Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lethal Polonium-210 Might Be Russian

ReutersA forensic tent erected outside Litvinenko's house in London on Saturday.
The polonium-210 that doctors believe killed former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko could have come from Russia, but it will be difficult for investigators to pinpoint blame for the death even if the origin of the radioactive substance is determined, nuclear experts said.

Coming after the mysterious poisoning of another prominent opponent of the Kremlin, Ukrainian politician Viktor Yushchenko, the death provoked accusations that Russia continues to use Cold War-style tactics to eliminate critics abroad. London was the scene of the 1978 assassination of a Bulgarian dissident who was killed by a jab from an umbrella tip bearing the toxin ricin.

Polonium-210 is one of the world's rarest elements, first discovered in the 19th century by scientists Marie and Pierre Curie. The alpha rays emitted by polonium are extremely hard to detect, and a fatal dose of the element could have rapidly penetrated his bone marrow without raising immediate suspicion.

Polonium occurs naturally in very low concentrations in the Earth's crust, and small amounts -- but not enough to kill someone -- are used legitimately in Britain and elsewhere for industrial purposes. Professor Dudley Goodhead, a radiation expert at the Medical Research Council, said that "to poison someone, much larger amounts are required, and this would have to be man-made, perhaps from a particle accelerator or a nuclear reactor."

That means the polonium used to poison Litvinenko probably came from a country with a significant nuclear program, experts said. With several nuclear research facilities, Russia fits the bill -- and it also has a major space program, another sector in which the element has been used. "There are many laboratories in Russia where it could be produced," said Vladimir Slivyak, a nuclear expert and co-chairman of the Russian environmental group Ecodefense.

Alexander Pikayev, a senior analyst with the Moscow-based Institute for Global Economy and International Relations, said the polonium isotope would be "much easier" to acquire than weapons-grade plutonium or highly enriched uranium because it is not considered weapons-grade.

Pikayev said that if a Russian intelligence agency had wanted to kill Litvinenko, it would have been foolish to use polonium because its source could probably be traced.

Slivyak also said British authorities might have a good chance of determining where the polonium was produced. But he argued that the information would be far short of proof of a plot in the country of origin because the substance could have been acquired on the black market. If the Federal Security Service, or FSB, wanted to use polonium to kill someone, "from the point of the view of the FSB it would be better not to bring it from Russia but to buy it on the black market in Europe" to avoid leaving a trail, Slivyak said.

Conversely, he said, a country of origin other than Russia would not rule out Russian involvement.

John Henry, a toxicologist who examined Litvinenko before his death, said the type of polonium involved was "only found in government-controlled institutions." Henry said polonium-210 was lethal in doses so small, "you can lose it on the point of a pin." Henry, who took part in the investigation of the 2004 poisoning of Yushchenko, then opposition leader and now Ukraine's president, said that polonium-210 "kills cell by cell" and that once it is administered, there's "absolutely nothing" that can be done to save the exposed person.

Britain's Health Protection Agency said the high level of polonium-210 found in Litvinenko indicated that he "would either have to have eaten it, inhaled it or taken it in through a wound."

(AP, WP)