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Polonium-210 and other Assassination Poisons

The practice of assassination spans the gap between individual deaths and use of weapons of mass destruction; while assassins normally murder one or two people at a time, they sometimes use chemical, biological and radiological warfare agents (by definition, a poison is a chemical or biotoxic agent, even though the point is not often made).

In December of 2006, former Russian intelligence operative Aleksandr Litvinenko was murdered by what proved to be ingestion of polonium-210, (Table of the Nuclides entry on Polonium-210 (courtesy Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute), showing the particles it emits during radioactive decay and other pertinent information) a costly and rare radioactive isotope normally available only in lethal quantities in nations with heavy water reactors (with only a few exceptions, these would be nations with nuclear weapons production facilities because of polonium 210's usefulness in manufacture of nuclear weapons). Scientists familiar with his case estimate from the time it took Litvinenko to die after onset of symptoms and the amounts of the isotope detected that he absorbed a microgram (1/1,000,000 of a gram) of polonium-210.

Polonium-210 emits alpha radiation, which is not dangerous unless taken internally. Once inside the body, though, polonium-210 seeks out the spleen and liver. Depending on how large a dose is taken in, polonium-210 can kill within days to years by causing various cancers. Irene Joliot-Curie is thought to be the first person to die from the radiation effects of polonium. She died in the 1950s, ten years after a sealed capsule of the element exploded on her laboratory bench. Between 1957 and 1969, several laboratory workers also died in Israel after exposure to trace quantities of polonium-210 from leaks at the Weizmann Institute laboratory in 1957.

The problem with polonium-210 is that it emits a LOT of alpha radiation, and each alpha particle emitted by polonium-210 decay is expelled with a very high energy - which can cause even tiny amounts of the substance to disperse throughout its surroundings, eventually entering the air bystanders breathe and the surfaces that they touch.

Polonium-210 is infamously difficult to contain safely in the laboratory environment, probably explaining how the material which killed Litvinenko also managed to contaminate locations throughout London and multiple aircraft. Adequate precautions against dispersal of polonium-210 into the environment after a poisoning would have been impossible to take without immediately arousing suspicion.

Finally, as polonium concentrates in liver and spleen rather than being distributed more evenly throughout the human body, a little of it goes a long way. The comments in the news media about "a large amount" of polonium being necessary to kill someone are somewhat misleading - as I stated earlier, British medical authorities and scientists estimate that only a millionth of a gram was required to kill Litvinenko.

While this is a lot of polonium-210 by commercial standards (United Nuclear here in the United States sells safe, fairly innocuous "exempt quantities" of polonium-210 to anyone with US$69 for 0.1 microcuries of activity - which is about 0.18 trillionths of a gram of the isotope), one suspects that the stuff doesn't cost anywhere near as much to make as it sells for. And the Russians are getting it wholesale. Anyway, nobody's going to tell the President of the Russian Republic "Volodya, do you have any idea how much a lethal dose of that stuff COSTS? Why can't we just put a .22 bullet in his brain pan?"

Then again, Russia exports about 8 grams of polonium-210 a month to the US, or eight MILLION times the amount that killed Litvinenko. It is not difficult to imagine how, with a flow of that much material, a microgram or two could be diverted without tripping too many alarms - especially since the Russian mafiya has a very large and influential presence in the "closed cities" which comprise the Russian nuclear industry. It would not be particularly surprising if the security system which was so expensively procured for the Russian nuclear program by the United States has largely or even completely been infiltrated and co-opted by the mafiya to allow profitable diversions of many special nuclear materials.


Aleksandr Litvinenko was a vocal critic of Russian president Vladimir Putin, having accused Putin of complicity in the murder of a Russian woman journalist and assorted other mopery and dopery. He had met with another former Russian security operative just before falling ill - a man who is now himself contaminated with polonium-210, as is Mrs. Litvinenko. While neither of the latter two is probably going to die soon, their chances of expiring from cancer ten years from now are, unfortunately, excellent.

Another prominent Russian critic of Putin's, politician and economist Yegor Gaidar, also fell ill in Ireland not long after Litvinenko and is in hospital in Russia at this time. Mr. Gaidar is not thought to have ingested polonium-210. He and his daughter have publicly stated their belief that opponents of the Putin administration are responsible for his poisoning. I will discuss that theory later.

Poison is a traditional means for the Russian government to deal with people that it finds troublesome. Among several other methods tried in desperation, cyanide crystals sprinkled on the frosting of a cake were used in an attempt to kill the cultist monk Grigori Rasputin during the reign of Tsar Nikolai II just before the Revolution.

After the revolution and throughout the history of the Soviet Union, Soviet security services used poison to murder dissidents and defectors when more direct methods were not practical.

The US Central Intelligence Agency has also used poison in assassination attempts, at least twice to try to kill Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. Also, CIA pilots and other spies were sometimes given extremely rapid-acting poison darts to allow them to commit suicide rather than be captured in enemy territory - the U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers had to warn his KGB captors to be careful in handling a hollowed-out coin containing a lethally-poisoned needle which was confiscated from him shortly after he was shot down by Soviet anti-air missiles.

The range of these poisons is impressive - from relatively simple inorganic poisons such as arsenic and thallium to highly-toxic biotoxins extracted from the glands of puffer fish, and at least two types of radioactive material chosen for their rapid decay, intense radioactivity, rapid concentration in vital organs, and elimination from the body, making a diagnosis of poisoning very difficult unless the use of radioactives was suspected.

Did Putin order the assassination? Is it a red herring (no pun intended)?

Litvinenko's death seems a very cruel and cynical act, since polonium-210 is so expensive and difficult to obtain in lethal quantities that it virtually amounts to a "signature hit" pointing to Russia (or another country with an active nuclear weapons program). Who besides the Russians would want to see Litvinenko dead badly enough to use a million dollars' worth of a highly specialized radioisotope to kill him? We in the US might peel that much money off the roll to kill Osama bin Laden, and getting Zawahiri may have cost somewhere in that neighborhood when you figure in the airstrikes, the intelligence operation, the cost of overrunning his compound... but even if we were in the business of killing overseas dissidents, we probably wouldn't go to that expense to do it.

Was Litvinenko's murder authorized by Vladimir Putin - or are we seeing an impressively realistic campaign to destabilize Russia and destroy relations between the Putin administration and the West?

The simplest and most plausible explanation is that this assassination and the ones that came before it were and are official acts of the Russian state. Their unsubtlety and arrogance may reflect basic differences in power psychology between Russia and the West, or even stability issues within the Russian leadership.

Vladimir Putin has stated publicly that the fall of the Soviet Union was "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century." We must assume that he is interested in returning Russia to the status quo ante 1990 - if not Communist by ideology, certainly an authoritarian government with what we would consider an expansionist foreign policy (as demonstrated by the attempted assassination in 2004 of the democratically-elected president of the Ukraine in an apparent attempt to prevent that country from moving away from Russian hegemony).

Certainly, the public utterances of leadership figures in Russia are veering away from conciliation with the West lately. An increasingly anti-Western and anti-American bias in the Russian print and electronic media is troubling. Much more troubling than what Putin and company are saying, though, is what they are doing. Despite assurances to the contrary, Russia seems to be supplying Iran with an increasing flow of nuclear technology. Without Russian assistance, Iran would never have gotten as far as it has already toward a fully-functional nuclear weapons production program.

The ugly truth is that assassination may be one of the signs that the world is sliding into another worldwide conflict - it may be up to the historians to decide exactly when World War III began.

A short and sketchy list of poisons used in assassination and other covert operations:

KGB/FSB (Russian spy and secret police agencies)

cyanide (Lev Rebet, 1957)
radiothallium (Nikolay Khokhlov, 1955)
Polonium-210 (Litvinenko, 2006)
2,3,7,8-TCDD (Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin with alpha-fetoprotein) (Viktor Yuschenko, pres. Ukraine, 2004; Yury Shchekochikin, ed. Novaya Gazeta, 2003?)
ricin (Georgi Markov, 1978, London; another Bulgarian defector in Paris)
atropine (Radio Free Europe - placed in salt shakers on cafeteria tables, 1960s)

US Central Intelligence Agency

tetrodotoxin/fugu toxin (suicide devices for secret agents and spy pilots)
nicotine (Castro assassination attempt)
thallium powder inside wet suit (Castro assassination attempt)
ipecac (OSS, against Japanese Army during World War II)


arsenic (traditional)
thallium (movie:"Handbook for Young Poisoners," after British serial poisoner '60s and '70s, and a more recent Florida case)
hydrazine (late 1970s, a cancer research lab technician's murder attempt on family)
cyanide (Tylenol tampering case, 1980s)
salmonella (the Rajneeshi cult's attempt to sway a local election in Washington state by lowering the turnout among people who didn't belong to the cult - the idea was to give everyone in town food poisoning)
insulin overdose (a favorite of serial killers in intensive care units and long-term care facilities)
succinylcholine (a drug normally used by anesthetists to suppress muscle spasm during surgery and other medical procedures)

anthrax (biological terror by mail campaign, fall 2001, US)
sarin nerve gas (Aum Shinrikyo Supreme Truth cult subway attack, Tokyo, 1992; Iraqi terrorists, 2005)

Carey Sublette, author of the Nuclear Weapon Archive, has published an interesting analysis of the Litvinenko murder:

Since Mr. Sublette has researched nuclear weapons and related issues extensively (and polonium-210 is used for, among other things, neutron sources to increase the efficiency of nuclear weapons) his views on the origin and quantity of the polonium-210 used in the Litvinenko hit are worth reading.

Mr. Sublette estimated in a post to the USENET newsgroup alt.war.nuclear that far from the million-dollar plus figure mentioned for the quantity of polonium-210 needed to induce Mr. Litvinenko's rapid death, the necessary quantity would have been contained in about $4,000 worth of consumer-grade "Staticmaster" antistatic brushes made for cleaning of phonograph records. (see for corroborative details)

Mr. Sublette's post:

"Chris wrote:


$10 Million Worth of Polonium Used to Poison Former Russian Agent Litvinenko - Paper

Created: 18.12.2006 13:26 MSK (GMT +3), Updated: 13:26 MSK, 4 hours 28 minutes ago...

British investigators on Litvinenko`s case believe the radioactive substance used to poison former FSB agent cost in excess of 10 million U.S. Dollars, The Times newspaper reported on Monday.

Preliminary results from the post mortem on Litvinenko's body have discovered he was given more than ten times the lethal dose of polonium 210. Large quantities of the radioactive substance were found in his urine.

"You can't buy this much off the internet or steal it from a laboratory without raising an alarm, so the only two plausible explanations for the source are that it was obtained from a nuclear reactor or very well-connected black market smugglers," said an anonymous British security source.'

On Nov. 24, the day the polonium poisoning was announced, I estimated in my post to this newsgroup (Fri, Nov 24 2006 6:29 pm): "I think that 50 millicuries is about the right dose for the observed effect (there are 4490 curies/g for Po-210), this would be 11 micrograms. This about 200 times the amount in a StaticmasterŽ Brushes:"

Anyone reading this post, and following the Staticmaster link would find that the real cost was more like $4000. Or if they had read William Broad's Dec. 3 article in the New York Times, they would have seen his estimate of $212 (he was estimating for a single lethal dose, not the 10X dose I was using).

I guess the "anonymous British security source" does not read the New York Times.

Note that the description of symptoms from the initial news reports in November allowed one to conclude that the dose administered was about 10 times the lethal dose (the approx. 50 millicuries I estimated on Nov. 24, above), which is what the autopsy results just reported.

I put a page up on my website last week walking the interested reader through the analysis that supports this conclusion:

Carey Sublette"

Note: The US$1 million figure was obtained by multiplying the price per exempt quantity - 0.1 microcurie - source from the United Nuclear Web site by the number of such sources required to make up the estimated dose given to Litvinenko - which resulted in a grossly inflated estimate of the cost of the Litvinenko hit.

It would be much easier, economical and probably safer for someone wanting to have access to useful quantities of polonium-210 to grind down the source containers from inside several StaticmasterŽ brushes than to get it from United Nuclear's line of exempt quantity sources. As an added bonus, StaticmasterŽ brushes are probably not as tightly monitored as United Nuclear's product line.

The recent public assurances that polonium-210 is essentially unavailable to the public in lethal quantities are empty.

Changing LINKS