Jane VaynmanPolonium-210 mysteries continue

I thought I wasn’t going to write another polonium-210 post, but this story just won’t go away. And then I saw this editorial in the Washington Post,which makes some misleading conclusions.

(Note: I am not doing a wrap up, but here is a recap with LOTS of discussion in the comments, and press links on recent news: Litvinenko’s associate Dmitri Kovtun in the hospital, traces detected in Germany, and descriptions of who is who.)

The Washington Post editorial draws a number of conclusions about the case, including the material origin and that Putin’s government is inhibiting the investigation:

IT’S STILL not known how the former Russian KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko came to ingest the deadly dose of polonium-210 that killed him in London last month. But thanks to the radioactive trail left behind by the isotope, some important conclusions about the case are now possible.

First, the polonium was smuggled into Britain from Russia, where most of the known global supply of the intensely toxic substance is produced. Second, the dose was almost certainly carried by one or both of the former Russian security operatives—one of them also a KGB alumnus—whom Mr. Litvinenko met at a London hotel Nov. 1. Finally, the government of Vladimir Putin is making it difficult for British and German investigators to question the suspects, who are now sequestered in Moscow hospitals.

First, I am unclear on the evidence that the polonium-210 has been traced to Russia. There were a couple brief reports about two weeks ago that the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Aldermaston, the British lab studying the radioactive samples, traced it to a Russian reactor, or at least to Russia in general. However, these reports have not reappeared in more recent articles.

While most experts agree that Russia is the most likely origin, matching the polonium to a specific source seems like a difficult task, however traceable it might be. The concept on the tracing is like fingerprinting. You have to have a whole database of fingerprints on file to match the one at the crime scene with the culprit. (For those who have access, Mark Hibbs has a very good article on these issues in Dec. 4 issue of Nuclear Fuel.)

The accusation the Russia is hiding access to the information is again too conclusive. So far, I have read that British agents have been present during interviews of individuals involved with the case, although the questioning was done by Russian authorities. This AP article even says that British and Russian agents questioned one of the men at the hospital where he is being tested for traces of polonium-210.

Putin’s spokesman recently commented on the issue of cooperation:

Asked if British investigators could talk to anyone they like face to face, he said: “No, no we have to act in accordance with Russian laws and the Russian law says that foreign country servicemen can question people in Russia, in the presence and with the help of their counterparts from Russia’s prosecutor general’s office. Can you imagine Russia’s agents coming to London here, and questioning anyone they want? – it’s unimaginable.”

The Russian government could in fact be purposefully making the investigation difficult. However, actions of various Russian bodies on this case could also be interpreted as confused and disorganized, rather than necessarily intentionally secretive. For example, will Russia be testing Aeroflot planes for polonium traces? Who knows, and NYT got a whole range of contradictory responses when they tried to find out:

A Russian government agency said Thursday that it would test several passenger airplanes for traces of the radioactive isotope that killed Alexander V. Litvinenko last month in London, but officials at the state-controlled airline, Aeroflot, said the agency had told them there would be no inspections.

The contradictory, perhaps confused, statements underscored the uncertain response of the Russian authorities in a murder case that the victim, without direct evidence, laid at the feet of President Vladimir V. Putin and the country’s secretive security services.


The director of the agency, which oversees consumer safety protection and is known as Rospotrebnadzor, appeared to contradict statements by Aeroflot officials that the inspections had been called off.


The Interfax news agency later reported that all Aeroflot planes that had flown to Hamburg in October — as many as 20 — were already being tested, citing the agency’s director, Gennadi G. Onishchenko.

The Washington Post editorial also comments on Russian sites as possible sources:

How did a toxic dose of polonium, a substance reportedly produced and held by only three Russian government entities and one private company, come into the hands of people who could smuggle it into Britain?

Reportedly? Where, what government entities, what private company? I looked around and didn’t find any more details. Rather, there have been contradictions in reporting on whether Russia is currently producing polonium. Rosatom head Sergei Kiriyenko said that Russia ships 8 grams of Po-210 to the US monthy, but Ria Novosti quotes a source at the Federal Agency for Nuclear Power saying that the only Russian reactor capable of producing Po-210 was shut down two years ago, and 8 grams were produced from reserves. (With a half life of only 138 days, it seems like you would have had to produced a very large amount in the past order to still have some left over now for regular export. Anyone want to do the math?)

If the Washington Post has some juicy info they would like to share , then please by all means. But in a story that so far makes almost no sense, and with information seems to change daily, maybe hold off on the conclusions for a bit longer?


  1. crosspatch

    I suspect that by “reserves” they mean reserve strategic stockpiles of uranium. You could process those to remove the natural polonium but getting 8 grams in that fashion makes one wonder.

    Maybe they mean processing uranium as it is being mined. In other words, from mineral reserves. I believe the Russian uranium mining production is just about enough to get 8 grams of polonium a month out of it.

  2. Jim (History)

    I think the ideas that the Russian government is dragging their feet, while debatable on some items, are irrefutable in the case of the refusal to allow investigators to question Mikhail Trepashkin.

    Enjoy the increase in Russia related posts under the regime of Jane, btw. Keep up the good work!

  3. James (History)


    Not sure about who’s “holding,” but RIA Novosti reported on 12/7 about what organizations in Russia are licensed to deal with polonium.


  4. James (History)

    Another possibility for the Washington Post’s editorial could be this Slate article: http://www.slate.com/id/2155363/pagenum/2

  5. Jerry (History)

    Could you thoughtful people reflect for a moment, “Why radioactive poisoning?” In the Good Old Days one poisoned an agent with a rare isotope that few could afford or find in order to “sign” the event as a state act. With Litvinenko in London, the Russian government has tried to implicate Russian exiles and we presume they would want to hide their involvement. Second, if one uses radioactivity, then one takes advantage of such poison’s ability to kill surely but so slowly that the time of attack can never be reconstructed. Vomiting the same day? Goodness, this is the wrong dose of a poorly chosen poison. If this was a state-involved execution, then I fear there no country left with competent social institutions.