Officials investigating the lethal poisoning of former Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) officer Alexander Litvinenko in London have widened their inquiry to Moscow. U.K. Home Secretary John Reid told reporters, “British police will be going to Russia to continue their inquiries,” and he vowed that the investigation “will continue to go wherever the evidence leads” (AFP, December 4).
On Monday, December 4, British detectives arrived in Moscow to question witnesses and possible suspects, including former FSB operative Andrei Lugovoi. Litvinenko met Lugovoi, Dmitry Kovtun, and Vyacheslav Sokolenko at London’s Millennium Hotel on November 1, the day he fell ill. All three have protested their innocence, while Lugovoi has said that he believes the real culprit is framing them (AFP December 4). Lugovoi told The Sunday Times (December 3) that he and his family have also been infected by radioactive polonium-210.
But did the polonium come to London directly from Russia or somewhere else?
The New York Times reported on December 3 that polonium-210 originating from Russia may be easily obtained in the United States. An anti-static fan made by NRD, of Grand Island, NY, reportedly contains up to 10 lethal doses of polonium-210 and sells for $225. The problem is that no civilian experts seem to know for sure how much a “lethal dose” of polonium-210 is, while Russian and U.S. military experts may know, but do not say.
Mario Scaramella, an Italian security expert, met Litvinenko on November 1 at the Itsu sushi bar in London, where the poisoning apparently took place. Scaramella reportedly has been contaminated with polonium-210 at five times the fatal level (AFP December 4). But apparently that dose was sub-lethal, as Scaramella has not exhibited any symptoms of radioactive sickness.
London police sources have apparently confirmed that the dose administered to Litvinenko was “at least 100 times” the amount needed to kill somebody (Sunday Times, December 3). Izvestiya quoted The Guardian yesterday (December 5) as saying that Litvinenko had been poisoned by polonium worth €29.7 million ($40 million) and that this must mean that the poisoning was not intentional, since no one would spend that much money to kill one defector. Izvestiya implied that Litvinenko was making a radioactive (“dirty”) bomb for terrorist purposes and that only exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky could possibly bankroll the purchase of that much polonium. By implication, this extraordinary amount of polonium seems to exclude the possibility that it could have been purchased without notice in the United States, where it is sold in batches worth $30 to $225.
In Russia, polonium-210 is reportedly produced at the Mayak nuclear industrial plant in Chelyabinsk-65 (also known as Ozersk) in the Urals region (Izvestiya, December 1). Ozersk is one of the “closed” nuclear cities that Russian citizens cannot enter without a special pass. In the first decades of the Soviet atomic program, this city was the main center for producing weapons-grade plutonium. Now it is engaged in repossessing radioactive waste and in producing radioactive isotopes.
Recently Russian officials and state-controlled media (Izvestiya belongs to state-owned gas monopoly Gazprom) have been frantically denying any involvement in the Litvinenko case, while pointing in all possible other directions. Yesterday (December 5) Izvestiya published a commentary by Kremlin-connected TV anchor Mikhail Leontyev suggesting that the Anglo-Americans are deliberately distributing traces of polonium around London to implicate Russia.
However, in the frenzy of total denial, Russian authorities have apparently not noticed the clear contradictions in their statements. The government RIA-Novosti news agency reported Monday, quoting Russia’s nuclear agency Rosatom, “The only nuclear reactor producing polonium-210 stopped functioning two years ago and the IAEA was informed of that last week.” At the same time, Rosatom has continued to extract 8 grams of previously made polonium-210 per month for shipment exclusively to the United States. No polonium could have been “lost” or stolen in Russia, states Rosatom (RIA-Novosti, December 4).
Polonium-210 decays rapidly; its half-life is only 138 days. Today, two years since the reactor ceased production, over 98% of the overall polonium-210 made in Russia previously has been transformed into solid lead. This nuclear decay continues, but Russia still continues to meet its export contract obligations. This can only mean that tens or hundreds of kilos of polonium, perhaps literally tons, enough to kill millions and millions of people, were originally produced.
The Russian polonium stockpile is melting like snow in spring because the legitimate market demand is low, thus using some of it on Litvinenko would be easy. But why produce that much of the isotope in the first place? Perhaps to make “dirty” bombs so minute that they can be carried unnoticed, as the radiation may be stopped by a paper wrapper. Such bombs would be ideal for diversion (terrorist) attacks in major Western cities (in metro systems) by Russian Special Forces squads and agents in the run up to all-out nuclear war. The use of polonium-210 would allow agents to guard themselves against harm by simply donning cloth respiratory masks.
Such clandestine weapons make much more sense than the nuclear suitcase bombs that were so much discussed in the 1990s (Reuters, September 5, 1997). The possible existence of polonium bombs in the Russian nuclear arsenal could explain Moscow’s present obsession with “dirty” bombs as an explanation for the Litvinenko poisoning. Since polonium expires rapidly, Russia had to make it constantly in extraordinary quantities to be prepared in the event of possible weapons use.
It is good to know that Russia has apparently terminated its polonium weapons of mass destruction production program. Will the Litvinenko case bring other such revelations as it evolves?