I need a radioactive McGuffin

For those of you not familiar with TV Tropes: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MacGuffin
Basically, I need some information about radioactive material for a story I’m writing. The plot demands a couple of things for it: It and its shielding can’t weigh more than about 40 lb (it’s being carried on foot for a long distance, in a backpack), and it has to be able to do enough damage to be really worrying.

What about nuclear waste? Can you make a dirty bomb out of that? How can you transport it without frying yourself? I know enough Pu-239 to reach critical mass with all that lead shielding weighs upwards of a thousand pounds, so that won’t work. So how much scary can you fit into a backpack?

(And mods: if this is the wrong forum, sorry about that…)

The wikipedia “Dirty Bomb” listing gives a lot of examples. The materials discussed are potentially highly dangerous, though in a “radiation sickness over a couple of days” sense, rather than a “fry you where you stand” sense.

Waste would be a less likely source for such material than fuel used in portable reactors and seed irradiators in the former Soviet Union.

Actual tactical nuclear weapons can weigh as little as a couple hundred pounds. Though smaller “suitcase nukes” have been claimed to exist, these reports may merely be exaggerations.

If you are willing to go a little sci-fi you can make very small nuclear weapons. It was pointed out as long ago as the 50s-60s that your could make a bullet sized critical mass out of californium; although realistic equipment to make it go boom would probably make an actual bomb quite a bit bigger. Say, grenade sized. A nuclear grenade or rocket launcher has obvious scary possibilities.

Now, in the real world no one has made such a bomb because making californium is extremely slow and expensive; billions of dollars ( at best! ) for a tiny nuke just isn’t worth it. But if one postulates some breakthough method for making californium in good sized amounts for reasonable prices then such weapons become a reasonable possibility.

Thread title of the year.
(And good band name.)

If nukes ever did get to the squad level, like a SAW or TOW type weapon, I’d be worried about the safety of the firing soldiers if one went off too soon or too close.

How about something for example, (like a metal vase or an old clock or even a trophy) setting in an antique shop.

This object could have perhaps previously been setting for years in a highly radioactive environment, (maybe a room in a house in Chernobyl, or maybe at the destroyed reactor itself.)

Somehow this object finds its way to an antique shop (maybe the setting of your story), and it gains a reputation over the years as being “cursed”, because whoever spends too much time in the object’s proximity seems to get sick and die.
(But the object has been bought and sold so many times, that it’s “evil” reputation has been forgotten.)

All this time, the object’s “curse” is being highly radioactive, though those who’ve been around it never think to check it with a geiger counter.

(Hey, I know it’s pretty corny, but apparently this innocent object placed in the background but in plain sight might still be a McGuffin of sorts.)

A plutonium ‘flare’ would be your best option with those weights. Plutonium is very flammable and will burn like magnesium, giving off lots and lots of very nasty smoke, and plutonium is especially bad when inhaled. Use inside an enclosed area for maximum results.

Soo… It would be quite a lot of scary. Not especially lethal, but you’d definitely get headlines for a long time.

A cobalt bomb?

I don’t know a lot about them, but you might be able to use the source from a pipeline inspection device. AFAIK they’re not very big (although they’re also not very dangerous). Alberta has lots of oil pipelines to inspect, and one goes missing now and again, making for a decent amount of column inches. :wink:

You could always make up something with the qualities you need. Then its McGuffin-ness is easily evident: it’s the first/only substance/device of its kind.

The Davy Crockett nuclear device (it was intermediate between a tactical nuke and a dirty bomb) was definitely man-portable and would definitely do enough damage to be really worrying.

That one already exists.

It uses a version of the W54 warhead, which weighs a slim 50 pounds and appears capable of a destructive yield of up to a kiloton; there’s even a handy backpack version of it.

EDIT: Ah, damn, beaten to the punch…

This isn’t as far fetched as you might think.

When David Hahn (the “radioactive boy scout”) was looking for radioactive material to use for his experiments, he would take a geiger counter into pawn shops and the like. One of the things he found was an old clock with a jar of radioactive paint inside it. The paint had been used on the clock face, and whoever made the clock just stored the extra paint inside the clock.

I have a hunch that a lot of the stuff found in David Hahn’s back yard would qualify for the OP’s device.

How about radioactive material stolen from a hospital? It can’t explode, but could cause some deaths and contamination if deliberately scattered around.

Having stood next to the one at the Army Ordnance Museum, it’s most definitely NOT man portable. More like jeep portable, man movable.

BTW, neat page of pics.

As for the OP-- polonium. Nasty stuff.

If a terrorist wanted advice about how to carry out an attack, and posted his question here, how would it look any different from this conversation?

Rather more details? Including details on how to get away with it? And where and how to get such substances in the first place; I’m not aware of any nearby stores that sell plutonium by the bucket.

All wonderful possibilities. The antique store one is very cool and deserves a slightly spooky mystery all its own, (which I may have to write sometime) but I don’t think it will work for me: my story is a alternate history set in the former USSR (Ukraine and Russia mostly) during a hypothetical mid-90s civil war involving various groups fighting for control of the country. So basically, my baddie’s only source for the Radioactive McGuffin of Doom are the nuclear plants and so on in that area. (Oh, and if it reassures the “History Monk might be a terrorist” folks, the only radioactive stuff I was looking for info on should be available during a war that never happened, on a continent I’ve never been to, in the mid-90s, when I was in grade school. When I was posting this, I was thinking, “This does look a little suspicious.” So if you want, do like the mythbusters and don’t tell one of the critical components to make it dangerous.)
Thanks, great ideas, keep 'em coming!

Missed cursed edit window!: So the setting requires that it’s a Soviet weapon, not an American one. Shoulda mentioned that earlier. (And I guess it doesn’t HAVE to be radioactive, if that’s not a good possibility. Old bioweapons maybe?)

How about a suitcase full of Red Mercury? Doesn’t get much more McGuffiny than that.