Click image to enlarge and for complete image credit.

Grains of salt (NaCl crystals). Image credit: NASA.

A couple of days ago, Wikileaks released several hundred more diplomatic cables from around the world. I was getting ready to dig through them for any interesting nuclear-related information, when the UK Daily Telegraph conveniently did it for us. Their “Nuclear Wikileaks Cables” page includes cables with CW and BW information as well, so you still have to do some filtering, but overall, it’s pretty clear.

Among these cables, the Daily Telegraph discovered a curious tale, which they highlighted in an article:

The London tip-off

In November 2007, the US embassy in London received a telephone call from a British deep-sea salvage merchant based in Sheffield, who claimed that his business associates in the Philippines had found six uranium “bricks” at the site of an underwater wreck. The uranium had formerly belonged the US. The merchant provided nine photographs of the bricks, which he said his associates wanted to sell for a profit. It is not clear whether diplomats agreed to the purchase.

That story, in addition to some of the other cables mentioned by the Daily Telegraph, was summarized by the Global Security Newswire, and has started to make the rounds via other news outlets and blogs.

Hold up, though! It turns out that the uranium bricks/Philippines story needs to be taken with a grain of salt or two. I talked to Stephen Schwartz, editor of The Nonproliferation Review, to find out why.

Schwartz told me the story rang a bell*:

“This particular part of the story resonated with me because some years ago I, too, received a communication from someone expressing an interest in selling uranium “bricks” said to be in the possession of someone in the Philippines. And like the incident described in the 2007 cable made available by Wikileaks, my correspondent included photographs of the merchandise. In my case, the offer came in the form of a letter or e-mail sometime between 2001 and 2004 from someone who claimed to have direct knowledge of the find or from someone acting on behalf of the person said to possess the uranium.

I found this odd on several levels. Why would someone seeking to sell uranium come to me, except for the fact that I was the executive director and publisher of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists? The details were also vague. Where, specifically, had the supposed uranium come from, and how did the person writing know with certainty it was uranium?

Curious but cautious, I forwarded the information to an official at the Department of Energy, asking if he had any knowledge of or insight on this matter. As I recall, the official responded fairly quickly that he was aware of similar offers made to others in the past and that this was a hoax.

Schwartz made a critical point that echoes a lot of what I’ve been thinking regarding some of the general reactions to the Wikileaks cables. We can’t take them as positive proof of anything; rather, they could be anything from solid fact to chatter. Schwartz continued:

The cables released by Wikileaks and cited by the Daily Telegraph appear, for the most part, to contain chatter — information forwarded by US diplomats overseas or solicited by the United States from officials in other governments with any knowledge of actual or potential terrorist efforts to acquire nuclear materials. The cables don’t offer any judgment on the information and don’t say what, if anything, the State Department or other agencies did with the information. So one of the takeaways here is that just because something provocative appears in a State Department cable, or a newspaper, does not automatically make it important or true.

So, there are a couple of lessons to be learned here. They may or may not be obvious:

  1. The cables released by Wikileaks may or may not contain accurate information. In the case of the uranium bricks in the underwater wreck, we have at least two reliable sources who have determined that the story is more urban legend than something on which one can hang their reputation as a journalist — at this point, anyway.
  2. The cables, however, can be a good guide if you want to go digging for more information. Perhaps there’s something behind some of the chatter in the cables, but one should exercise caution and do more digging for independent information before one can say, with absolute certainty, that a certain cable contains incontrovertible fact. (A good example of this, in reverse, is Max Fisher’s great piece in the Atlantic about the delayed transfer of nuclear material from Libya; a few weeks later, Wikileaks released a cable that contained the same information.)

On that note, I have a feeling there may be a few of you out there who have also heard the “uranium bricks/underwater wreck” story long before Wikileaks released the cable. If so, let us know what you’ve heard — if anything — and what you think about the story in general.

And don’t forget those grains of salt.

UPDATE: Just to provide another point of reference, here’s a somewhat similar story, from 2009, about three Filipino men who scammed a woman with “fake uranium”:

Three men were arrested Wednesday for allegedly duping an American woman of P600,000 in exchange for a box of what they claimed to be a uranium sample lost during World War II.

[...]

Mirasol allegedly said the box was lost during World War II by the United States Air Force in a plane crash somewhere in Cagayan de Oro province.

The box did not contain uranium.

*Bold emphasis mine.