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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.