Reactor hunt for polonium in dissident death

13 December 2006

Following the untimely death of Viktor Litvinenko on 23 November it has emerged that his demise was as a result of acute poisoning having been administered with a fatal dose of the radioactive isotope polonium 210.

The investigation is now focusing on a trail of the material across half the globe, with Moscow heavily implicated in the dissident’s apparent assassination.

Traces of the material have been located in a number of London locations visited by Litvinenko on 1 November, the day he fell ill, and a number of workers at those locations have also been revealed to have been exposed to the element. Furthermore, a least two British Airways jets used between Moscow and London have been contaminated as well as a number of locations in Germany, most of which have reportedly been traced to Russian citizens who met with Litvinenko on 1 November.

While speculation over the death of the former intelligence agent focuses on his vocal criticism of the Kremlin regime, identifying a chemical link between the polonium and its source within a reactor remains the most compelling and, so far intractable, evidence sought by the authorities.

Polonium 210, which has a half life of around 138 days, is manufactured through neutron bombardment of bismuth 209, although other methods may be used to produce the material, for instance through chemical extraction. It has a number of industrial applications, for example in eliminating static electricity, but is not widely available in large quantities.

Detectives hope to determine when the sample was manufactured through examination of its decay products while other analytical techniques may reveal further details of the facilities used. Ultimately, the use of polonium 210 appears to indicate a sophisticated approach by some well-connected and determined assailants with access to a reactor. UK detectives aim to determine which one.


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