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ICG Risk Blog - [ Presumably used by a Russian, possibly state, faction, Polonium-210 will fire the jihadists' imagination for dirty bombs ]

Presumably used by a Russian, possibly state, faction, Polonium-210 will fire the jihadists' imagination for dirty bombs


An unmentioned subtext in identifying the presumably Russian actor - possibly state, private or an alliance of two or more groups - and the means of delivering a fatal dose of polonium-210 to now "British citizen and former Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) agent Aleksandr Litvinenko," is the attention paid by jihadists to the uproar and disruption it generated as well as the sources of acquiring polonium and other radioactive isotopes.

Most observers, likely including the ordinary jihadist, thought that Polonium was out of reach, severely controlled as is plutonium. The casual observer now knows that:

Contrary to early news reports, polonium-210 -- the poison suspected in the death of an ex-Russian spy in England -- is not some exotic material available solely from nuclear labs. The isotope is available from firms that sell it for lawful and legitimate uses in industry, such as removing static electricity from machinery and photographic film...


Today, polonium 210 can show up in everything from atom bombs, to antistatic brushes to cigarette smoke, though in the last case only minute quantities are involved. Iran made relatively large amounts of polonium 210 in what some experts call a secret effort to develop nuclear arms, and North Korea probably used it to trigger its recent nuclear blast.

Commercially, Web sites and companies sell many products based on polonium 210, with labels warning of health dangers. By some estimates, a lethal dose might cost as little as $22.50, plus tax. "Radiation from polonium is dangerous if the solid material is ingested or inhaled," warns the label of an antistatic brush. "Keep away from children."

Observers now know that it is highly toxic and has no antidote:

Polonium-210 is "approximately 100,000 million (100 billion) times more toxic than cyanide"... Polonium is an "alpha emitter," which, when it decays, emits high-speed volleys of subatomic alpha particles -- each one made up of two protons and two neutrons bound together -- that rip apart DNA coils and bust up the cells in which they reside... causes a hideous death...

The Health Physics Society [which] distributes information on radiation safety, estimates that a lethal dose of polonium 210 is 3,000 microcuries... Other experts put the figure slightly higher.

Observers further know that unless it is being specifically sought, it is not detected by the myriad of radiation detectors at airports, ports and key transit points since it is an alpha-emitter, not a gamma emitter as are traditional nuclear fuels for fissile packages, uranium and plutonium. Until polonium-210 was identified as the cause of death and not thallium (from rat poison) as first believed, and then sought with alpha detectors, it was not known that trace elements of polonium were scattered across London and on at least three BA aircraft on the London-Moscow run.

Observers now know that the UK is unprepared for a radiological event and that public concern will jam communication and response channels in the case of a primary radiological event. We know from the TOPOFF exercises here in the US that first responders will be overwhelmed, decreasing available support to other patients, as citizens demand to be tested, while others will create traffic problems as they attempt to leave the area. See:

The surreptitious radiation poisoning of one man overwhelmed the system's ability to respond:

"The man was radioactive in a hospital for weeks and nobody knew it. That's terrifying,"... "It's taken us three to four weeks to literally get on the case. In terms of us being prepared for a radiological incident, this is a very bad portent."... we can't handle one radiation incident, let alone someone exploding a dirty bomb."

Security officials have been braced for years for the scenario of a dirty bomb -- a device containing a mix of explosives and radioactive material -- that might only kill a few people but would contaminate a wide area and spread panic.

But the detection challenge would be much greater [in] the event of a more insidious attack such as spreading radioactive material in a public place where many people would be exposed and only gradually fall ill. "What we should be focusing on is our ability to detect and react to events like this in the future"

Observers also know that while the principle producer is Russia (certainly the low cost producer) which "sells 8g of polonium-210 each month to American companies for "scientific purposes"" as well as other states, polonium-210 is reasonably available from scientific houses and can be (laboriously) extracted from common industrial items. The fact that extraction is hazardous will not deflect the determined jihadist as we have already seen jihadist proposals to form sacrificial teams in order to produce a crude fissile package.

It would be interesting to audit Russian production, i.e., if Russia sells enough polonium-210 to the US for "thousands of lethal doses" (96 grams is 3.4 ounces), who else procures it. (While Iran produces it, as likely does the DPRK, their primary use would be nuclear triggers.) Many of those states will have legal and illegal channels of varying oversight.

Even if a large amount of polonium-210 is not included in a simple radiation device, it will satisfy the basic requirements of all dirty bombs - disruption and chaos. Jihadists may also look at fellow traveler isotopes and create a cocktail. Purity is not required.

WebElements Periodic Table

Patrick Moore
Vol. 10, No. 224, Part I, 6 December 2006

Patrick Moore
Vol. 10, No. 222, Part I, 4 December 2006

Polonium, $22.50 Plus Tax
New York Times
December 3, 2006

Spy case raises questions on UK radiation response
By Mark Trevelyan, Security Correspondent
Dec 1, 2006 10:09am ET

Polonium-210? it's yours for $69, no questions asked
Tony Halpin
The Times
November 30, 2006

Patrick Moore
Volume 10 Number 214, Part I, November 20, 2006

IRAN Report
RFE/RL Report
6 September 2004, Volume 7, Number 30

Gordon Housworth

Risk Containment and Pricing Public  Terrorism Public  Weapons & Technology Public  


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