Now, of course, this seems like a bit of a beat-up - but I’m not sure who’s to blame here, the newspaper, or the perhaps overly dramatic (internal) FBI report.
The memo leaked on WikiLeaks reports that:
“State authorities detected radiation emissions in four small jars in the residence labelled ‘uranium metal’, as well as one jar labelled ‘thorium’. The four jars of uranium carried the label of an identified US company.”
“Further preliminary analysis on 30 december 2008 indicated an unlabeled jar to be a second jar of thorium. Each bottle of uranium contained depleted uranium-238. Analysis also indicated the two jars of thorium held thorium-232.”
Now, regarding this US company. I have a pretty good suspicion who this company is - there aren’t too many companies that sell small samples of depleted uranium to the public - but I’m not going to mention the company by name, simply because they do not deserve to be unfairly tarnished or persecuted in relation to this incident, and they will be, again, if the media catches their name. Oh me yarm, they sell the scary radioactive material on the internet! Panic!
This company provides quite a few products which are very interesting and very useful in scientific teaching, education and research, including some items which are extremely difficult to find on the market anywhere else, and they already cop enough persecution and flak as it is. Nothing they sell poses any special danger to the community at large, and small samples of uranium metal are, personally, one of the least dangerous things they sell.
The company in question, from what I recall, sells (depleted) uranium metal samples in 5 gram bottles, and used to sell thorium as one-gram samples.
If these samples were what these bottles possessed by this person were, then you’re talking about approximately 20 g of depleted uranium metal, and approximately 2 g of thorium metal. That’s about 10 microcuries of uranium, and about 0.22 microcuries of thorium. That's a miniscule amount of radioactivity, it's harmless.
There’s nothing that constitutes any radiological hazard to anybody. A bucket full of uranium-bearing rock (which contains natural uranium in equilibrium with radium, radon, polonium, etc) picked up out of the ground would contain more radioactivity than this. Uranium-238 and thorium-232 are some of the least radioactive substances you can find that can still actually be called radioactive. They’re completely, utterly irrelevant to any threat of a radiological weapon, at all.
That said, however, I’m sure it is within the limits plausibility that this person was intent on trying to build a radiological weapon, he simply didn’t go about it in a particularly effective fashion.
...suffer from the computer disease that anybody who works with computers now knows about. It's a very serious disease and it interferes completely with the work. The trouble with computers is you play with them. They are so wonderful. - Richard Feynman