Poisoning Of Ex-Agent Sets Off Alarm Bells

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 7, 2007

MOSCOW -- Ninety-seven percent of the legal production of one of the world's rarest industrial products -- the intensely radioactive isotope polonium-210 -- takes place at a closely guarded nuclear reactor near the Volga River 450 miles southeast of Moscow.

In an average year, about three ounces of the substance is made at the Avangard facility, a former nuclear weapons plant, then sold under strict controls to Russian and foreign companies that prize it for its abilities to reduce static electricity.

This fall, a microscopic quantity of polonium-210, from somewhere, found its way into the body of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian internal security agent living in London. He died an agonizing death in a hospital 22 days later.

Now an international investigation is trying to track that dose back to its source. Detectives from Scotland Yard have said nothing about where the trail of evidence may be leading; Russian officials have been more willing to talk, saying that Avangard is tightly audited and that illicit production of polonium-210 is technically possible at many of the world's reactors.

Still, Russia's near total domination of the world's legal trade in the substance has focused new international attention on the country's production system and controls. In addition, Litvinenko's death has created new concern among regulators that the substance might be used as an instrument of murder by terrorists.

Russia is the main source of polonium in part because it offers high quality and the best price for commercial users, according to Nick Priest, professor of radiation toxicology at Middlesex University and a former head of biomedical research at the Atomic Energy Authority in Britain. No polonium is produced in Britain, and officials in Russia said none has been exported commercially to Britain for at least five years.

Polonium-210 is produced in reactors by irradiating bismuth-209, an isotope of the element bismuth. The resulting substance is so radioactive that it has a half-life of only 138 days, meaning that half the atoms in a given quantity will disintegrate in that period.

Specialists say that around the world, reactors capable of this operation belong either to state agencies or universities and so are highly regulated. "Everything connected with polonium production and application is controlled by governments," said Boris Zhuikov, head of the radioisotope laboratory in the Nuclear Studies Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, in an interview. "You cannot just put any target inside a reactor. It is regulated and checked by many, many people. It would be discovered."

The Avangard plant operates under close Russian government scrutiny. Officials said four Russian organizations are licensed to handle the material made there: the chemistry faculty of Moscow State University; the Federal Nuclear Center in Samara, also on the Volga; Techsnabexport, the state-controlled uranium supplier; and one private company, Nuclon, which uses it for medical devices and transports isotopes to customers.

The controls have proved effective, Russian officials contend. "I can say with complete certainty that no deviations from the rules of storage and transportation of nuclear materials, including polonium, have been discovered at any structures of our fuel and nuclear complex," said Konstantin Pulikovsky, head of the Federal Service for the Oversight of the Environment, Technology and Nuclear Management, according to the Russian news agency RIA-Novosti.

Worldwide, polonium has been lost or stolen in at least 15 known incidents before 2006, most of them in the United States, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog based in Vienna.

Priest said he believed that in Russia, audit safeguards could be circumvented if there was demand for polonium from officials with strong influence. Audits could also be an unreliable gauge of pilfering because during production, much more polonium is made than is actually needed, with the surplus never entering the officially recognized supply.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company