from Muscat on December 29.

It is understood the package was destined for an Iran-linked company in the UK.

Companies need a license to import nuclear material into the UK, with security checks taking around two months, but it is understood that the company in question may be one of a small number in Britain that has been licensed to deal with uranium.

How can it be turned into a “dirty bomb”?

There are two types of actual nuclear weapons – nuclear fission and thermonuclear devices.

Fission bombs are fueled with fissile materials such as uranium and plutonium.

As it explodes, the atoms in the weapon’s core split apart and release massive amounts of energy, resulting in a nuclear explosion.

Thermonuclear weapons use a fission bomb to ignite a special fuel consisting of light hydrogen isotopes.

These nuclei are forced together, undergo nuclear fusion and trigger an even larger explosion.

Splitting a kilogram of uranium-235 releases a massive amount of energy - about 2.5 million times the amount of energy released by burning the same amount of coal (stock image)

Splitting a kilogram of uranium-235 releases a massive amount of energy – about 2.5 million times the amount of energy released by burning the same amount of coal (stock image)

The terrorist group’s easiest option might be to build a dirty bomb, or, technically speaking, a radioactive dispersal device.

These do not depend on complex nuclear interactions.

Instead, conventional explosives are used to scatter radioactive material, contaminating an area with elements such as radioactive isotopes of cobalt, cesium, or americium.

Why was it in scrap metal?

Radioactive materials can be incorporated into the scrap metal chain from redundant medical or industrial equipment such as pipes from chemical plants.

Contaminated metals from the nuclear fuel industry in other countries with less stringent recycling controls are also found in the scrap supply chain here.

James Kelly, chief executive of the British Metal Recycling Association, said: ‘Radioactively contaminated scrap has been found in the UK before, and it does happen occasionally.

About 60-80 percent of our scrap metal is exported and a portion of it is also imported into the UK.

But it is very rare for scrap metal to be sent by air freight. Some people in the industry for 30 years have never used air freight.

It must be for a particular metal or object of high value.

This could be an error. The documentation is very strict and a component may have been returned due to faulty working paperwork or checks elsewhere have not detected contamination that can naturally occur via dust.

“I don’t know the company involved but I was told they are registered to handle uranium.”

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What is a dirty bomb?

There are two types of actual nuclear weapons – nuclear fission and thermonuclear devices.

Fission bombs are fueled with fissile materials such as uranium and plutonium.

As it explodes, the atoms in the weapon’s core split apart and release massive amounts of energy, resulting in a nuclear explosion.

Thermonuclear weapons use a fission bomb to ignite a special fuel consisting of light hydrogen isotopes.

These nuclei are forced together, undergo nuclear fusion and trigger an even larger explosion.

The terrorist group’s easiest option might be to build a dirty bomb, or, technically speaking, a radioactive dispersal device.

These do not depend on complex nuclear interactions.

Instead, conventional explosives are used to scatter radioactive material, contaminating an area with elements such as radioactive isotopes of cobalt, cesium, or americium.

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