The effects of nuclear weapons. Credible nuclear deterrence, debunking "disarm or be annihilated". Realistic effects and credible nuclear weapon capabilities for deterring or stopping aggressive invasions and attacks which could escalate into major conventional or nuclear wars.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Russian ex-spy murdered with alpha radiation from Po-210 in tea in London

Update 22 January 2007: BBC Panorama's documentary 'How To Poison A Spy' reports that radiological surveys of the Po-210 trail throughout the contaminated London hotels and restaurants indicates that the really massive lethal quantity of radioactive Po-210 (several billion becquerels) was administered in the tea Litvinenko drank when he visited the Russians and former KGB men Andrei Lugovoi and Dimitri Kovtun at the London Sushi Bar, Piccadilly Circus, on 16 October 2006. Other contamination elsewhere was much less intense. Litvinenko always drank tea, never alcohol. The tea was ordered for Litvinenko in advance of his arrival, and was then poisoned. When Litvinenko arrived, the poisoned drink was waiting and he drank some - but not all - of it. Therefore he received less than the intended contamination, which is the reason why he took until 24 November 2006 to get a lethal dose from radiation. Because of the 138 days radiological half-life of Po-210, he continued to accumulate substantial radiation doses each day until he died, over a month after being contaminated by the 'spiked' tea. The BBC programme visited Laboratory Number 12, in Moscow which is allegedly the official government poison factory that prepared the Po-210 solution to be administered in Litvinenko's tea. The broadcast programme also reports that recently Russians were officially authorized to pursue enemies overseas.

What will happen if a dirty radioactive terrorist bomb explodes, and the first warning is radiation casualties turning up in hospitals? Well we can guess from recent events surrounding the failure of medics in University College Hospital, London, to diagnose in time Litvinenko's acute radiation poisoning from internal exposure to the heavy metal nuclide polonium-210, the most deadly radioactive material on earth due to its short half-life of about 138 days.

Polonium-210 (Po-210) like plutonium-239 (and everything else if you look far enough, say to supernovae debris) is natural in the sense that it occurs in nature in trace amounts, which is exactly the reason why it was possible for Marie Curie to discover and isolate a tiny amount of it (after years of purification), after starting with a ton of the radioactive uranium ore, pitchblend. Plutonium is also an alpha emitter like Po-210 but plutonium is far less toxic: plutonium was discovered in trace amounts in nature around 1950 by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, and has a 24,400 years half life so each atom of that emits only one alpha particle per 35,100 years, which is a comparatively low dose rate.

The average life i.e. the average time taken for a single atom to decay is always 1/(ln 2) = 1.44 times the half-life, which enables you to calculate the specific activity if the half life is known, or to calculate the half-life without waiting for a measurable decrease in the radioactivity, which of course is the situation for long half lives of thousands or billions of years; you simply measure the specific activity in units of:

(decays/second per atom) = Becquerels/atom = Bq/atom = 1/(average life of atom measured in seconds) = (ln 2)/(half-life measured in seconds)

so you can calculate the half-life by measuring the specific activity per radiocative atom in a pure sample of the decaying nuclide (uncontaminated by other isotopes):

half-life (in seconds) = (ln 2)/(specific activity in Bq per atom) = 0.6931/(specific activity in Bq per atom)

Conversely, the specific activity is

specific activity, Bq/atom = 0.6931/(half-life measured in seconds)

Hence, the longer the half-life, the lower the specific radioactivity, and the lower the danger; whereas the shorter the half-life, the more toxic it is.

Summary of radiological incompetence timeline:

21 November: Sun article quotes toxicologist Professor John Henry (who was treating Litvinenko), arguing that Litvinenko was poisoned by radiation. (See below.)

23 November: London Daily Express article (published 24 November) quotes Geoff Bellingan, the director of critical care at University College, London, saying: "Radiation poisoning is ... unlikely." (see below.)

24 November: Litvinenko dies and cause of death is announced as radiation poisoning.

Medical diagnosis by "consensus of experts" is therefore not really any more productive than physics string theory is productive physics due to being done by a "consensus of experts". Neither is science, which is not a matter of consensus in practice (unless you want to risk being herded off a cliff with fellow lemmings), but is a matter of hard facts gathered experimentally.

What they should have done is to have taken samples from the patient and monitored them for alpha, beta, and gamma radiation. A high school physics student learns to measure radiation and identify types of radiation (although isotope identification usually requires more elaborate instruments which measure particle energies, not just types of particle). Incompetence with radiotherapists in Britain has been widely emphasised recently, including the case of the girl with cancer who 17 times received a massive radiation overdose in Glasgow.

You might expect that hospitals in the U.K., particularly in London - where dirty bomb threats of radioactive contamination have been raging for years - would have trained radiological and lab staff with suitable instruments to measure samples for radiation. There are two highly ionising (high LET, linear energy transfer; ie, the radiation gives up its energy quickly in matter to produce high doses): alpha and beta. Gamma rays are more penetrating so they go through matter without being stopped (or imparting energy) so easily.

The BBC report shows typical journalistic incompetence, claiming that Po-210 is natural. Well, Marie Curie who discovered it started from a ton of radioactive pitchblend (good uranium ore) and got 1 gram of radium and only a trace of polonium, after several years work in chemically extracting it from the residue after she had isolated radium. The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission around 1950 announced that it has identified plutonium-239 in pitchblend.

If you look hard enough, everything occurs in nature somewhere (supernovae explosions have neutron densities high enough to create all possible radionuclides), so in that sense, all are "natural", or - rather - the word "natural" becomes a sneer word for journalists to use to cover up natural background radiation variations with location and altitude and instead attack minor variations in that due to human activity.

There is nothing "natural" about the dose of Po-210 which poisoned Litvinenko; intense sources of radiation are easily and quickly measured, and the natural distribution of such things is way too low to ever produce acute radiation syndrome in anyone (long-term risks are another matter).

The London "Sun" newspaper reported on 21 November a claim that Litvinenko had been poisoned by radiation, but got the nuclide wrong:,,2-2006540128,00.html

"A FORMER Russian spy may have been poisoned with radioactive thallium at a London restaurant, a medical expert said.

"John Henry, a toxicologist treating Alexander Litvinenko, says the former KGB man may need a bone marrow transplant.

"He said: "The thallium is the least of it - the radioactivity seems more important.

"In terms of thallium, I do not think I have see a worse case of this.

"It is too early to say how long it will be before he's out of danger. He is very ill at the moment."

"Prof Henry said it was likely the poison had been swallowed.

"Scotland Yard's counter-terrorism unit is leading the hunt for the culprits.

"A top Moscow politician has admitted Litvinenko may have been poisoned by the KGB.

"Viktor Ilyukhin — deputy chairman of the Russian parliament’s security committee — declared: “I can’t exclude that possibility.”

"He said of the dad of one, whose food is feared to have been spiked at a sushi bar: “That former KGB officer had been irritating the Russian authorities for a long time and possibly knew some state secrets.

“So when our special services got the chance to operate not only inside but outside the country, they decided to get rid of him.”

"Litvinenko, 44, is continuing to fight for life at London’s University College Hospital — guarded by armed police.

"He was in intensive care, with medics putting his chances of survival at 50:50.

"Litvinenko is able to talk and make jokes, but his condition remains serious in intensive care.

"Shocking pictures taken yesterday and released by his family showed the appalling effects of the highly-toxic chemical thallium.

"Litvinenko was pictured pale and weak in his hospital bed — his hair all gone.

"Ravaged ... poisoned ex-KGB man Alexander Litvinenko in London hospital yesterday
Litvinenko’s white cell count — a gauge of his immune system — was nearly zero.

"Prof Henry said damage to his blood cells and bone marrow indicated a radioactive element.

"Exiled Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky said after visiting Litvinenko for a second time: “He is really in very bad shape.” Countryman Ilyukhin said the former KGB colonel, who fled Moscow for Britain five years ago, may have been targeted for probing a Russian journalist’s murder.

"Anna Politkovskaya — a leading critic of Russian president Vladimir Putin — was gunned down at her Moscow flat.

"Ilyukhin said Litvinenko may have been set “to reveal the truth about Anna Politkovskaya’s assassination”.

"The Kremlin has branded his comments “sheer nonsense”. And one counter-intelligence agent insisted a “hit” by the KGB — now renamed the FSB — would have been more PROFESSIONAL.

"He told a Russian paper: “If it was necessary we would find a different, less fussy and public method to get rid of him.”

Litvinenko was poisoned three weeks ago — but thallium takes around a fortnight to kick in.
The police probe is set to focus on two meetings Litvinenko had on November 1. The first was at a London hotel where he had tea with two Russian men — one a former KGB officer.

"The second meeting was at a sushi bar in Piccadilly with an Italian academic.

"It has emerged that Litvinenko made a secret tape revealing assassinations sanctioned by the Kremlin — in case he was murdered. It was being examined by MI5."

TODAY's "Daily Express" newspaper (24 November 2006, page 17) carries an article written last night (23 November) by John Twomey which states:


"FORMER Soviet spy Alexander Litvinenko was on the brink of death last night as doctors admitted they have no idea what is killing him.

"As Scotland Yard hunted the hitmen, there was speculation that he may have been armed with a new drug unknown to Britain's foremost poison experts.

"Mr Litvinenko's condition deteriorated on Wednesday night after he suffered heart failure at London's University College Hospital. Last night he was on a life support machine. ...

"The ex-KGB colonel, a bitter critic of President Putin, fell ill on November 1 after meeting an ex-KGB major called Vladimir at a London hotel and an Italian academic at a nearby sushi bar.

"Scotland Yard was only called last Friday and there has been confusion ever since over which poison was used.

"Toxicologists brought in to treat the 43-year-old appear to be baffled. Geoff Bellingan, the hospital's director of critical care, said: "We are now convinced that the cause of Mr Litvinenko's condition was not a heavy metal like thallium. Radiation poisoning is also unlikely. {EVER HEARD OF THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD - WHEREBY YOU ACTUALLY CHECK FACTS WITH A SOMETHING CALLED A ZINC SULPHIDE PHOSPHOR SCINTILLATION DETECTOR, OR EVEN AN OBSOLETE SCHOOL-TYPE PHYSICS DEPARTMENT END-WINDOWED GEIGER COUNTER TO FIND OUT WHAT THE FACTS ARE, BEFORE MAKING CONCLUSIONS?} Despite extensive {ISN'T THE WORD YOU MEAN ACTUALLY: INCOMPETENT?} tests, we are still unclear as to the cause of his condition."

Twomey's article proceeds to quote an unnamed security source suggesting that a slow acting poison was administered to give the murders time to escape from the country, and to have "a deterrent effect on dissidents and potential rebels because victims suffer so much pain and their loved ones are forced to look on helplessly as they die an agonising death".

Twomey concludes: "Mr Litvinenko defected to Britain in 2000 and has accused Russia of bombing Moscow and blaming it on Chechen rebels. The Italian he met at the sushi bar, Professor Mario Scaramella, showed him a death list on which both their names appeared."

It is disgusting that the cause, Po-210, was not diagnosed within 24 hours of admission to hospital. They knew he was poisoned, and should have checked his symptoms for all three types of poisoning agent: biological, chemical and radiological. Radiation poisoning is the fastest to check for because any radiation poison sufficient to produce acute effects also is sufficiently intense to be detected in seconds by any suitable radioactivity instrument. The medical profession, who use radiotherapy and x-rays routinely, have no excuse of ignorance in radiation matters, and should have ensure proper checks are made. What would happen if a dirty bomb exploded, or a nuclear explosion at a power plant? How would the medical profession respond? Taking days wondering what each casualty is suffering from, then throwing up their arms in confusion?

Chelating agents have bad side effects, but they offer some possibility of removing heavy metal poisons including radioactive ones, and in a case this bad - if diagnosis had been correctly made before the victim actually died - such measures could have offered a possibility of therapy.

The BBC reports at

"Radiation found after spy's death

"Mr Litvinenko's condition deteriorated rapidly in hospital.

"Radiation briefing Police probing the death of Russian ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko have found above-normal levels of radiation at three locations in London.

"Mr Litvinenko's death has been linked to the presence of a "major dose" of radioactive polonium-210 in his body.

"Scotland Yard confirmed traces were also found at his home, a sushi bar and a hotel, but the risk to others was said by health experts to be very low.

"The Kremlin has denied UK citizen Mr Litvinenko's claims it was involved.

"The traces were found at the Itsu sushi restaurant in Piccadilly, the Millennium Hotel, Grosvenor Square, and at Mr Litvinenko's home in Muswell Hill, north London, Scotland Yard said.

"Officers are looking at CCTV footage and interviewing witnesses, trying to find out who he met around the time he fell ill on 1 November, said Peter Clarke, head of the Counter Terrorism Command which is leading the investigation.

"Tests are also being carried out at the two London hospitals where Mr Litvinenko had been treated, University College and the Barnet General, the Health Protection Agency said. Professor Pat Troop from the HPA told a news conference Mr Litvinenko would have had to either eaten, inhaled or been given the dose of polonium-210 though a wound.
She said the type of death was an "unprecedented event in the UK".


"Alpha particles are stopped by a sheet of paper [this is a generalization based on low energy alphas, some high-energy alpha particles are as penetrating as low-energy beta particles and go through several sheets of paper] and cannot pass through unbroken skin.

"Beta particles are stopped by an aluminium sheet [this is vague and misleading, high energy alphas from Sr-90 decays can go through a couple of millimetres of aluminium or so]

"Gamma rays are stopped by thick lead [this is so vague and imprecise that it is unhelpful]

"Dr Troop said the HPA investigation would also look at the number of people who had come into contact with Mr Litvinenko during his stay in hospital: "We are working with staff to draw up a list, we are working through that," she said. "There will be a minimum of tens of people. He was in hospital for several weeks and a number of staff looked after him."

"As the conference drew to a close, a heckler interrupted saying he was from Ukraine and had also been the victim of poisoning.

"A post-mortem examination on Mr Litvinenko has not been held yet.

"The delay is believed to be over concerns about the health implications for those present at the examination.

"But Roger Cox from the HPA said a large quantity of alpha radiation emitted from polonium-210 had been detected in Mr Litvinenko's urine.

"The Home Office said anybody concerned should contact NHS Direct on 0845 4647, who have been briefed about this issue.

"Meanwhile, the government's civil contingencies committee Cobra has met to discuss the case.
'Sheer nonsense'

"Friends have said Mr Litvinenko was poisoned because of his criticism of Russia.

"In a statement dictated before he died at University College Hospital on Thursday, the 43-year-old accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of involvement in his death.

"Mr Litvinenko had recently been investigating the murder of his friend, Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, another critic of the Putin government.


"1 Nov - Alexander Litvinenko meets two Russian men at a London hotel and then meets Italian academic Mario Scaramella at a sushi bar in Piccadilly. Hours later he falls ill and is admitted to Barnet General Hospital
17 Nov - Mr Litvinenko is transferred to UCH
19 Nov - Reports say Mr Litvinenko is poisoned with thallium
21 Nov - A toxicologist says he may have been poisoned with "radioactive thallium"
22 Nov - Mr Litvinenko's condition deteriorates overnight. Thallium and radiation ruled out
23 Nov - The ex-spy dies in intensive care

Litvinenko statement in full
Reaction: Russian's death
Timeline of case in full

"Mr Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov reiterated the Kremlin's earlier dismissal of allegations of involvement in the poisoning as "sheer nonsense".

"Mr Putin himself has said Mr Litvinenko's death was a tragedy, but he saw no "definitive proof" it was a "violent death".

"Police have been examining two meetings Mr Litvinenko had on 1 November - one at a London hotel with a former KGB agent and another man, and a rendezvous with Italian security consultant Mario Scaramella, at the sushi restaurant in the West End.

"Mr Litvinenko, who was granted asylum in the UK in 2000 after complaining of persecution in Russia, fell ill later that day.

"In an interview with Friday's Telegraph newspaper, former KGB bodyguard Andrei Lugovoi said he had met Mr Litvinenko at the Millennium Hotel but vigorously denied any involvement in the poisoning.

"Mr Scaramella, who is involved in an Italian parliamentary inquiry into Russian secret service activity, said they met because he wanted to discuss an e-mail he had received."

What is polonium-210?

"What is polonium-210?

"It is a naturally occurring radioactive material that emits highly hazardous alpha (positively charged) particles.

"It was first discovered by Marie Curie at the end of the 19th century.

"There are very small amounts of polonium-210 in the soil and in the atmosphere, and
everyone has a small amount of in their body.

"But at high doses, it damages tissues and organs.

"However the substance, historically called radium F, is very hard for doctors to identify.

"Philip Walker, professor of physics, University of Surrey said: "This seems to have been a substance carefully chosen for its ability to be hard to detect in a person who has ingested it."

"What is the risk to other people from the dose Mr Litvinenko received?

"It cannot pass through the skin, and must be ingested or inhaled into the body to cause damage.

"And because the radiation has a very short range, it only harms nearby tissue, so those who came into contact with him are at very little risk.

"William Gelletly, professor of physics at the University of Surrey, said: "Polonium-210 is very unlikely to have contaminated any staff who treated Mr Litvinenko or anyone who came in contact with him since they would have had to ingest or breathe in the contaminated fluids from his body."

"Professor Dudley Goodhead, Medical Research Council Radiation and Genome Stability Unit, said: "To poison someone much larger amounts are required and this would have to be man-made, perhaps from particle accelerator or a nuclear reactor." "

I've commented at Lubos Motl's blog:

Notice Po-210 has a half-life of 140 days, and is a high-energy alpha emitter. Plutonium-239 for contrast has a half-life of 24,400 years so the specific activity of Po-210 (decays per second or Becquerels, per gram) is way higher. The shorter the half life, the more decays per second!Po-210 was used with beryllium as the neutron source (initiator) in the early 1945 nuclear weapons. Alpha particles hitting beryllium fission it, releasing neutrons. This was responsible for most of the deaths after the Windscale nuclear reactor fire in England in 1957. The pile was producing Po-210 for British nuclear bomb tests in Maralinga, but the government kept that secret, claiming that only iodine-131 had been released. (They didn't want the Americans to know Britain was still using obsolete 1945 nuclear initiator technology!)

UPDATE: for acute radiation syndrome, the maximum duration of effective poisoning is always the smaller than the time between initial symptoms and death. Therefore, he wasn't poisoned over many months, or he would have been in chronic health for many months before dying (there is a report that the police are wasting time on this issue). Litvinenko received a dose over a period of time of less than two weeks. He was probably poisoned during a single meal.

The Po-210 then takes time to become located in tissue and irradiate the tissue with a lethal dose of radiation. This is why the death wasn't instant. It is reported that he had a low blood cell count. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and other high-dose accidents, irradiation of bone marrow suppressed the white blood cell count to a minimum about 2-4 weeks after exposure. This is usually when death occurs. There is also a suppression of platelets, and their absence prevents blood clotting properly. The bone marrow irradiation relies - in the case of internal poisoning (rather than x/gamma rays or neutrons) - on Po-210 being deposited in the bone.

So from the symptoms, he received a dose over a short period of time (one meal probably) and he died probably 2-4 weeks after that from acute radiation effects on the blood and lymph systems, and from radiation damage to the cardio-vascular system.

I will just add that Putin is innocent until proved guilty, and we should not seek to blame him just because he is ex-KGB and their methods were murderous. Evidence is required before judgement. Finding traces of impurties in the Po-210 samples recovered from the hotel and the restaurant may enable the source to be identified. Po-210 is licenced and impossible to acquire legally without a licence. It is impossible that the source could be more than a few years old due to the short 138 days half-life. Impurities in the sample will serve as a forensic 'fingerprint' to indicate if the source is controlled by Putin in Russia. Even if Putin is responsible, it might not be possible for Britain to arrest him because the Russians have more military power than we do (more nuclear weapons etc.) so it would be a disaster to even think of doing anything other than going through the UN. I actually think Putin is doing a good job in Russia, he just appears very heavy-handed towards dissenters.

Another thing: the radioactive contamination problem is being confused by the BBC. The dose needed to kill a man from no symptoms to acute radiation syndrome death in a week or two is nothing to do with the dose needed for cancer risks. The BBC reported falsely that anyone else contaminated would have died. This is total nonsense. Long term effects like significantly increased risk of leukemia and lung cancer can occur after very much smaller doses, as proved by studies on exposure to radium, radon, and strontium-90 of human beings (uranium miners, radium watch dial painters in the 1920s, and animals in extensive experiments during the 1950s). In fact, for high-LET alpha particle radiation the bombardment of internal tissue by even a single particle is enough to trigger a cancer risk. (For low-LET radiation like gamma rays there may be a threshold needed to either damage or to simply overwhelm natural radiation repair mechanisms in human cells like protein P53.) Long-term effects from alpha particles require doses millions of times smaller than that administered to Litvinenko. Therefore people who may have inhaled traces could be at enhanced cancer risk. The scientific approach to this is far from the BBC.


"Putin attacked after ex-spy's death

"10.28, Sun Nov 26 2006

"Cabinet minister Peter Hain has launched an extraordinary attack on Russia's President Putin following the death of former spy Alexander Litvinenko.

"The outspoken Northern Ireland Secretary, indicated that relations with Moscow had hit a low as he exhorted the Russian president to return to democratic processes.

"Referring to "some murky murders" in recent times, he accused Vladimir Putin of damaging "individual liberty and democracy" in Russia.

"His comments reveal how frosty the relationship between London and Moscow has become following the apparent poisoning of the ex-KGB agent.

"Earlier, the Home Secretary John Reid had confirmed that detectives were now treating the death as "suspicious". Until now police had said they were treating it as an unexplained death.

"Mr Reid said: "As at this stage, they're saying to me that they now regard the death as suspicious. That wasn't the case yesterday, for instance."

"Customers of a restaurant and hotel visited by radiation victim Alexander Litvinenko are facing an anxious wait after giving medical samples for tests.

"A number of them were asked to submit urine for analysis after traces of deadly polonium-210 were discovered at the central London premises. The police are continuing their hunt for the source of the poison.

"The Conservatives have now demanded the Government make a Commons statement over the death.

"Shadow Home Secretary David Davis made the plea and called for cooperation with police inquiries from all concerned, including if necessary the Russian authorities.

"He said: "It is essential that other dissidents living in Britain are reassured about their safety and there are also questions about how Polonium-210 came to be used in Britain."

"Cobra, the Government's emergency planning committee, chaired by Home Office minister Tony McNulty, met on Saturday to discuss the affair.

"Mr Litvinenko died on Thursday night after being exposed to highly toxic radioactive isotope polonium 210 - which if ingested will rapidly lead to organ and tissue damage.

"As a result his hair fell out, his body wasted away and his organs slowly failed.

"In a statement read out after his death, he accused Vladimir Putin of what he believes would be the Kremlin's first political assassination in the West since the Cold War.

"He said: "You may succeed in silencing one man. But a howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life."

"A post-mortem examination of Mr Litvinenko's body has been delayed while a risk assessment is carried out to see if it is safe to perform the procedure and what precautions may be necessary.

"An inquest into his death is expected to be opened in the coming days at St Pancras Coroner's Court in north London.

"Nov 25: Litvinenko death: witness tests to be carried out
"Nov 24: 'Ex-spy killed by radioactive element'"