Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Polonium Diversion

At least a dozen people have been contaminated by the rare radioactive isotope Polonium 210. The list includes Alexander Litvinenko, the ex-Lieutenant Colonel in the KGB who died from a dose of Polonium 210 in London on November 23rd; Andrei Lugovoi, a former colleague of Litvinenko in the KGB, who met with Litvinenko at the Pine bar of the Millennium Hotel in London the day he became ill, November 1st; Dmitry Kovtun, Lugovoi’s business associate, who also attended that November 1st meetings; 7 employees of the Millennium Hotel; Mario Scaramella, an Italian security consultant, who dined with Litvinenko on November 1st at the Itsu Sushi Restaurant on November 1st (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 November 1st. In addition, tell-tale traces of the same Polonium 210 were detected at Litvinenko’s home and hospital, Lugovoi and Kovtun’s rooms at three luxury hotels they stayed at in London in October and November– the Parkes, Sheraton Park Lane, and Millennium Hotel; a security firm in London called Erinys, where Litvinenko, Lugovoi and Kotvun met on several occasions, a residence in Hamburg, Germany that Kotvun had visited en route to London, two British Airways planes on which Lugovoi flew from Moscow to London in October. and in the offices of billionaire Russian exile Boris Berezovsky. So the trail of the Polonium 210 followed in the steps of three men, Litvinenko, Lugovoi and Kovtun, who were involved in the fall of 2006 in some dealing that required Lugovoi and Kotvun flying back and forth from Moscow.
As Polonium 210 has not been manufactured in Britain for years, and it cannot be stockpiled for long– its half-life is 132 days– the Polonium 210 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 of Polonium that the leakage was occuring October 28th, well before Litvinenko went into the hospital on November 1st. But where did the smuggled Polonium 210 come from?

Polonium 210 is made by bombarding bismuth with neutrons from U-235 (the fuel for atom bombs)in nuclear reactors . Not only is its distribution tightly controlled, but it is very rare. According to Wikepedia, " Only about 100 grams are produced each year.". Virtually all of known production– less than 4 ounces– comes from Russian nuclear reactors/ To keep it from leaking onto the black market, the United States made an arrangement with Russia to import almost all of its production to America. In the US, under tight controls, the Polonium 210 is embedded in plastic or ceramic so it can be safely used in static eliminators. To recapture the Polonium 210 in any toxic qantity would require acquiring over 15,000 static eliminators and using highly-sophisticated extraction technology. Such a large scale acquisition would instantly be noticed.

The reason that the US has gone to such lengths to control Polonium 210 is that if a rogue nation (or terrorist group) obtained access to any quantity of it– even a half-gram– it could use it as an initiator for setting off the chain reaction of a nuclear bomb. For that purpose, the bomb-makers would also have to have a fissile fuel, such as U-235, and Beryllium (which is mixed in layers with the Polonium 210). Even lacking these other ingredients, the Polonium 210, which aerosolizes at about 55 degrees Centigrade, could be used with conventional explosives to make a dirty bomb. So if pure Polonium 210 was smuggled into Britain– as British intelligence now believes– it is of considerable concern. At minimum, it means that there has been a diversion of Polonium 210 from the controlled supply. But where is the leak?
Only 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 smuggled 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 US 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. For one thing, it could be sold to a country that wanted to set off a nuclear device, clean or dirty. So it might be worth a great deal of money on the black market.

Before the mystery of how Litvinenko came in fatal contact with a dose of Polonium 210 can be solved, the relationships he had with his contaminated associates may have to be unravelled. For example:

1. What was the relationship between Litvinenko and Mario Scaramella? According to Scaramella, Litvinenko told him at their November 1st 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?

2. What was the relationship between Litvinenko and Lugovoi. According to Lugovoi, the two former KGB officers, met "12 or 13 times" in London to discuss business, and, in between these meetings he returned to Moscow. In between their meetings in late October, Litvinenko made a quick trip to Israel while Lugovoi’s associate Kovtun flew to Germany. Was this international travel related to their business?

3. What was the relationship between Boris Berezovsky and Litvinenko and Lugovoi? Litvinenko had reportedly been on his payroll in London since his defection in 2000; Lugovoi had helped organize his security in Moscow in the 1990s. His London offices showed traces of Polonium 210. Did Lugovoi and Litvinenko meet with him?

Friday, December 01, 2006

The Polonium Puzzle: The Alternative Hypothesis

Alexander Litvinenko’s died from exposure to radioactive Polonium-210 in London on November 23, 2006. Even though there was too much Polonium 210 in Litvinenko’s body for the radioactive isotope to have occurred naturally, the British health authorities were unable to determine how the man-made substance "entered his body," and with typical British understatement classified it merely as a "suspicious death." The issue remains: how did Litvinenko come in such close proximity to a deadly radioactive isotope.

There are two hypotheses that could account for this fatal Polonium 210 contamination:
1) The murder hypothesis: Someone surreptitiously sprinkled particles of Polonium 210 on his food or in his drink. And Scotland Yard detectives are now proceeding on the allegation that it was murder,
2) The accident hypothesis: Polonium 210 particles escaped from a vial, envelope, or other container that he was carrying.

The media initially fastened on the murder hypothesis after it erroneously reported that Litvinenko had been given the rat poison Thallium and then speculated that the motive for the murder was to prevent him from disclosing information about criminal deeds of the Russian government. Even after it turned out (three weeks later) that the cause of death was not Thallium, but Polonium 210, the murder hypothesis continued to gain traction. Polonium 210, however, has very different attributes from Thallium as a murder weapon. For one thing, unlike Thallium which can kill over night, Polonium 210, takes weeks to kill. (Litvinenko, in fact, lived-- and talked to the media-- for three weeks.) So it is not efficient if the purpose is to silence a victim. Moreover, as the particles persists for months, it leave tell-tale trail of radioactivity, and it can even be traced back to the lab that produced it.

Police investigators traced the Polonium 210 to at least six locations that Litvinenko reportedly visited on November 1st: 1) his own home, 2) the offices of billionaire Russian exile Boris Berezovsky (his sometime employer) 3) the headquarters of business intelligence company Erinys, 4)the Itsu sushi restaurant, where he had lunch with Italian "defense consultant" Mario Scaramella 5) the Millennium hotel, where he with the two Russian businessmen, and finally, 7) the Barnet General Hospital where he was admitted that evening. Two other people also got contaminated with Polonium 210-- Litvinenko's wife Marina and his lunch partner Scaramella. The common link in this contamination patter is Litvinenko. According to the murder theory, the assassin would have had to sprinkle the Polonium onto Litvinenko's food at the earliest contaminated location and Litvinenko himself would have contaminated the subsequent locations with low-level traces of Polonium 210 that oozed out of his body. The problem here is that Scaramella got contaminated at Itsu Sushi-- the only place he met with Litvinenko before he was hospitalized-- which, according to medical experts, could have only came from his exposure to a primary source (and not Litvinenko's secondary oozings), yet the strength of the Polonium 210 at the Millennium Hotel, which Litvinenko visited before going to the Itsu Sushi, reportedly was too strong to have come from Litvinenko's excretions (Daily UK Telegraph December 1,2006). If so, the Polonium 210 container--presumably a vial or envelope-- was present at two of the locations that Litvinenko visited. Since Litvinenko was at both locations, and Scaramella was not, he would be carrier of the container of Polonium 210. In addition, the date that the headquarters of Erinys may have been well before the contamination of the Sushi bar and the hotel. According to Andrei Lugovoi, the ex-KGB associate whom he met with at the Millennium Hotel, "Alexander Litvinenko, my business partner Dmitry Kovtun and I were in London on October 17 at a meeting in the office of (private security company) Erinys." Since traces of Polonium 210 cannot be precisely dated, the contamination of those offices could have occurred two weeks before Litvinenko was poisoned. If so, either Litvinenko or his associates in this unknown business had a container of Polonium 210 in mid-October.

The accident hypothesis , which also has problems, would explain the radiation from a primary source being found at two locations, as well as the radiation traces that predated Litvinenko's poisoning at the Eryns offices and the British Airlines plane. In this alternative theory, the radiation came from a vial of smuggled Polonium 210, which suffered undetectable damage or some spillage from transferring it from one vial to another. The leakage onto Litvinenko's clothing may have occurred as early as October (accounting for the undated traces in offices and planes). Then, according to the accident hypothesis, some particles would have been ingested by Litvinenko, his wife Marina, and Scaramella. Why would Litvinenko or his associates have a sample of Polonium 210?
The answer is thar Polonium 210 is a valuable commodity in any sizable quantity. Among its more nefarious uses, it can be used to control a chain-reaction in an early-stage clandestine nuclear weapons programs. Iraq, for example, in 1990 had investigated using polonium 210, as an initiator for a crude U-235 bomb. ( Polonium 210 traces were also found by IAEA inspectors on Iranian nuclear components in 2000. ). It may be relevant here that Mario Scaramella told authorities that Litvinenko’s past interests had included the "smuggling of nuclear material out of Russia." (In 1999, he was jailed for eight months in Lefortovo Prison in Moscow before the charges were dropped.) He might have a host of reasons for possessing a sample of Polonium 210, ranging from establishing the bona fides of someone claiming to have access to a Russian nuclear facility to investigating the traffic in components for nukes. He (or his associates) might also be acting as an intermediary in its sale.

At this stage, either hypothesis is possible. Why rush to judgment before the results of the inquest?