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Friday, June 09, 2006

Wired 14.06: Don't Try This at Home - By Steve Silberman

The first startling thing Joy White saw out of her bedroom window was a man running toward her door with an M16. White’s husband, a physicist named Bob Lazar, was already outside, awakened by their barking dogs. Suddenly police officers and men in camouflage swarmed up the path, hoisting a battering ram. “Come out with your hands up immediately, Miss White!” one of them yelled through a megaphone, while another handcuffed the physicist in his underwear. Recalling that June morning in 2003, Lazar says, “If they were expecting to find Osama bin Laden, they brought along enough guys.”
 
The target of this operation, which involved more than two dozen police officers and federal agents, was not an international terrorist ring but the couple’s home business, United Nuclear Scientific Supplies, a mail-order outfit that serves amateur scientists, students, teachers, and law enforcement professionals. From the outside, company headquarters – at the end of a dirt road high in the Sandia Mountains east of Albuquerque – looks like any other ranch house in New Mexico, with three dogs, a barbecue, and an SUV in the driveway. But not every suburban household boasts its own particle accelerator. A stroll through the backyard reveals what looks like a giant Van de Graaff generator with a pipe spiraling out of it, marked with CAUTION: RADIATION signs. A sticker on the SUV reads POWERED BY HYDROGEN, while another sign by the front gate warns, TRESPASSERS WILL BE USED FOR SCIENCE EXPERIMENTS.
 
Science experiments are United Nuclear’s business. The chemicals available on the company’s Web site range from ammonium dichromate (the main ingredient in the classic science-fair volcano) to zinc oxide powder (which absorbs UV light). Lazar and White also sell elements like sodium and mercury, radioactive minerals, and geeky curiosities like aerogel, an ultralightweight foam developed by NASA to capture comet dust. The Department of Homeland Security buys the company’s powerful infrared flashlights by the case; the Mythbusters guys on the Discovery Channel recently picked up 10 superstrong neodymium magnets. (These come with the sobering caveat: “Beware – you must think ahead when moving these magnets … Loose metallic objects and other magnets may become airborne and fly considerable distances.”) Fire departments in Nevada and California send for United Nuclear’s Geiger counters and uranium ore to train hazmat crews.
 
A former employee of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the 47-year-old Lazar radiates a boyish enthusiasm for science and gadgets. White, 50, is a trim licensed aesthetician who does herbal facials for local housewives while helping her husband run the company. When the officers determined that Lazar and White posed no physical threat, they freed the couple from their handcuffs and produced a search warrant. United Nuclear’s computers and business records were carted off in a van.
 
The search was initiated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, a federal agency best known for instigating recalls of faulty cribs and fire-prone space heaters. The CPSC’s concern with United Nuclear was not the uranium, the magnets, or the backyard accelerator. It was the chemicals – specifically sulfur, potassium perchlorate, and powdered aluminum, all of which can be used to make illegal fireworks. The agency suspected that Lazar and White were selling what amounted to kits for making M-80s, cherry bombs, and other prohibited items; such kits are banned by the CPSC under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act.
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