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Dear Evil Engineer: What can I do with the nuclear waste I bought online?

A villain wonders what they will ever do with their impulse purchase of a barrel of ‘High Quality Random Selection Best in UK’ nuclear waste.

Dear Evil Engineer,

During lockdown I’ve been coping with cabin fever by ordering lots of rubbish that I don’t need. Having decided to stop buying from Amazon on ethical grounds, I went on the dark web and bought 100 compromised Uber Eats accounts, enough ketamine to knock out a plesiosaur, and a barrel of ‘High Quality Random Selection Best in UK’ nuclear waste.

While the Uber Eats accounts and narcotics will make quarantine more enjoyable, I’m now questioning my decision to purchase the radioactive material. I have done minimal field work as a villain beyond a few factfinding trips, and have no experience handling dangerous substances. What am I going to do with it?


A regretful villain


Dear villain,

You’re not the first person to go on an online spending spree, which later fills you with regret. I recently ordered a saffron-coloured Mao suit to brighten up my wardrobe, only to find that warm tones make me look washed out. A barrel of unspecified nuclear waste could be an even more disastrous purchase than that!

If you cannot cancel your order or chase away your courier, the first thing you need to do is work out what exactly you have bought. A random selection of nuclear waste could be relatively safe to bury in your back garden and forget about, or it could be incredibly dangerous. The vast majority (more than 90 per cent) of nuclear waste is low-level waste such as contaminated clothing, tools and consumables. Just a tiny fraction is dangerous high-level waste such as fission products and transuranic elements generated in a reactor core.

If your package noticeably radiating heat, this is a warning sign that you have a significant quantity of high-level waste, which needs cooling and shielding as soon as possible. To get a more detailed picture of the contents, use a Geiger counter and different types of shielding (paper, aluminium sheeting, and a lead barrier) to detect activity levels and types of radiation, and measure activity over a period of time to estimate the half-lives of the substances. This will help inform you about how to store, handle, and use the material.

If you want to make the most of your purchase and use it for evil purposes but lack technical expertise, there are a couple of evil plans you could consider which do not require you to treat the nuclear waste with complex processes.

An obvious option is a dirty bomb: combining the waste with conventional explosives to disperse radioactive materials in a local area. This may not have the dramatic result you wish, however; a test explosion and subsequent calculations carried out by the US Department of Energy found that even if people do not vacate the area and there is no clean-up effort, radiation exposure would probably not be fatal (this is supported by analysis of the Chernobyl fallout).

The mass disruption which a dirty bomb would normally cause would also be dampened by the coronavirus pandemic: needing to avoid a certain public area is not such a big deal for people living under lockdown, and social distancing means that public spaces are not nearly as tightly packed as usual. With the world alert to viral transmission, it is also reasonable to expert that people will be more vigilant about inhalation of dangerous substances: a barrier covering the lower face could reduce inhalation of alpha particles, for instance.

An alternative is mass radiation ingestion via contamination of food or drink supplies. A 2005 paper written by Stanford University researchers warned that bioterrorists could kill or seriously injure 400,000 people by putting 4g of botulinum neurotoxin in a US milk-production facility. Similar opportunities exist to contaminate other food and drinks which go through large-scale storage, production, and distribution, such as soft drinks, juice, and beer. Radioactive substances could be undetectable with a taste test, are unlikely to make testers immediately sick as a neurotoxin would, and are not normally tested for during production, so there is a good chance that they would reach end users, at which point product recall is extremely
difficult. An alpha source with a half-life of a few days would be most damaging in this context, although if the dose is very low by the time it is ingested, you cannot expect a significant public health impact.

It could be more villainous to cause widespread disruption and fear by convincing the public that this contamination is merely the start of an escalating series of attacks on food supply chains.

How dangerous each of these options are depends strongly on the contents of your barrel. The dose of radioactivity delivered to a person is determined by 1) activity of the source and 2) dose factor, which depends on the substance and how it enters the body. Inhalation of alpha sources, for instance, is associated with a very high dose factor so would be an efficient way of causing damage.

Perhaps the evillest thing to do with this material would be to contaminate a hospital oxygen supply, resulting in many Covid-19 patients directly inhaling radioactive substances. However, even the most villainous of us have to at least make a show of loving the NHS, and that is very difficult to square with an attack of this sort. I’m an engineer, not a PR expert, but I suspect that it would damage the credibility of the entire villainy sector if one of us is caught targeting a hospital’s limited life-saving resources during a pandemic.

If you chose to throw the barrel in a neighbour’s pool and enjoy your other dark web purchases, nobody would think less of you. Take care!

The Evil Engineer

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