Occasionally popping up (or, more exactly, blowing up) in fiction, Californium
-251 has a very small critical mass
(about 5 kg), and high lethality, but a relatively short period of toxic environmental irradiation
. This low critical mass has inspired some exaggerated claims about possible uses for the element
. An article entitled "Facts and Fallacies of World War III
" in the July 1961 edition of Popular Science
magazine, made the claim that "A californium atomic bomb
need be no bigger than a pistol bullet
. You could build a hand-held six-shooter
to fire bullets that would explode on contact with the force of 10 tons of TNT
." A six-shooter? Well, really it would have to be at least a rifle
. And lifting such a 'hand-held' firearm would be another matter, for Californium's immense density would be such that an effective firing mechanism and a half dozen rounds would weigh in at over 35 kg-- or 77 pounds, American.1
And Californium is vastly expensive to produce-- upwards of $10,000,000 per gram-- so not only would average citizens be pressed to afford these mini nukes (even if they worked, which is at the least reasonably questionable), but even governments would have a hard time justifying spending $50 billion a bullet (to all but the most fetishistic
fans of military hardware amongst their citizenry). Especially, it must be added, when no one would dare shoot the thing at a close range target, and for long range targets, having a guided missile
would make an effective strike on a target more plausible.
1Ironically, though 30 kg equals 66 pounds, the conversion, once reversed, has 66 pounds equaling about $101.
Hazelnut asks: "What about embedding bullets with an alpha-emitting radioisotope so that even if the bullet wound can be patched up, the target ends up riven with radiation poisoning or cancer and ties up the enemy's resources trying to cure this?" Indeed, this is possible -- but could be as readily achieved with elements which are both less expensive and more stable than Californium.