In most cases, private citizens can get small quantities of materials that could be used to make so-called dirty bombs, but it’s highly unlikely anyone could get large amounts without law enforcement authorities noticing.
That was the consensus of two scientists at the University of Maine who were asked Wednesday to comment on the case involving James G. Cummings of Belfast.
The Bangor Daily News reported this week that authorities seized a number of potentially hazardous materials, including uranium and thorium, from the man’s home on Dec. 9, 2008, the night he was killed. He also had literature on how to construct dirty bombs.
“If you have a University of Maine invoice, I suppose it’s very easy to get materials,” said C. Thomas Hess, a physics professor. “But most materials, particularly anything that is made by some sort of chemical reaction [such as uranium], is strictly regulated.”
Paul Millard, a UMaine chemical and biological engineering professor, said he was surprised to learn that Cummings could have gotten some of those materials, “but it really depends on the amounts he was amassing, and that hasn’t been clear.”
According to the U.S. Postal Service Web site, there are a number of regulations and restrictions on potentially hazardous materials that are sent through the mail, although it’s not certain that’s how Cummings received his cache.
The list of Cummings’ materials came from an FBI report that was leaked to an online Web site. State and federal officials have confirmed that materials were in fact taken, but they have declined to provide further information about those materials.
A “dirty bomb” is a type of “radiological dispersal device” that combines a conventional explosive such as dynamite with radioactive material, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Web site. It spreads radiation throughout a relatively small, defined area.
According to the FBI report, the items found in Cummings’ home included uranium metal and thorium, known radioactive elements, as well as a number of other materials that are believed to amplify the effects of explosives. Hydrogen peroxide also was found, which is generally used in manufacturing certain explosives, the FBI report stated.
The FBI report further stated that four jars of uranium reportedly carried the label of an identified U.S. company, although it does not name that company. Neither state nor federal officials have commented on that.
Maine Public Safety Commissioner Anne Jordan indicated on Wednesday that all materials found at Cummings’ home could be purchased legally, although she did not specify if they were purchased legally. Cummings reportedly had considerable wealth from a large inheritance.
Jordan concluded that no element or combination of elements existed in quantities that posed an immediate threat.
Hess said he couldn’t speculate on how Cummings might have purchased the items, but in his opinion, regulations on certain biological and chemical materials are much more stringent since Sept. 11, 2001.
“I remember kids used to get stuff for science fair projects that I don’t think you could get now,” he said.
Millard added: “You can potentially contaminate an environment with materials that are not necessarily illegal.”