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Radioactive "Dirty Bomb" Sting In Thailand

Potential Radioactive "Dirty Bomb" Materials Seized In Thailand Sting

by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- U.S. investigators said they want to send to America a sample of the illegal radioactive cesium-137 seized from a Thai smuggler in a hotel parking lot, amid fear that it may have been destined to create a "dirty bomb".

U.S. officials also want to determine if the seller had access to more radioactive material after police indicated he boasted of an additional supply available to anyone with enough cash.

U.S. agents involved in the joint American-Thai sting operation also faced confusion after local and international media reported Narong Penanam was caught with 30 kilograms of cesium-137.

That was "misreporting" because "the entire container weighed 30 kilograms", including the box's heavy metal casing and internal protective shells, the U.S. Embassy spokesperson said in an interview on Tuesday (June 17).

"He was arrested in the process of attempting to sell" the radioactive substance which has been "tested and confirmed to be cesium-137," the embassy spokesperson said.

The U.S. envoy said he was unable to describe the actual amount of cesium-137 in the box because reluctant investigators "handling it" risked the danger of radioactive contamination if they attempted to weigh it.

U.S. officials will request a "sample" of the radioactive material be released from Thai custody so it can be examined in America to determine its origin, structure and other characteristics, he said.

The U.S. Embassy's deputy customs attache, Gary Phillips, "has had initial discussions" with Mr. Narong inside Bangkok's heavily guarded Crime Suppression Division building, but details of the interrogation were not announced.

When Mr. Narong was busted on June 13, officials were concerned that the radioactive substance could be combined with dynamite or other explosives to create a "dirty bomb," the U.S. spokesperson added.

Such a device could create medical problems for victims in addition to any physical damage caused by the blast.

No evidence of Mr. Narong's involvement in such a plot has been made public.

He was described as a primary school teacher who lived in the eastern Thai city of Surin.

Mr. Narong was charged with illegal possession of a radioactive material, punishable by up to a year in prison and a 240 U.S. dollar fine.

In the presence of U.S. Customs officers, Thai police arrested the 44-year-old man in a Bangkok hotel parking lot during lunch time when he tried to sell them the metal box which he said held radioactive material, Police Colonel Pisit Pisutisak told reporters.

Cesium-137 looked like a "beautiful blue, glowing powder" when it killed four people after scavengers discovered it in a "medical teletherapy machine" in Brazil in 1987, U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham told an International Atomic Energy Agency conference in March.

Cesium-137 is used to sterilize food, and make industrial gadgets "such as level and thickness gauges and moisture density gauges," according to the U.S. government's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

"Cesium-137 is also a component of low level radioactive waste at hospitals and research facilities" where it "is also commonly used in hospitals for diagnosis and treatment, as a calibration source, and large sources can be used to sterilize medical equipment," the EPA said.

The EPA said "exposure to radiation from cesium- 137 can result in malignant tumors and shortening of life."


- Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 25 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is

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