Nuclear Trafficking Hoaxes: A Short History of Scams Involving Red Mercury and Osmium-187
Multiple instances of profit-motivated nuclear hoaxes have been reported in the media in the past two decades, in which sellers offer weapons-usable or weapons-grade nuclear material and instead deliver some other bogus radioactive, or in some cases, nonradioactive substance. Such scams increased when economic conditions in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe declined in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The region's economic decline coupled with weakened security and enforcement mechanisms and a growing interest on the part of both state and non-state actors to illegally obtain nuclear materials all created favorable conditions for nuclear trafficking scams.
Nuclear scams often involve natural uranium, depleted uranium, or low-enriched uranium (LEU) reactor fuel, none of which is suitable for nuclear weapons. Other scams involve highly radioactive sources, such as cesium-237 or cobalt-60, which, though not fissile material, could be lethal components in a radiological dispersal device.
Two non-fissile substances that frequently have been used by con artists as substitutes for nuclear materials are so-called red mercury and osmium-187. Hoaxes involving both substances have become legendary after being the subject of widely reported trafficking attempts throughout the 1990s. A major reason these scams have been so widespread and common is likely related to the fact that there is some truth in the claims made by the con artists. Red mercury is the name given to an alleged nuclear weapon ingredient that does not exist in the form (Hg2Sb207) and with the characteristics described by nuclear scam artists. Some experts have suggested, however, that red mercury is in fact another name for lithium-6, a substance that can be used in the production of compact and highly efficient thermonuclear devices. Osmium-187 is a bona fide nonradioactive material not used for weapon construction, but because it is indeed an expensive commodity and one that is produced through a process similar to uranium enrichment, nuclear traffickers seized on it as a marketable product. This issue brief provides background on the two substances and summarizes some of the high-profile hoaxes in which they have been used.
Red mercury has been the subject of dozens, if not hundreds, of cases or attempted cases of illicit trafficking. Some of the more interesting cases involving the transfer of materials under the name of red mercury include the following:
- After his defection, a former deputy unit chief of the North Korean uranium refinery plant Namchon Chemical Complex claimed that North Korea imported beryllium and red mercury from sources in Russia in 1993 through a smuggling organization in Pyongyang that involved the Russian mafia.
- In one attempt that stands out for the quantity offered and price requested, a Romanian woman reportedly offered to sell 138 kg of red mercury purchased in Chelyabinsk and acquired in Moscow to the Swiss firm Mueller Troihand for $340,000 per kg.
- A December 1997 New York Times article reported allegations made by a political rival that former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic attempted to purchase a nuclear weapon in 1995 from sources in the former Soviet Union in order to put an end to the Bosnian War. Karadzic allegedly paid $6 million up front for the device, with an additional $60 million to follow. Told that the device was made from red mercury, Karadzic received a brass container filled with jelly-like material. Surprised at the contents, he reportedly sent aides to Moscow to determine whether the device was in fact a nuclear weapon. To his dismay, the word from Moscow was that he had been swindled.
- A June 1999 issue of Jane's Intelligence Review cited Western intelligence analysts as saying that al-Qai'da operatives with little technical expertise were being swindled in their attempts to locate and purchase nuclear materials. One of these agents, later arrested in the United States, may have been swindled by con artists selling red mercury.
Red mercury has been the subject of films, books, newspaper articles, and high-level political intrigue, yet, according to much-publicized statements from British, Russian, and U.S. government officials, no material matching the properties of red mercury exists, and no such material is used in the construction of nuclear weapons. How, then, did red mercury become the nuclear commodity of choice for con artists and unwitting buyers?
References to red mercury began to appear in major Russian and Western media sources in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The articles were never specific as to what exactly red mercury was, but the accounts claimed that the substance was a valuable strategic commodity and a necessary component in a nuclear bomb and/or that it was important in the production of boosted nuclear weapons. Supposedly citing a leaked Russian government memorandum, an April 1993 article in the widely-read Russian daily Pravda reported that red mercury is "a super-conductive material used for producing high-precision conventional and nuclear bomb explosives, 'stealth' surfaces and self-guided warheads. Primary end-users are major aerospace and nuclear-industry companies in the United States and France along with nations aspiring to join the nuclear club, such as South Africa, Israel, Iran, Iraq, and Libya." Red mercury was peddled throughout Europe and the Middle East by Russian businessmen, who made fortunes in the process. In one case, a Saudi Arabian sheikh reportedly paid £2.5 million for several shipments of the substance. Described as a brownish powder or a red liquid, red mercury was said to originate from various locations in the USSR, namely Ust-Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan, and Krasnoyarsk, Novosibirsk, and Sverdlovsk in Russia.
Western media also carried accounts of red mercury and its nuclear applications. According to a July 1993 article in Nucleonics Week, red mercury was a code word used in the USSR nuclear weapons program since the 1950s to describe enriched lithium-6, which, according to the article, can be used to produce tritium, which, when fused with deuterium, can be used in the fusion stage of a thermonuclear weapon. Lithium-6 received its code name because of the red-hued impurities in the mercury used to produce lithium-6. According to the article, the USSR built a large complex in the early days of its nuclear weapon program to produce and stockpile lithium-6.
The Nucleonics Week article was followed by two television programs on red mercury produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation as part of its Dispatches series. Trail of Red Mercury (1993) and Pocket Neutron (1994) presented "startling new evidence" that Russian scientists had designed a simple, cheap, pure fusion weapon or neutron bomb, the size of a tennis ball, using a "mysterious compound" called red mercury. A June 1994 article in the venerable International Defense Review quoted Western and Russian nuclear physicists as confirming the existence and destructive capabilities of red mercury. One of those quoted, U.S. nuclear physicist Sam Cohen, to this day continues to write passionately about the nuclear applications of red mercury, which he describes as a "ballotechnic" explosive that, "when ignited, does not actually explode but stays intact long enough to produce the enormous temperatures and pressures sufficient to enable deuterium-tritium fusion."
However, beginning in 1992, at the height of the red mercury scams, government and independent experts from Russia, the United States, and elsewhere made repeated attempts to debunk the idea that red mercury was a wonder-weapon. In September 1992, Yuriy Tychkov, deputy minister of the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy and Industry, called rumors about red mercury's usefulness in weapons a sham. According to Tychkov, many entrepreneurs were using the name of red mercury, an uncontrolled substance, as a cover for smuggling controlled substances—precious metals and fissile material—out of the country. Tychkov reported that dozens of Russian ministries were inundated with requests for export licenses for the non-existent substance. The head of Interpol's National Central Bureau in Russia, Militia Lieutenant General Vasiliy Ignatov, made the following statement at an Interpol congress in March 1993: "No red mercury exists in nature, either factually or physically, and such an element is impossible to create. What is being sold, as a rule, are different reagents." In a July 1993 Pravda article, Major General Aleksandr Gurov, director of the Russian Security Ministry's Scientific Research Institute of Security was quoted as saying that red mercury is a slang term for "oxide of mercury." Gurov was later appointed head of a special government commission tasked with investigating red mercury. In his findings, released in 1995, Gurov insisted that red mercury does not exist.
One of the strangest chapters in the story of red mercury scams was the signing of Decree No. 75-RPS On the Promekologiya Concern on February 21, 1992 by then President Boris Yeltsin granting a Yekaterinburg-based company, Promekologiya, exclusive rights to produce, purchase, store, transport, and sell 84 tons of red mercury for $24.2 billion over a three-year period to a Van Nuys, California company called Automated Products International. Promekologiya was to use proceeds from the sales for public works projects throughout Russia, such as defense conversion, power generation, and environmental projects. The head of Promekologiya reported that his company received over $40 billion in orders from foreign companies. The decree was later rescinded on March 20, 1993. Open source material does not indicate what materials, if any, actually changed hands.
By the mid- to late-1990s, open source accounts of trafficking in red mercury in the former Soviet Union dried up as media and government authorities debunked its alleged nuclear applications and denied its very existence. Russian media carried fewer and fewer accounts of red mercury hoaxes as reporters, the public, and prospective buyers became better informed.
Political pundits and social commentators have advanced several theories to explain the 1990s red mercury phenomenon in the former Soviet Union. Some suggest that it was simply a grand deception perpetrated by entrepreneurial criminals meant to bilk money from gullible buyers. A more sinister interpretation, and one shared by Deputy Minister of Atomic Energy Tychkov, is that it was a cover for the successful export of precious metals or fissile material. Still others believe the phenomenon was a carefully crafted scam by the Russian government to make millions. A report by Intelligence Online suggests that Western intelligence agencies used the Russian-produced scam to identify middlemen caught in Russia's trap. Furthermore, the report claims that the United States has a renewed interest in reviewing the last decade's red mercury scams and its perpetrators to determine whether real radioactive material actually exchanged hands.
Others, however, continue to believe in red mercury and its purported nuclear properties. U.S. nuclear physicist Sam Cohen continues to claim that the U.S. government is simply turning a blind eye to a technology it knows exists and raises concerns about the consequences of a terrorist attack using a red mercury device. Two Russian academics go so far as to claim that red mercury can be used to resolve the ills of the human race and planet earth by aiding in oil extraction, restoring exhausted mines to production, reviving unproductive agricultural land, recultivating nuclear test sites, cleansing land polluted with radionuclides, producing medicine, and creating environmentally clean fuel for new sources of energy.
No sooner had red mercury begun to disappear from media reports than nuclear traffickers began touting a new commodity—osmium-187—as a vital substance for the creation of nuclear weapons.
Osmium is a hard metal of the platinum group used to produce very hard alloys for fountain pen tips, instrument pivots, phonograph needles, and electrical contacts. Osmium-related scams involve osmium-187, one of the seven naturally occurring osmium isotopes, which comprises only 1.64% of natural osmium. Osmium-187 is included neither in special nuclear materials, which are controlled by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, nor in the dual-use items of the Commerce Control List maintained by the Bureau of Industry and Security of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Osmium-187 is not a controlled material under the Guidelines of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) either. Osmium-187 is frequently used in scams by con artists, however, who claim that it has nuclear weapons applications.
Because osmium-187 is very dense, it might be thought to be an excellent material for a nuclear weapon's tamper, which allows the nuclear explosive material to stay compact for a relatively long period of time, increasing the explosive yield. However, osmium-187 would not be a logical choice for a tamper because it is very expensive, costing from $50,000 to $100,000 per gram, and other materials, such as uranium-238, are much cheaper and more readily available. In addition, osmium-187 would be too dense to be used as a neutron reflector, which aids in increasing the yield of a nuclear weapon. Instead, beryllium, a lighter material, is typically used to make reflectors because it is less expensive and has better neutron reflecting properties. Finally, osmium-187 is not radioactive, which excludes its use as a component of a "dirty bomb," or radiological dispersal device.
The technique required to separate osmium-187 from natural osmium is quite similar to the uranium enrichment process, which could be one of the arguments used by con artists to claim the isotope has nuclear applications. Such arguments are frequently repeated by the media as well, which unfortunately give credence to the con artists' claims that the isotope indeed has nuclear applications. For example, a September 2002 article in the Russian newspaper Argumenty i fakty discusses the threat posed by smuggling of osmium-187, claiming that technologies for the chemical separation of osmium and plutonium are completely identical, erroneously implying that osmium is linked to the production of nuclear weapons.
In spite of attempts by experts to debunk osmium's supposed nuclear applications, many sources, including the media and even government officials, continue to tout osmium's strategic significance and warn of its possible use in nuclear weapons. For example, in September 2002, a member of the Russian Parliament's Security Committee, Viktor Ilyukhin, accused Kazakhstan of unauthorized production of osmium-187, which, in his words, can be used in the production of nuclear weapons. It's also notable that Kazakhstan itself controls osmium-187 as a dual-use material.
Scams related to osmium-187 trafficking are generally motivated by profit and usually occur on the territory of the former Soviet Union, since the region possesses two major osmium mining plants: Norilsk Nickel in Russia and Kazakhmys in Kazakhstan. Some examples of attempted trafficking scams involving osmium-187 include the following:
- On June 21, 2000, police in Novosibirsk Oblast, Russia, arrested eight suspects and seized an ampoule with an unspecified quantity of osmium-187. The material was stolen from a Kazakhstani factory by four workers, who had transported it across the border into Russia in hopes of selling it in Novosibirsk.
- According to the Moscow regional directorate of the Russian Federal Security Service, on December 28, 2001, five suspects were arrested in Moscow for attempting to sell 6 grams of osmium-187 to a Moscow banker for $800,000. On February 28, 2003, Russia's Federal Security Service announced that it had thwarted a criminal gang's attempts to sell osmium-187 when security officers detained one person with an unspecified amount of osmium-187 in the Siberian city of Omsk.
- Center for Nonproliferation Studies, NIS Nuclear Trafficking Database, www.nti.org.
- Emily Ewell, NIS Nuclear Smuggling Since 1995: A Lull in Significant Cases?" Nonproliferation Review 5 (Spring-Summer 1998) http://cns.miis.edu.
- Randall Stone, "Nuclear Trafficking, A Real and Dangerous Threat," Science 292 (1 June 2001), pp. 1632-1636, www.sciencemag.org.
- William C. Potter, "Nuclear Leakage from the Post-Soviet States," Testimony before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations U.S. Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, 13 March 1996, http://cns.miis.edu.
- Rensselaer Lee, "Nuclear Smuggling from the Former Soviet Union: Threats and Responses," Foreign Policy Research Institute, 27 April 2001, www.nyu.edu.
- Swedish Nuclear Power Inspectorate, Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority, and Latvian Ministry of Environmental Protection and Regional Development, Report on Combating of Illicit Trafficking, January 2000, www.ski.se.
- Rensselaer Lee, Smuggling Armageddon: The Nuclear Black Market in the Former Soviet Union and Europe, New York: St. Martin's, 1998.
 Yi Tong-uk, Wolgan Choson; in "Defector Testifies On DPRK Nuclear Development," June 1, 1997, FBIS Document FBIS-EAS-97-113; NIS Nuclear Trafficking database, www.nti.org.
 "Krasnaya rtut" [Red mercury], Yadernyy Kontrol, June 1995, pp. 22-24; NIS Nuclear Trafficking database, www.nti.org.
 Chris Hedges, "An Old Tale of Swindle of Nuclear Proportions Resurfaces in Bosnia," New York Times, December 14, 1997; NIS Nuclear Trafficking database, www.nti.org.
 Yekaterina Kostikova, Andrey Kaloshin, Petr Pryanishnikov, "Bin Laden Already Had Russian Missiles," Versiya, May 25-31, 1999; NIS Nuclear Trafficking database, www.nti.org.
 "Yeltsingate," Pravda, April 17, 1993, p. 3; NIS Nuclear Trafficking database, www.nti.org.
 "Miraculous Mercury is a Russian Red Herring," The Daily Telegraph, March 19, 1994; NIS Nuclear Trafficking database, www.nti.org.
 "Prague Journalists Track 'Red Mercury' Shipments from Russia," Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 25, 1992; NIS Nuclear Trafficking database, www.nti.org.
 "Turkish Forces in Anti-Smuggling Operation," Milliyet (Turkey), September 1993; NIS Nuclear Trafficking database, www.nti.org.
 "Prague Journalists Track 'Red Mercury' Shipments from Russia," Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 25, 1992.
 Edward V. Badolato and Dale Andrade, "Red Mercury: Hoax or the Ultimate Terrorist Weapon?" Counterterrorism and Security (Spring 1996), pp. 18-20.
 "'Red Mercury' is Lithium-6, Russian Weaponsmiths Say," Nucleonics Week, July 22, 1993, p. 10; NIS Nuclear Trafficking database, www.nti.org. There are two naturally occurring stable isotopes of lithium. Lithium-7 is the most prevalent isotope at 92.5% concentration, and lithium-6 at 7.5% makes up the remainder. Lithium-6 is created through an enrichment process and can indeed be used to produce tritium for thermonuclear weapons. The United States enriched lithium for use in nuclear weapons from 1950 to 1963 at its Oak Ridge plant. China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom are all believed to be capable of making lithium-6. Lithium-6 is more likely to be of interest to state actors with nuclear weapons experience than to non-state actors because of the significant knowledge of nuclear weapons physics and technology needed to use the substance in a thermonuclear weapon.
 "Nuclear Warfare," RW Films, www.rwfilms.co.uk. PPNN Newsbrief Electronic Version, Second Quarter 1994, p. 7.
 Frank Barnaby, "Red Mercury: Is There a Pure-Fusion Bomb for Sale?" International Defense Review, June 1994, v. 27, no. 6, p. 79-81.
 Sam Cohen and Joe Douglass, "The Nuclear Threat that Doesn't Exist—or Does It?" March 11, 2003, Financial Sense, www.financialsense.com.
 "Nashestviye krasnoy rtuti," Nedelya, September 1992, No. 35, p. 10; NIS Nuclear Trafficking database, www.nti.org.
 "Interpol Conference Views Illegal Trade in Strategic Materials," Rossiiskiye vesti, March 6, 1993; NIS Nuclear Trafficking database, www.nti.org.
 "Red Mercury Seen as a 'Fiction Used in Money Laundering Scam.' Major General Aleksandr Gurov, director of the Security Ministry's Scientific Research Institute of Security, said that 'red mercury' is a slang term for 'oxide of mercury'," Pravda, July 1, 1993; NIS Nuclear Trafficking database, www.nti.org.
 Aleksandr Chernyak, "Krasnaya rtut," Rossiiskaya gazeta, November 21, 1995, pp. 2-8; NIS Nuclear Trafficking database, www.nti.org. "Krasnaya rtut," Markelov television program, July 15, 2001, www.markelov.tv.
 "Yeltsingate," Pravda, April 17, 1993, p. 3.
 "Krasnaya rtut" [Red mercury], Yadernyy Kontrol, June 1995, pp. 22-24; "'Fools' Mercury," The Economist, May 22, 1993, p. 70, NIS Nuclear Trafficking database, www.nti.org; "Red Mercury is Hot, but the Question is: What Exactly Is It," Wall Street Journal, December 6, 1993, NIS Nuclear Trafficking database, www.nti.org.; "Rtut tsveta partbileta," Komsomolskaya pravda, April 30, 1993, p. 3; NIS Nuclear Trafficking database, www.nti.org.
 "Krasnaya rtut," Markelov television program, July 15, 2001, www.markelov.tv; "Red Mercury is Back in Business," Intelligence Online, February 28, 2002; Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe, www.lexis-nexis.com.
 Sam Cohen and Joe Douglass, "The Nuclear Threat that Doesn't Exist—or Does It?" March 11, 2003, Financial Sense, www.financialsense.com.
 Aleksey Ilyich Khesin, Vladimir Alekseyevich Vavilov, "Tayna 'krasnoy rtuti,'" Natsionalnaya bezopasnost i geopolitika Rossii [National Security and Geopolitics of Russia], No. 7-8 (48-49), 2003; Moscow State Institute of Electronic Technology, www.miee.ru.
 "Osmium," CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, Spectrum Laboratories, www.speclab.com.
 "Special Nuclear Material," Nuclear Regulatory Commission, www.nrc.gov; Commerce Control List, Supplement No. 1 to Part 774, Index 1, Government Publishing Office, w3.access.gpo.gov; Editor's Note: Osmium-185, osmium-191m, osmium-191, and osmium-193 are controlled in the United States by Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulations.
 Boris Soldatenko, "Gde 'vsplyvet' chastnaya atomnaya bomba?" Argumenty i fakty, No. 38, September 18, 2002, p. 12; in WPS Yadernyye materialy, No. 32, September 27, 2002; NIS Nuclear Trafficking database, www.nti.org.
 "Russian Parliamentarian Accuses Kazakhstan of Illicit Production of Nuclear Material," RFE/RL Newsline, September 12, 2002, www.rferl.org.
 "Media Reports Claim Smuggled Kazakhstani Osmium-187 Threatens Russia," NIS Export Control Observer, January 2003, p. 9, "http://cns.miis.edu.
 Kuat Ibrayev, "Kazakhstan oprovergayet obvineniya v nezakonnom eksporte osmiya-187" [Kazakhstan refutes charges of illegal export of osmium-187], Panorama online edition, No. 36, September 16-20, 2002, www.panorama.kz.
 "U kontrabandistov izyali osmiy" [Osmium seized from smugglers], Kommersant-daily, www.online.ru, June 21, 2000.
 "Smuggling of Rare-Earth Metals into Russia Stopped," Uzbek Television First Channel, December 24, 2001; Interfax; NIS Nuclear Trafficking database, www.nti.org.
 "Russian Security Service Thwarts Criminal Attempts to Sell Osmium-187, Counterfeit Iraqi Money," Associated Press, February 28, 2003, in Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe, www.lexis-nexis.com.
This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents. Copyright 2015.
Kenley Butler and Akaki Dvali discuss the many instances within the former Soviet Union of black marketeers offering to sell weapons-grade nuclear material and instead delivering either red mercury or Osmium-187.
the Nuclear Threat
Reducing the risk of nuclear use by terrorists and nation-states requires a broad set of complementary strategies targeted at reducing state reliance on nuclear weapons, stemming the demand for nuclear weapons and denying organizations or states access to the essential nuclear materials, technologies and know-how.