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?