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Florida pawnshop's radioactive surprise

March 12, 2007|Stephen Hudak | Orlando Sentinel

BELLEVIEW, FLA. — Every blue moon or so, collectibles dealer and pawnshop owner Frank Cafaro stumbles upon a buried gem among an estate's junk and tchotchkes.

His latest find was so alarming he called firefighters.

"We were in the warehouse and we pulled out this box of rocks from an estate sale," Cafaro said. "Everything was individually labeled. Amethyst. Topaz. Uranium. The guy I'm working with says, 'What's that last one? Uranium? I think that's illegal.' "

Within an hour, Gold Mine Pawn was swarming last week with about three dozen emergency workers, including Geiger-counter-waving members of a hazardous materials team and the Marion County Sheriff's Office domestic security task force.

They focused on a container the size of a soup can. Labeled with radioactive markings, the container protected a vial that held about an ounce of yellowcake uranium, a processed mineral that, in larger quantities, could be used to make fuel for nuclear reactors or enriched for weapons.

In 2003, President Bush justified the decision to invade Iraq, in part, on a now-discredited intelligence report that claimed former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had tried to buy tons of yellowcake, presumably to manufacture weapons of mass destruction.

"It was kind of scary when I heard how terrible this stuff was," Cafaro said.

The mineral, which Cafaro traced to an estate sale in Miami about 10 years ago, was turned over to the Florida Department of Health for disposal.

Yellowcake, also known as uranium oxide, is far from being a weapons-grade material, said Talat Rahman, chairman of the physics department at the University of Central Florida. She said it did not pose a serious threat in small quantities.

"Yellowcake by itself is not dangerous," Rahman said. "It has to be processed to be converted into something dangerous."

Sharon Gogerty, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, said small amounts of yellowcake were reported to the agency "on a regular basis" and were not considered especially dangerous.

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