Akin to something out of a science fiction novel, Red Mercury will reportedly change any conventional explosive into a nuclear bomb with little more than a fist-size quantity of the substance.
Fortunately, outside of conspiracy theories, Red Mercury is not thought to exist and the science behind its existence is fringe, at best. However, there are those, such as American physicist and Manhattan Project veteran Samuel Cohen, who claim it is real.
While the vast majority of nuclear scientists dismiss the existence of such a compound, a substance does not need to be real to cause mass panic and divert the efforts of law enforcement agencies. In 2017, several roads in Atlanta, Georgia were shut down following reports that an individual had walked into the offices of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission claiming to have Red Mercury on his person and wanting to know what it could do. Homeland Security, the police, a bomb squad, firefighters and a hazardous materials (HAZMAT) team were called to the scene to investigate. The scene was eventually declared safe and the substance is believed to have been mercury sulphide, which the individual claimed to have acquired from “Africa”. Despite the incident not involving a hazardous material, an unrelated bridge collapse, which took place at the same time, gave rise to a persistent conspiracy theory that Red Mercury was responsible.
ORIGINS OF RED MERCURY
The urban myths and legends surrounding Red Mercury likely originated during the Cold War and grew in popularity and scope following the fall of the Soviet Union. In the 1970s, a supposedly top-secret nuclear material began appearing on the international arms black market labelled as “red” due to its purported association with the Soviet Union. In the intervening years, various products with a red colour began appearing on the black market with wildly differing supposed properties, including as a shortcut to a nuclear bomb, as the Soviet ballistic missile guidance system, or as Soviet anti-radar paint, or all of these.
WHAT IS IT AND WHY DO PEOPLE WANT IT?
Amongst those that believe in its existence, Red Mercury is believed to be a substance that, if added to a conventional explosive, would create a nuclear bomb. Almost any quantity is believed to be sufficient to generate such explosions. While there are no known substances that are believed to have these properties, there are several substances considered to be Red Mercury (albeit lacking its imaginary explosive properties). These include the most likely candidate, lithium-6 deuteride, a radioactive isotope of lithium hydride that is used as a fuel in a specific design of nuclear warheads. Various other chemicals have been proposed, including mercury (II) oxide, mercury (II) sulphide, and mercury antimony oxide.
The perpetuation of the myth has resulted in a number of militant groups attempting to secure a supply of Red Mercury. Osama bin Laden was reportedly taken in by a hoax in the 1990s trying to secure a supply, and in 2014, the Islamic State began reaching out to its contacts in an attempt to secure some of the substance. In 2012, the UN reported that the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, a Rwandan militant group operating in the Democratic Republic of Congo, had attempted to sell uranium, radium, and Red Mercury. Online, numerous sources claim to be able to secure a supply, and many websites claim to sell it.
In an autobiography, Samuel Cohen, an American physicist and Manhattan Project veteran, claimed that Red Mercury was manufactured through the radioactive bombardment of a small amount of a “special mixture” of nuclear material contained in “ordinary material”. The resulting product would be a “remarkable non-exploding high explosive” capable of creating a briefcase-sized fusion bomb. Cohen claimed that bombs manufactured with this substance could be manufactured at any size, and that this would make any efforts to control nuclear proliferation redundant.
A RISK TO BUSINESS?
The major risks associated with Red Mercury are the same as those associated with conventional explosives. However, the use of any mercury substance requires higher levels of clean-up and security.
A number of non-state actor groups have tried to source Red Mercury, which means they are also likely to attempt alternative methods to develop a nuclear weapon. A dirty bomb is a likely outcome of a group attempting to use Red Mercury to create such a weapon, as scammers who report to sell the product will often incorporate limited quantities of radioactive materials to increase the veracity of their claims. Additionally, several alleged Red Mercury traders have claimed to have access to weapons grade uranium and plutonium, which can be used to develop a dirty bomb.
The panic generated by a substance such as Red Mercury has the potential to cause a significant risk to businesses. An example of the response that would be generated by a Red Mercury scare can be seen in the 2017 Atlanta case, requiring the deployment of specialist teams to contain, assess, and decontaminate the scene. This would generate significant business disruption and spread fear. Even if no structural damage were to occur in an attack involving Red Mercury, it would likely give rise to conspiracy theories and lasting unwanted attention.