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How to Make Polonium

Litvinenko's Death & the Market for Stolen Nuclear Materials

The Alexander Litvinenko is going somewhere really interesting: into the shadowy market for stolen nuclear materials. From the Guardian: Spy death linked to nuclear thefts [link fixed]

An investigation was under way last night into Russia's black market trade in radioactive materials amid concern that significant quantities of polonium 210, the substance that killed former spy Alexander Litvinenko, are being stolen from poorly protected Russian nuclear sites

As British police drew up a list of witnesses for questioning over the death, experts warned that thefts from nuclear facilities in the former Soviet Union were a major problem.

A senior source at the United Nations nuclear inspectorate, the International Atomic Energy Agency, told The Observer he had no doubt that the killing of Litvinenko was an 'organised operation' which bore all the hallmarks of a foreign intelligence agency. The expert in radioactive materials said the ability to obtain polonium 210 and the knowledge needed to use it to kill Litvinenko meant that the attack could not have been carried out by a 'lone assassin'.  . . .

In 1993 the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists reported that 10kg of polonium had disappeared from the Sarov, which produces the rare radioactive material and is described as Russia's own version of Los Alamos, the US government's nuclear research base in New Mexico.

Given the halflife of Polonium, there is an interesting story problem here: If X amount of Polonium was stolen on a specific date, how much would be left as of the time of Litvinenko's poisoning? (I don't think we've been told yet how much Scotland Yard thinks he was given, but from the sound of the news story, his assassins didn't just grind up the foil from anti-static brushes and feed it to him.)

Also, it would be interesting to make a map of sites from which Polonium is known to have been stolen along with dates and quantities. Hmmm....

AN INTERESTING ASIDE: A surf through pubmed.gov suggests that the main vector of Polonium 210 in the the human diet (not delivered by assassins) is caribou, reindeer, & moose meat, and beef cattle that graze near urnanium mining operations. There are also lots of cold-war era articles about Polonium 210 being found in the blood and urine of uranium miners of various countries.