Smoke detectors

I was reading a NY Times article on the recent nuclear scare thing, and they mentioned that they could be using americium, which is found in smoke detectors. I was wondering–how much of this stuff is actually in smoke detectors?

I imagine that it can’t be much, because it’s supposedly almost as potent as plutonium (plus, you get bonus irony points for using something named after the country you’re working against). And since it’s not much, I’m just imagining a bunch of terrorists raiding a smoke detector factory and sitting around breaking open hundreds of smoke detectors and extracting little grains of sand and putting them in a neat little pile.

I know it’s a tired old phrase, and I know we’re here to fight ignorance, but doesn’t anybody ever know that “Google is your friend”?

Anyway, this page says that “One gram of americium oxide provides enough active material for more than 5000 household smoke detectors.”

So there is less than 1/5000th of a gram of americium in the average metal detector. Since the stuff costs $1500 a gram, that’s about thirty cents worth. Thus, I’m guessing the smoke detector manufacturers keep the stuff locked up really well.

It would take a long time to pry enough out of metal detectors, and it would then have to be refined further because the type used in metal dectors is insoluble. You could eat it without much harm. You could scatter quite a few grains of it around you without increasing the background radiation by much.

The master on smoke detector radiation

Also, for everyday sources of fissable materials (including americium), check out this article from Harper’s magazine about an eagle scout with an avid interest in nuclear engineering.