Sunday, December 03, 2006

Lethal Dose of Polonium Isotope Available for $22.50

This story over at the New York Times suggests that the radioactive isotope that killed Alexander Litvinenko goes for as little as $22.50 a dose, plus tax:

THE trail of clues in the mysterious death of Alexander V. Litvinenko may lead to Moscow, as the former spy claimed on his deathbed. But solving the nuclear whodunit may prove harder than Scotland Yard and many scientists at first anticipated.

The complicating factor is the relative ubiquity of polonium 210, the highly radioactive substance found in Mr. Litvinenko’s body and now in high levels in the body of an Italian associate, who has been hospitalized in London. Experts initially called it quite rare, with some claiming that only the Kremlin had the wherewithal to administer a lethal dose. But public and private inquiries have shown that it proliferated quite widely during the nuclear era, of late as an industrial commodity.

“You can get it all over the place,” said William Happer, a physicist at Princeton who has advised the United States government on nuclear forensics. “And it’s a terrible way to go.”

Today, polonium 210 can show up in everything from atom bombs, to antistatic brushes to cigarette smoke, though in the last case only minute quantities are involved. Iran made relatively large amounts of polonium 210 in what some experts call a secret effort to develop nuclear arms, and North Korea probably used it to trigger its recent nuclear blast.

Commercially, Web sites and companies sell many products based on polonium 210, with labels warning of health dangers. By some estimates, a lethal dose might cost as little as $22.50, plus tax. “Radiation from polonium is dangerous if the solid material is ingested or inhaled,” warns the label of an antistatic brush. “Keep away from children.”

Peter D. Zimmerman, a professor in the war studies department of King’s College, London, said the many industrial uses of polonium 210 threatened to complicate efforts at solving the Litvinenko case. “It’s a great Agatha Christie novel,” he said. “She couldn’t have written anything weirder than this.”

Mr. Litvinenko, 43, a vocal critic of the Russian government, died on Nov. 23 after a traumatic illness in which his organs failed and his hair fell out. As he lay dying, he claimed that he had been poisoned and blamed Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin. The Kremlin dismissed the charge as absurd.

The British authorities soon found that Mr. Litvinenko had died of polonium 210 poisoning in what appeared to be its first use as a murder weapon. Conspiracy theorists said Russia had the motive and means, noting its long history of polonium work, as well as creative assassinations. The recent discovery of traces of radioactivity on British commercial jets flying to and from Russia has heightened the suspicions.

Earlier this week, David Satter published an incisive commentary on the Litivenko murder at the Wall Street Journal. Satter argued that the episode marks a dramatic turn in Russia's relations with the West. See also this piece by Ariel Cohen from Thursday's Washington Times, which stresses a sinister return of Stalinism in the wave of murders of opponents to the Putin regime.

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