Who smuggled polonium-210 into the United Kingdom?

A cheat sheet for the news.
Dec. 12 2006 1:22 PM

The Polonium Connection

We have to find out where it came from.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

Both Scotland Yard and Russian authorities are now investigating the alleged murder of Alexander Litvinenko, an ex-lieutenant colonel in the KGB, who died in London from a dose of polonium-210 on Nov. 23. The focus on Who Killed Litvinenko has led to the neglect of what may turn out to be a far more important question: Where did the polonium-210 come from?

Polonium-210 is not a common household substance. It is made by bombarding bismuth in a nuclear reactor with neutrons from uranium-235, the fuel for atom bombs. It rapidly decays, with a half-life of 138 days, which means that it cannot be stockpiled for more than a few months. It is also very rare—fewer than 4 ounces are produced each year. Virtually all of this known production comes from a handful of Russian reactors. Russia continues to produce it because the United States buys almost all of it. And the United States buys the Russian polonium-210 to make sure that it does not leak into the black market.

If a rogue nation (or terrorist group) obtained access to any quantity of polonium—even, say, a half gram—it could use it as an initiator for setting off the chain reaction in a crude nuclear bomb. With a fissile fuel, such as U-235, and beryllium (which is mixed in layers with the polonium-210), someone could make a "poor man's" nuke. Even lacking these other ingredients, the polonium-210, which aerosolizes at about 130 degrees Fahrenheit, could be used with a conventional explosive, like dynamite, to make a dirty bomb.

Under very tight controls in the United States, minute traces of polonium-210 are embedded in plastic or ceramic, allowing them to be used safely in industrial static eliminators. To recapture these traces in any toxic quantity would require collecting over 15,000 static eliminators and then using highly sophisticated extraction technology. Such a large-scale operation would instantly be noticed, and its product would be adulterated by residual plastic or ceramic. In any case, what investigators reportedly recovered from Litvinenko's body was pure polonium-210.

The polonium-210 has also left a tell-tale trail. At least a dozen people have been contaminated, including Litvinenko; Andrei Lugovoi, a former colleague of Litvinenko's in the KGB, who met with Litvinenko at the Pine Bar of the Millennium Hotel in London the day he became ill, Nov. 1; Dmitry Kovtun, Lugovoi's business associate, who also attended that meeting; seven employees of the Millennium Hotel; Mario Scaramella, an Italian security consultant, who dined with Litvinenko on Nov. 1 at the Itsu Sushi Restaurant (and whom, one week later, Litvinenko accused of poisoning him); and Litvinenko's Russian wife, Marina, who went with him to Barnet General Hospital on Nov. 1.

In addition, traces of the same polonium-210 were detected at Litvinenko's home and hospital, three luxury hotels and a security firm in London, a residence in Hamburg that Kovtun had visited en route to London, and on two British Airways planes on which Lugovoi flew from Moscow to London in October.

As polonium-210 has not been manufactured in Britain for years, and it cannot be stockpiled for long, the isotope must have been smuggled into the country. If it is assumed that no one intended to leave a radioactive trail in airplanes, hotel rooms, or homes, or contaminate waiters and other innocent bystanders, there must have been some unintentional leakage of the smuggled polonium-210. Moreover, we know from the Hamburg trail that the leakage occurred well before Litvinenko went into the hospital on Nov. 1. But where did the smuggled polonium-210 come from?

The diversion could have come from only a limited number of places. Just four facilities are licensed to handle polonium-210 in Russia: Moscow State University; Techsnabexport, the state-controlled uranium-export agency; the Federal Nuclear Center in Samara; and Nuclon, a private company. Although these licensees are monitored by the Russian government, it would not necessarily require an intelligence service to divert part of the supply into private hands. A single employee who was bribed, blackmailed, or otherwise motivated conceivably could filch a pinhead quantity of polonium-210 and smuggle it out in a glass vial (in which its alpha particles would be undetectable). Such corruption is not unknown in Russia.

Or the diversion could have come from outside Russia. A number of other countries with nuclear reactors have been suspected of clandestinely producing or buying polonium-210, including Iran (where it was detected by IAEA inspectors in 2000), North Korea (where it was detected by U.S. airborne sampling), Israel (where several scientists died from accidental leaks of it in the 1950s and 1960s), Pakistan, and China. But whatever its source, the polonium diversion has serious implications. The real problem is not its toxicity, since its alpha particles can't penetrate the surface of the skin and therefore have to be ingested or breathed in to cause any damage. (That can happen if you have polonium-210 on your person or clothes.) The more serious danger is that it could be sold to a country that wanted to set off a nuclear device, clean or dirty.

Given its value on the nuclear black market, the relationships Litvinenko had with his contaminated associates may be relevant to its origin.

To begin with, there are his contacts with Mario Scaramella. According to Scaramella, Litvinenko told him at their sushi lunch that before he had defected from Russia, his activities had included the "smuggling of nuclear material out of Russia." If true, why did the ex-KGB officer broach the subject of nuclear smuggling?

Then, there is the intriguing relationship between Litvinenko and Lugovoi. According to Lugovoi, the two former KGB officers met "12 or 13 times" in London to discuss business. Three of these meetings occurred between Oct. 15 and Nov. 1, and after each of them Lugovoi flew back to Moscow. Between the last two meetings, Litvinenko flew to Tel Aviv and Lugovoi's associate Kovtun flew to Hamburg. Trails of polonium radioactivity have so far turned up in Hamburg and Moscow. So, the purpose of these trips is part of the mystery.

Finally, there is Boris Berezovsky. Both Litvinenko and Lugovoi worked for him. Litvinenko had been on his payroll in London since his defection in 2000; Lugovoi had helped organize his security in Moscow and recruited ex-KGB men to work with him. Moreover, his London offices showed traces of polonium-210, suggesting Lugovoi and/or Litvinenko might have met with him.

The problem here is not merely catching a murderer—if indeed it was murder—but plugging a leak in the hellish diversion of polonium-210.

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