From polonium to plutonium – The poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko

Materials World magazine
1 Feb 2007

Like the radioactive element itself, the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, is an affair which is pervasive and persistent - accounts of polonium contamination of even more London restaurants and aeroplanes still occupy many column inches in the press. However, the fact that Russian citizens cannot be extradited to give evidence or stand trial makes it highly unlikely that the person(s) responsible for the crime will be identified and tried.


Here I wish to concentrate on some disturbing implications of the ‘Litvinenko Affair', but first some more background information - polonium has no less than 27 isotopes, more than any other element in the periodic table, and these are all radioactive with half lives varying from a fraction of a second to 103 years. There have been rather mysterious reports of polonium migrating under its own volition - it certainly has the ability to contaminate large areas.

At Harwell, UK, during the development of the atom bomb, whenever experiments were to be carried out on polonium, a general warning was given of the possibility of widespread contamination. In the past, polonium has been used in industry to remove static electricity generated in paper mills and in the manufacture of sheet plastics. A member of our Institute, Mrs Sheila Wright, has written to tell me that in the early 1950s she assisted W E Ballard carry out experiments at his home (!) to study the effect on metal spraying processes of ionising the air stream with polonium. She added that as she is now in her 70s the health precautions she had taken when conducting these experiments must have been effective.

The poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko

The death of Alexander Litvinenko is the first recorded case of deliberate poisoning with polonium, though there is evidence that in 1946 the elder daughter of Madame Curie, Irène Joliot-Curie, inhaled some of the element when a capsule of polonium exploded in her laboratory - her death from leukaemia a decade later has been attributed to this accident.

Deaths from polonium leap into the many thousands when one considers the increased exposure to radon experienced by miners leading to sickness and death. The internal damage is not due to radon itself but caused by the fact that its decay product is polonium, which deposits on the lining of the lungs and other organs where its alpha emissions can cause fatal damage.

London has become known as ‘Moscow on Thames' or ‘Londonograd' because so many Russians have moved to our capital city, most of whom enriched themselves during the economic shambles of the Yeltsin years. London is attractive because the UK does not generally tax the income of foreign residents, provided the wealth or activity which generates the income remains abroad. Moreover, the free-spending Russian émigrés no doubt feel at home within the affluent ambience of contemporary London society. But Russia is rife with crime where assassinations to further political, commercial or merely criminal aims are commonplace and Mafia-like influences abound. That the Litvinenko affair might be the start of such crimes being imported into our capital city is the first of our principal worries.

A more grave cause for concern is the strong possibility that the polonium was stolen from one of Russia's ‘Secret Closed Nuclear Cities'. There have in fact been reports of the theft of polonium from Sarov, the USSR's ‘Los Alamos'. If lawlessness reigns and the element is freely available on the Russian black market, then this raises fresh fears concerning the security of those other nuclear materials - plutonium and highly enriched uranium. Should either of these fissile materials fall into terrorist hands then we really would have something to fear.