This morning I blogged an article from the Guardian connecting the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko with the trade in poorly guarded nuclear materials from the former Soviet Union. Given the half-life of Polonium, over the course of the day as the situation was dicussed further in the media, this scenario was beginning not to seem very plausible.
The New Scientist reports a different possible source of the lethal dose of Polonium, remarking that Polonium is usually made by bombarding the element Bismuth with neutrons:
To poison someone, polonium would most likely have been chemically combined in some type of dissolvable salt, for example polonium nitrate, experts told New Scientist. In this form the material could easily have been added to his food and ingested.
Polonium is a radioactive element that is used industrially as an anti-static material. It is difficult to get hold of and not used regularly by research scientists, but very small traces of it occur naturally. The metal is usually made by bombarding the element bismuth with neutrons.
"To poison someone, large amounts of polonium-210 are required and this would have to be manmade, perhaps from a particle accelerator or a nuclear reactor," said Dudley Goodhead at the UK's MRC Radiation and Genome Stability Unit.
The online description of a 1972 article, Investigation of the purification of black bismuth from polonium, gives a little more detail:
Title Investigation of the purification of black bismuth from polonium.
Creator/Author Kirgintsev, A.N. ; Koslyakov, V.I. ; Prokhorov, L.A. ; Aloi, A.S. ; Selivanov, I.M.
Publication Date 1972 Jan 01 . . .
Resource Relation Sov. Radiochem. (Engl. Transl.) ;14: No. 2, 307-312(1972).; Translated from Radiokhimiya;14: No. 2, 296-302(1972).
Subject N40420 --Chemistry--Radiochemistry & Nuclear Chemistry--Properties of Radioactive Materials; ALPHA PARTICLES;BISMUTH;CRYSTALLIZATION;IMPURITIES;POLONIUM;POLONIUM 210;PURIFICATION;SEPARATION PROCESSES;ZONE MELTING
Related Subject POLONIUM ISOTOPES Po-210/content in black bismuth;POLONIUM/separation of bismuth from, by direct crystallization and zone melting;BISMUTH/purification from polonium by direct crystallization and zone melting;BISMUTH/polonium-210 content in black
Sounds like something not to try at home. (For starters, where are you going to keep your particle accelerator? In the fridge? Next to the sushi, right?)
Interestingly, the IAEA notes circa 2004 produced and recovered polonium by irradiating bismuth as a component of Iraq's nuclear program. The report does not give a time frame for this. There have also been more recent reports that Iran is producing Polonium 210 at the Lavizan II military site.
AN ODD BUT IRRELEVANT DETAIL: Polonium apparently has a special significance for Creationists.
SEE ALSO PART 2 OF HOW TO MAKE POLONIUM.