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.
"When they do these runs, they produce a large amount because it's got a 138-day half-life and they don't want to be making it all the time. It's not possible to maintain complete control by measurement at the source," Priest said.
Other theories suggest that the polonium that killed Litvinenko might have been obtained from an officially tracked commercial supply after it reached its final customer.
Polonium is commonly used in static eliminators in printing plants, photography labs and textile mills. In these applications, it is bound in extremely small quantities with other metals.
Extracting the substance from the molds in which these mixtures are made would be difficult because "polonium science is quite complicated," Priest said.
But with qualified scientists and the right lab conditions, it is possible. "I can see how they could be used to brew up a dose to kill one person," said Peter D. Zimmerman, a nuclear physicist and professor of science and security at King's College London. "It would require very delicate lab work."
In its pure form, polonium-210 is a soft, silvery metal. One microgram, or millionth of a gram, can be fatal, and the body of the poisoned Russian contained multiple times the lethal dose. One gram, about 0.035 of an ounce, could theoretically kill tens of millions of people.
The substance is self-heating and highly radioactive, but as long as it is housed in a sealed capsule of glass or metal, it can be safely transported in, for example, one drop of solution. It eludes radiation detectors in place at airports, border crossings and ports because it emits alpha rays, not the gamma rays the devices look for.
Polonium-210 can be dried into a substance such as chalk and turned into powder. Or it can be mixed with an aerosol solution, allowing it to be sprayed. But many scientists believe the probable method of transporting and dispensing it in the London killing was putting the isotope in a solution that could be tipped at arm's length into a drink or onto food.
"The ideal volume would be a couple of teaspoons of solution; it can sometimes be difficult to transfer a drop or something smaller," Priest said. "Once it's in the body, it irradiates the whole body."
Yet scientists in London did not discover the presence of polonium-210 until Litvinenko's urine was tested with an alpha ray detector at the Atomic Weapons Establishment, the British agency that maintains nuclear warheads. "It's so obscure that it will be among the last things people will look for," Priest said. "And except by extreme luck, there's no chance to work out in a short time what's happened, so it gives the people who did it a long time to get away."
The substance's great giveaway is that once discovered, its telltale traces are easily tracked. Out of its box, polonium smears everything. After Litvinenko's death, it was discovered in planes, cars, hotels and offices -- all places that the victim and people he met had visited around the time of the poisoning.
If it enters the body in tiny amounts, death is certain. The devastating effects were studied in the 1960s at a Moscow institute where the isotope was administered to dogs, rabbits and rats, according to Zhuikov. He said Soviet scientists wanted to understand polonium's potential in case humans were exposed to it, because the isotope was used in various applications in the country's nuclear and space programs.
The painful progression from severe vomiting and diarrhea to hair loss, internal bleeding and organ failure was clear in a photograph of a stricken Litvinenko lying in a London hospital. "If someone hates, really hates, then it's a good material [to use to] to kill," Zhuikov said. "This is real suffering."
The former agent's death has caused anti-terrorism officials to worry that an explosive or airborne dispersal of polonium, particularly in a crowded, enclosed space, could cause numerous fatalities and sow widespread panic, scientists said. Compromise a food or water supply, they said, and the consequences could be even more dire.
"You need a lot of the material," Zimmerman said. "But not more than it is reasonable to think could be diverted from the commercial stream."
The International Atomic Energy Agency is considering tighter controls on polonium.
An IAEA diplomat, who was not authorized to speak for quotation, said that in the wake of the Litvinenko case, concerns have risen at the agency about a mass poisoning through the introduction of polonium into the food chain or drinking water.
Ultimately, scientists such as Zimmerman would like to phase out polonium's commercial use and see the development of anti-static technology using other material.