Chapter 11. Bop Shaplen’s thyroid cancer did not cause his death but a high dose of radiation killed him.
Episode 44. Possible motivation for using polonium-210 – “Litvinenko drank. Not much, but enough for him to die in agony three weeks later “
- Evidence and analysis.
- “A message has been communicated to anyone who wants to speak out against the Kremlin…. If you do, no matter who you are, where you are, we will find you, and we will silence you, in the most horrible way possible.” (Text 1.)
- “…Scientists estimate that the equivalent of between 0.1-0.3 GBq or more of polonium absorbed into the blood of an adult male would be likely to be fatal within one month.15 ” (Text 1.)
- “Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, slipped a colourless, odourless substance into his tea. Litvinenko drank. Not much, but enough for him to die in agony three weeks later in University College hospital. ” (Text 2.)
- Documents used for research.
Poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko
Sources and production of polonium
A freelance killer would probably not be able to manufacture polonium from commercially available products in the amounts used for Litvinenko’s poisoning, because more than microscopic amounts of polonium can only be produced in state-regulated nuclear reactors.
Ninety seven percent of the world’s legal polonium-210 (210Po) production occurs in Russia in RBMK reactors. About 85 grams (450,000 Ci) are produced by Russia annually. According to Sergei Kiriyenko, the head of Russia’s state atomic energy agency, RosAtom, all of it goes to U.S. companies through a single authorized supplier. The production of polonium starts from bombardment of bismuth (209Bi) with neutrons at the Ozersk nuclear reactor, near the city of Chelyabinsk in Russia. The product is then transferred to the Avangard Electromechanical Plant in the closed city of Sarov. This of course does not exclude the possibility that the polonium that killed Litvinenko was imported by a licensed commercial distributor, but no one—including the Russian government—has proposed that this is likely, particularly in regard to the radiation detected on the British Airways passenger jets travelling between Moscow and London. Russian investigators have said they could not identify the source of polonium.
Polonium-210 has a half-life of 138 days and decays to the stable daughter isotope of lead, 206Pb. Therefore the source is reduced to about one sixteenth of its original radioactivity about 18 months after production. By measuring the proportion of polonium and lead in a sample, one can establish the production date of polonium. The analysis of impurities in the polonium (a kind of “finger print”) allows identification of the place of production. It is assumed by Litvinenko’s wife and his close confidant that British investigators were able to identify the place and time of production of polonium used to poison Litvinenko, but their findings remain unpublished.
Possible motivation for using polonium-210
Philip Walker, professor of physics at the University of Surrey said: “This seems to have been a substance carefully chosen for its ability to be hard to detect in a person who has ingested it.” Oleg Gordievsky, the most senior KGB agent ever to defect to Britain, made a similar comment that Litvinenko’s assassination was carefully prepared and rehearsed by Russian secret services, but the poisoners were unaware that technology existed to detect traces left by polonium-210: “Did you know that polonium-210 leaves traces? I didn’t. And no one did. …what they didn’t know was that this equipment, this technology exists in the West – they didn’t know that, and that was where they miscalculated.”
Nick Priest, a nuclear scientist and expert on polonium who has worked at most of Russia’s nuclear research facilities, says that although the execution of the plot was a “bout of stupidity”, the choice of polonium was a “stroke of genius”. He says: “the choice of poison was genius in that polonium, carried in a vial in water, can be carried in a pocket through airport screening devices without setting off any alarms”, adding, “once administered, the polonium creates symptoms that don’t suggest poison for days, allowing time for the perpetrator to make a getaway.” Priest asserts that “whoever did it was probably not an expert in radiation protection, so they probably didn’t realize how much contamination you can get just by opening the top (of the vial) and closing it again. With the right equipment, you can detect just one count per second”.
Filmmaker and friend of Litvinenko, Andrei Nekrasov, has suggested that the poison was “sadistically designed to trigger a slow, tortuous and spectacular demise”. Expert on Russia Paul Joyal suggested that “A message has been communicated to anyone who wants to speak out against the Kremlin…. If you do, no matter who you are, where you are, we will find you, and we will silence you, in the most horrible way possible”.
Main article: Alexander Litvinenko assassination theories
Many theories of Litvinenko poisoning circulated after his death. Many circumstances led to suspicion that he was killed by the Russian secret service. Viktor Ilyukhin, a deputy chairman of the Russian Parliament’s security committee for the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, said that he “can’t exclude that possibility” He apparently referred to a recent Russian counter-terrorism law that gives the President the right to order such actions. An investigator of the Russian apartment bombings, Mikhail Trepashkin wrote in a letter from prison that an FSB team had organised in 2002 to kill Litvinenko. He also reported FSB plans to kill relatives of Litvinenko in Moscow in 2002, although these have not been carried out. State Duma member Sergei Abeltsev commented on 24 November 2006: said: “The deserved punishment reached the traitor. I am confident that this terrible death will be a serious warning to traitors of all colors, wherever they are located: In Russia, they do not pardon treachery. I would recommend citizen Berezovsky to avoid any food at the commemoration for his accomplice Litvinenko.”
Many publications in Russian media suggested that the death of Litvinenko was connected to Boris Berezovsky. Former FSB chief Nikolay Kovalyov, for whom Litvinenko worked, said that the incident “looks like [the] hand of Berezovsky. I am sure that no kind of intelligence services participated.” This involvement of Berezovsky was alleged by numerous Russian television shows.
An explanation put forward by the Russian Government appeared to be that the deaths of Litvinenko and Politkovskaya were intended to embarrass President Putin. Other theories included involvement of rogue FSB members or suggestions that Litvinenko was killed because of his research of certain Russian corporations or state officials, or as a political intrigue to undermine president Putin.
A business partner of Andrey Lugovoy.
The Times stated that the police have identified the man they believe may have poisoned Litvinenko with a fatal polonium dose in a cup of tea on the fourth-floor room at the Millennium Hotel to discuss a business deal with Dmitry Kovtun and Andrey Lugovoy before going to the bar. These three men were joined in the room later by the mystery figure who was introduced as Vladislav, a man, who could help Litvinenko win a lucrative contract with a Moscow-based private security firm.
How dangerous is polonium-210?
Hydrogen cyanide is well known to be highly poisonous, but in terms of the amount of power to its punch, it is far less toxic than polonium-210. Matched milligram for milligram, the radioactive isotope is several orders of magnitude more toxic.8
Polonium is one of the most toxic substances known6 – and estimated to be 250 billion times more toxic than hydrocyanic acid (hydrogen cyanide dissolved in water, as used in fumigation).11
Toxicologists estimate that one gram of polonium could be enough to kill 50 million people, on top of another 50 million who would become ill, and that in the case of Litvinenko, less than one millionth of that amount would have been enough to cause his death (less than a microgram).8
How could an assassin use polonium-210 for poisoning?
Clearly, polonium-210 is extremely dangerous – but it is also extremely difficult to obtain in the first place. Its commercial application onto devices that remove static is done was such a way that it would not be feasible to separate the polonium for use as a poison.9,12
Even buying pure polonium from legitimate sources would not be feasible since it is sold in such tiny quantities – 15,000 orders would have to be placed to enable enough for poisoning.9,12
Once somehow acquired, probably from a nuclear industrial process, polonium is not particularly dangerous to carry around, however – because its high-energy radiation can be blocked by a relatively thin barrier for a radioactive material, including by skin. Alpha particles usually lose all their energy after traveling through air for just a few centimeters.11,13
Added to the way in which the high energy of alpha radiation is dumped so quickly and damagingly, the way in which polonium can be transported easily and safely without detection is perhaps one of the attractions of its potential as a poison.
On the question of who was behind Alexander Litvinenko’s murder by polonium poisoning, the perpetrator would have needed access to “a reactor capable of producing and irradiating materials, and a radiochemical laboratory,” according to quotes in New Scientist from Professor Nick Priest, one of few UK experts to have worked with polonium-210.3
Once produced in a nuclear reactor, the radioactive isotope needs to reach the intended target of poisoning comparatively quickly.
The 138 days for polonium-210 to lose half of its radioactivity means that the specimen used to kill Litvinenko would need to have been made relatively recently.9,11
Finally, when polonium-210 has reached its target, the poison must be introduced into the body to do its fatal damage internally.8,11
The high-energy alpha particles are harmless externally – they are blocked by a few sheets of paper, or the top layer of the skin, the epidermis. But deadly tissue damage can be done via:8,13
- Ingestion, or
- Entry through skin abrasions or wounds.
Alexander Litvinenko was polonium-poisoned by ingestion – via a cup of tea, which would have hidden the heat generated by the radioisotope.
…Polonium is a group 1 carcinogen – that is, it is known to cause cancer, rather than merely suspected to.6 When inhaled, for example, polonium-210 causes lung cancer.13
Environmental levels of polonium are extremely low and harmless to human health, and very low levels of the substance are found naturally in the body (tobacco plants concentrate the radioisotope though – so smokers have higher levels).1
Insufficient amounts of polonium, however, alpha radiation can be lethal within days or weeks, with different organs and tissues greatly varying in their sensitivity to the alpha radiation damage. Most sensitive is the blood-making (hematopoietic) tissue in the bone marrow, and the lining of the gut is also vulnerable.8
The bone marrow failure is accompanied by damage to other organs where polonium-210 concentrations are high, so that rescuing the bone marrow may not be enough to save someone – the failure of other organs can prove fatal.15
…Scientists estimate that the equivalent of between 0.1-0.3 GBq or more of polonium absorbed into the blood of an adult male would be likely to be fatal within one month.15
Diagnosis and tests for polonium poisoning
The problem with polonium-210 poisoning is that there would need to be suspicion of the radioactive isotope being responsible for a case of illness before it could be specifically tested, which requires special equipment generally found in specialized laboratories.13
Lessons learned since 2006 – given by experts in preparedness for the potential threat of nuclear terrorism – outline that not all standard Geiger-Muller radiation detectors can identify the alpha radiation of polonium.8
Special wands or sensor attachments are usually needed for detectors, say the experts at the American Academy of Clinical Toxicology, adding that screening would need to be routine, rather than relying on what tends to be a low diagnostic suspicion for an event of polonium poisoning (there was a delay in diagnosing Litvinenko).8
Signs and symptoms of polonium poisoning
The signs and symptoms of poisoning by polonium depend on the dose of exposure, but if this is high enough, acute radiation syndrome (ARS) will follow.17
The course of ARS is accelerated in line with the quantity of polonium that was used to poison the person,17 and with the subsequent level of radiation absorbed by their tissues, measured in Gy units.16
Absorbed radiation levels above 0.7 Gy trigger acute radiation syndrome, with three or four phases.17
Typical of all forms of acute radiation syndrome are vomiting followed by hair loss and bone marrow failure, and these features presenting without another explanation should alert emergency doctors to the possibility of polonium poisoning.17
The first, prodromal, phase may appear anytime from minutes to days after the poisoning, producing:8,17
- Nausea and vomiting
- Lowered white blood cell count (lymphopenia)
- Sometimes diarrhea.
British inquiry into Litvinenko’s death
The UK’s Litvinenko inquiry is opening public hearings in London in January 2015. It has published the aims of its investigation into the death of Alexander Litvinenko – to:5
“Ascertain…who the deceased was; how, when and where he came by his death”
“Identify…where responsibility for the death lies”
“Make such recommendations as may seem appropriate.”
Written by Markus MacGill
Polonium-210: the hard-to-detect poison that killed Alexander Litvinenko
Just a few milligrams of the highly radioactive isotope found in Yasser Arafat’s body is a lethal dose
Luke Harding and Ian Sample
Wednesday 6 November 2013
Seven years ago the Kremlin critic and ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko met two Russians in a London hotel. What happened next was one of the most brazen assassinations of modern times. According to British prosecutors, Litvinenko’s companions, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, slipped a colourless, odourless substance into his tea. Litvinenko drank. Not much, but enough for him to die in agony three weeks later in University College hospital.
The substance was polonium-210, a rare and highly radioactive isotope that a Swiss team has discovered in Yasser Arafat’s exhumed corpse. It is extremely hard to detect. Scientists only identified it in Litvinenko hours before his death. A former FSB officer, and teetotaller, Litvinenko was a fitness fanatic. Doctors say it was only because he was in such good shape that he lasted so long. If he had died sooner, the cause of death would probably never have been uncovered.
Polonium-210 occurs at very low levels naturally, but is manufactured for use by industrial plants to prevent the buildup of static electricity.
It is an effective and convenient poison. It emits pure alpha particles, which outside the body can be stopped by a sheet of tissue paper. But if ingested, it causes widespread damage as it passes into organs. The radiation releases energy that creates reactive particles called free radicals. These in turn form toxic compounds that are deadly to surrounding cells.
Because polonium emits only alpha particles, it can be safely carried in glass vials and will not set off radiation detectors at airports. Once ingested, it is hard to detect, because all the radiation remains in the body. A lethal dose could be as little as a few milligrams, which could be administered as a powder or dissolved in liquid.