The Atlanta Case

On Thursday, March 30th, man walked into the Atlanta regional office of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to find out the value and purpose of the Red Mercury he had.  To be clear, Red Mercury does not exist, but if you thought you had some, the NRC would be a reasonable place to inquire about its relevance as the NRC is responsible for oversight of nuclear reactors and nuclear material in the United States.

245 Peachtree

245 Peachtree Center Avenue in Atlanta, home of the Atlanta regional office of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Photo from Google Streetview.

By bringing the material to the NRC, the man set in motion a series of government responses, starting with a shutdown of several blocks of the city and deployment of hazardous materials (HAZMAT) teams. Within a few hours, the city blocks were re-opened, the material in question confirmed to be harmless mercury sulfide and the matter was laid to rest with the man released, sans his mercury (Atlanta Journal-Constitution).

Two things about the story (beyond the involvement of Red Mercury) caught my eye. The first was the fact that the material believed to be Red Mercury was “from Africa,” and second, some conspiracy-minded people linked the Red Mercury incident to the collapse of a bridge on Interstate 81 in Atlanta less than 24 hours later (YouTube).

I did some digging. First I contacted the NRC and asked them about the incident. The NRC told me to contact local law enforcement which investigated the incident. So I wrote to Atlanta’s police and fire departments which referred me back to federal investigators. I tried to contact the Department of Homeland Security but received no reply. I also tried to contact the reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution who also did not reply. Basically, I had little to go on and began to feel a bit conspiracy minded myself. But then a break.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wins high marks for transparency. As the government agency with the capacity for monitoring mercury exposure (even if Red Mercury is a hoax, ordinary mercury is nasty stuff) and upom receiving the report of mercury in downtown Atlanta, the EPA dispatched a local agent to determine what is any risk to the public was posed by the mercury. The agent’s report included the above photo and described the incident. I sent an email to the agent who confirmed the details for me and told me that the initial HAZMAT responders confirmed the substance was mercury sulfide. The EPA agent then tested to ensure that the substance was contained and posed no danger to the public.

I asked the agent about the origin of the substance; did the man indicate where it came from in Africa? Turns out he got it from an elderly relative who told him it was Red Mercury but didn’t say how she had obtained it. So, mystery half solved. The man’s identity remains unknown to me.

Red Mercury does not exist and the collapse of the I-85 bridge is a coincidental event that appears to have been caused by a couple of (literal) crack addicts. The plot of the novel, Red Mercury, describes an incident around the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta which heightens interest in Red Mercury incidents in the city, but again, coincidental. I was amused the Atlanta Journal Constitution would not print a definitive denial of Red Mercury’s existence (which would be helpful and true), but that’s their prerogative.

In the conspiracy stories around the Atlanta incident, I saw reference to Red Mercury as the Soviet code name for the isotope, Lithium 6, which can be used for making thermonuclear weapons. Regular mercury can be used in the production of lithium (via the “mercury exchange” process), but there’s still no evidence for the existence of Red Mercury, just more reason to monitor ordinary mercury.

So, the Atlanta incident resulted in no arrests, no proof of Red Mercury and no injuries or exposure from mercury sulfide. Just a guy trying to make a quick buck who went home empty-handed.

Mercurypackage

Mercury Sulfide brought to NRC’s Atlanta office. Pro Tip: Ziploc is a poor containment system for suspected nuclear materials.

Michael P. Moore

May 8, 2017

moe (at) landminesinafrica (dot) org