Red mercury

Red mercury is a substance of debatable existence purportedly used in the creation of nuclear bombs, as well as a variety of unrelated weapons systems. Samples obtained from arrested would-be terrorists invariably consisted of nothing more than various red dyes or powders of little value, which some suspect was being sold as part of a campaign intended to flush out potential nuclear smugglers.


References to red mercury began to appear in major Russian and western media sources in the late 1980s. The articles were never specific as to what exactly red mercury was, but nevertheless claimed it was of great importance in nuclear bombs, or that it was used in the building of boosted fission weapons. Almost as soon as the stories appeared, people started attempting to buy it. At that point the exact nature of the substance started to change, and eventually turned into anything the buyer happened to be interested in. As New Scientist reported in 1996, an LLNL report outlined that:

When red mercury first appeared on the international black market 15 years ago, the supposedly top secret nuclear material was 'red' because it came from Russia. When it resurfaced last year in the formerly communist states of Eastern Europe it had unaccountably acquired a red colour. But then, as a report from the US Department of Energy reveals, mysterious transformations are red mercury's stock in trade.

The report, compiled by researchers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, shows that in the hands of hoaxers and conmen, red mercury can do almost anything the aspiring Third World demagogue wants it to. You want a short cut to making an atom bomb? You want the key to Soviet ballistic missile guidance systems? Or perhaps you want the Russian alternative to the anti-radar paint on the stealth bomber? What you need is red mercury.

A key event in the history of the red mercury story was an article called Yeltsingate in the Soviet newspaper Pravda in 1993. Claiming to be based on leaked top secret memos, they noted that red mercury was:

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 offered for sale throughout Europe and the Middle East by Russian businessmen, who found many buyers who would pay almost anything for the substance even though they had no idea what it was.

A study for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1997 has perhaps the best summary of the topic:

The asking price for red mercury ranged from $100,000 to $300,000 per kilogram. Sometimes the material would be irradiated or shipped in containers with radioactive symbols, perhaps to convince potential buyers of its strategic value. But samples seized by police contained only mercury oxide, mercury(II) iodide, or mercury mixed with red dye – hardly materials of interest to weapons-makers.

Nuclear "sting" operations

One televised report indicated that the Soviet Union, which had a vested interest in nuclear non-proliferation, encouraged the KGB and GRU to arrange sting operations for the detection of those seeking to deal in nuclear materials. The Soviet intelligence services created a myth of the necessity of "red mercury" for the sorts of nuclear devices that terrorists and rogue governments might seek. This would provide a neat explanation for the sudden "appearance" of red mercury in the press, but it also seems difficult to understand why they would then publicly discount red mercury in what would appear to be a successful program.

The substance found is a mere pigment devoid of properties suitable for nuclear weapons; it is speculated to be mercury sulfide (cinnabar), mercury(II) iodide, mercury antimony oxide (Hg2Sb2O7) or any other red-colored mercury compound. Possession of this substance as the result of undercover deals with Soviet law enforcement was an obvious ground for immediate arrest and likely conviction in criminal courts, with severe punishment following conviction.

Following the arrest of several men in the UK in September 2004, on suspicion that they were trying to buy a kilo of red mercury for £300,000, the International Atomic Energy Agency made a statement dismissing claims that the substance is real. "Red mercury doesn't exist," said the spokesman. "The whole thing is a bunch of malarkey. When the case came to trial at the Old Bailey in April 2006, it became apparent that News of the World's "fake sheikh" Mazher Mahmood had worked with the police to catch the three men, Dominic Martins, Roque Fernandes and Abdurahman Kanyare. They were tried for "trying to set up funding or property for terrorism" and "having an article (a highly dangerous mercury based substance) for terrorism". According to the prosecutor, red mercury was believed to be a material which could cause a large explosion, possibly even a nuclear reaction, but whether or not red mercury actually existed was irrelevant to the prosecution. All three men were acquitted in July 2006


Red mercury was described by many commentators, and the exact nature of its supposed working mechanism varied widely among them. The most popular explanation is that it was a highly energetic explosive-like chemical known as a ballotechnic, although the popularity of this particular explanation appears to be due largely to the popularity of its main supporter. Other claims include that it is used as a shortcut to the extraction of fissile material, that it is in fact weapons grade material being sold under a code name, or that it is completely unrelated to nuclear devices at all, and is in fact a stealth coating for aircraft. In general, however, none of these explanations appear to be scientifically or historically supportable.


Traditional staged thermonuclear weapons consist of two parts, a fission "primary" and a fusion/fission "secondary". The energy released by the primary when it explodes is used to (indirectly) compress the secondary and start a fusion reaction within it. Conventional explosives are far too weak to provide the level of compression needed.

The primary is generally built as small as possible, due to the fact that the energy released by the secondary is much larger, and thus building a larger primary is generally inefficient. There is a lower limit on the size of the primary that can be built, known as the critical mass. For weapons grade plutonium, this is around 10 kg. This can be reduced through the use of neutron reflectors or clever arrangements of explosives to compress the core, but these methods generally add to the size and complexity of the resulting device.

Due to the need for a fission primary, and the difficulty of purifying weapons-grade fissile materials, the majority of arms control efforts to limit nuclear proliferation rely on the detection and control of the fissile material and the equipment needed to obtain it.

Red Mercury is a ballotechnic

Samuel Cohen, the "father of the neutron bomb", has been claiming for some time that red mercury is a powerful explosive-like chemical known as a ballotechnic. The energy released during its reaction is enough to directly compress the secondary without the need for a fission primary. He claims that he has learned that the Soviet scientists perfected the use of red mercury and used it to produce a number of softball-sized "pure fusion" bombs weighing as little as , which he claims were made in large numbers.

He goes on to claim that the reason this is not more widely known is that elements within the US power structure are deliberately keeping it "under wraps" due to the scary implications such a weapon would have on nuclear proliferation. Since a red mercury bomb would require no fissile material, it would seemingly be impossible to protect against its widespread proliferation given current arms control methodologies. Instead of trying to do so, they simply claim it doesn't exist, while acknowledging its existence privately. Cohen also claims that when President Boris Yeltsin took power, he secretly authorized the sale of red mercury on the international market, and that fake versions of it were sometimes offered to gullible buyers.

Cohen's claims appear to be difficult to support scientifically. The amount of energy released by the fission primary is thousands of times greater than that released by conventional explosives, and it appears that the "red mercury" approach would be orders of magnitude smaller than required. Furthermore, ballotechnic materials are those that do not explode, so it is difficult to understand how their energy could be used to produce compression at all.

Additionally, it appears there is absolutely no independent confirmation of any sort of Cohen's claims to the reality of red mercury. The scientists in charge of the labs where the material would have been made have publicly dismissed the claims (see below), as have numerous US colleagues, including Edward Teller.

According to Cohen, veteran nuclear weapon designer Dr. Frank Barnaby conducted secret interviews with Russian scientists who told him that red mercury was produced by dissolving mercury antimony oxide in mercury, heating and irradiating the resultant amalgam, and then removing the elemental mercury through evaporation. The irradiation was reportedly carried out by placing the substance inside a nuclear reactor.

Shortcut to fissionable material

Another theory popular in the mid-1990s was that red mercury facilitated the enrichment of uranium to weapons-grade purity. Conventionally, such enrichment is usually done with precision centrifuges, and takes several years. Red mercury was speculated to eliminate this costly and time-consuming step. Although this would not eliminate the possibility of detecting the material, it could escape detection during enrichment as the centrifuges normally used in this process are very large and require equipment that can be fairly easily tracked internationally. Eliminating such equipment would greatly ease the construction of a clandestine nuclear weapon.

Red Mercury is weapons material

Another common claim is that Red Mercury is in fact nothing more than a code name for high-quality uranium or plutonium, extracted from any number of Soviet weapons labs and being offered on the open market.

Russian weapon designers have reported (1993) that red mercury was the Soviet codename for Lithium-6, which has an affinity for mercury and tends to acquire a red color due to mercuric impurities during its separation process. Although details remain secret, lithium-6 deuteride still apparently plays a role in modern nuclear weapons, as a fusion material.

Stealth paint

As mentioned earlier, one of the original origins of the term "red mercury" was in the Soviet newspaper Pravda, which claimed that red mercury was "a super-conductive material used for producing high-precision conventional and nuclear bomb explosives, 'stealth' surfaces and self-guided warheads." Any substance with these sorts of highly differing properties would be suspect by most, but the stealth story continued to have some traction long after most had dismissed the entire story.

Red Mercury myth amongst communities in southern Africa

Organisations involved in landmine clearance and unexploded ordnance disposal noted a belief amongst some communities in southern Africa that Red Mercury may be found in certain types of ordnance. Attempting to extract Red Mercury, purported to be highly valuable, was reported as a motivation for people dismantling items of unexploded ordnance, and suffering death or injury as a result. In some cases it was reported that unscrupulous traders may be deliberately promoting this misconception in an effort to build a market for recovered ordnance.

It has been also been suggested that South Africa was importing red mercury for military purposes. It has been alleged that South African Airways Flight 295 from Taiwan was carrying red mercury which caused the plane to catch fire and crash off the coast of Mauritius. The Margo commission report into what happened is thought by some to be a cover up. It is interesting to note that the talks concerning the Helderberg were held in closed sessions at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Usage in fiction

  • Red Mercury is a novel by Max Barclay.
  • Red Mercury Blues is the first Artie Cohen mystery written by Reggie Nadelson. Published 1995. Reissued in 2006.
  • Storylines based on the sale and terrorist applications of red mercury have appeared in episodes of two BBC drama series. Bugs contained an episode during its second series concerning a large quantity of Red Mercury being held by international arms dealers and being traded to fictional middle-eastern factions. Spooks used red mercury in its third season as bait for an Al-Qaeda style terrorist group in the episode "The Sleeper". It suggested that red mercury was a myth.
  • There is a brief mention of red mercury being used as a weapon (along with "foam-phase hydrogen" warheads) in the novel Redemption Ark.
  • In the Dark•Matter roleplaying game, red mercury does exist, and the player characters may find themselves having to hunt down terrorists who may want to use it for weapons of mass destruction. In keeping with the conspiracy theory and unidentified flying object (UFO) themes of the game, while red mercury is indeed usable as a seemingly impossibly potent nuclear fuel, it's actually originally meant to be a foodstuff for a bizarre alien race. The red mercury on Earth arrived when that species visited, and humans have been trying to duplicate it (with very limited success) since.
  • The video game Warhawk also featured red mercury as a central component of its plot. In the game red mercury is an extremely powerful weapon as well as a vaguely alluded-to serum that is exploited by the primary antagonist and megalomaniac, Kreel.
  • The video game Shadow Ops: Red Mercury's plot revolves around hunting down a terrorist that controls two red mercury nuclear bombs.
  • Red mercury also plays a central role in the plot of the videogame Splinter Cell: Double Agent, when Emile Dufraisne, head of John Brown's Army, seeks to acquire some in order to build a bomb capable of destroying the greater NYC area.
  • In an episode of the American spy-fi television series Alias (#1.22, "Almost Thirty Years"), a character refers to an explosive device as a "red mercury charge with a mechanical fuse". When the device explodes later, it acts similarly to a conventional explosive such as C-4.
  • The Nymphos of Rocky Flats, a novel by Mario Acevedo (HarperCollins, 2006, ISBN-13:978-0-06-83326-8), uses red mercury as a MacGuffin.
  • It also appears in the thriller Deadwater Deep, by Terence Strong: described as a "highly pure rare-earth element" it is claimed to be the basis of a "structural bond energy release" (SBER) device. This potent fictional technology ("...two kilos of the stuff give you a ten-kiloton explosion") is said to have originated in the Soviet Union.
  • Red Mercury is also used as a plot device in the novel "The Double Tap" by Stephen Leather, where an arms dealer is attempting to purchase the substance from a Russian salesman.
  • In Scepticism Inc., a novel by Bo Fowler, red mercury is described as "mercury antimony oxide dissolved into mercury and then left to irradiate in a nuclear reactor for twenty days". A bomb made of red mercury is used to destroy the Sceptic Tower, headquarters of the metaphysical betting company Scepticism Inc.
  • Yet another appearance is in the thriller Bunker 13 by Aniruddha Bahal where it is described (by a Russian mafia arms-dealer) as being in the nose of a "Swiftarrow" missile, creating a "super-high-temperature blowtorch" that can burn its way through "three feet of steel armor."
  • In science-fiction stories Samolot von Ribbentropa (Von Ribbentrop's plane) and Atomowa Ruletka (Nuclear Roulette) by Polish writer Andrzej Pilipiuk, "red mercury reactors" are used as highly efficient power sources, although no further information about either the substance or said reactors is given.
  • In the last episode of Galileo (Japanese television drama), this substance is said to be "a legendary alloy that reflects 100% of neutrons" and "an urban legend among scientists". Nonetheless it's actively and covertly researched by the main character's antagonist (and seemingly successfully, as it's used to create a small bomb with enough nuclear yield to wipe out half of Tokyo).
  • Red mercury appears in the novel Blood is Dirt, by Robert Wilson, as a nuclear material sought by a corrupt West-African tribal chief.
  • In the season 4 premiere episode of Criminal Minds, called Mayhem, after an explosive device was used to destroy a Federal SUV, SSA Dr. Spencer Reid says, "[The device] was likely made using oxidizing agents including chromates, peroxides, perchlorates, chlorates, and red mercury all jammed into a device no larger than a cell phone."

Further reading

  • Peter Hounam, Steve McQuillan, The Mini-Nuke Conspiracy: How Mandela Inherited a Nuclear Nightmare, Viking Adult (October 1, 1995) ISBN 0-670-86925-2. This book made the claim that South Africa had made red mercury, and used it to construct a thousand miniature tactical nuclear weapons, that were now in the hands of non-governmental South African right-wing elements.


External links

See also

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