Saturday, November 25, 2006
#6: Is Polonium hard to get?
12/2/2006. Case Closed. Finally, the mainstream press had accepted the facts as they are and started talking to real experts, not PR folks. This NYT arcticle is properly named, "Polonium, $22.50 plus tax" and delivers the view of Polonium as a widespread industrial metal, which it is. Just to dispel the notion of a "tightly controlled", here is a very casual American report about a loss of a unit with tens of lethal doses of Po-210 inside.
The recent poisoning of ex-KGB colonel Litvinenko in London prompted statements in the press stressing that use of Polonium 210 indicates a huge scale of operation. Polonium 210 is very hard for ordinary folks to get, the articles do say. A brief search on Google, however, reveals that Polonium sources are actually very commonplace, as they are used in factory devices that eliminate static electricity, like this one for sale on Internet at just $71 apiece. Some quantities of Polonium are therefore available with little or no safeguards in place. The good question is
Is it hard to get sufficient quantitites of Polonium 210 from static eliminators to poison Mr. Litvinenko?
Any person with reasonable background in radiochemistry should be able to give an answer. The positive answer might help to eliminate less sophisticated suspects, the negative one might add some weight to claims by Russian secret service that it did not participate in the killing.
In this type of product, the Polonium-210 is generally electroplated onto a backing foil and inserted into a brush, tube, or other holder.
Let's do a little math.
Po-210 has a specific activity of 4490 Ci/g and the static eliminator contains 500 microcuries.
Looks like you get about 0.11 micro grams per $71. That's 0.00000011 grams.
The key is that it is very effective for what it does, so only very small quantities are needed.
As you say, it's not difficult to chemically separate, but in order to make it you need a strong neutron source, which in general is provided by a nuclear reactor. As a source or as a nuclear reactor you've now jumped into the requirements of very large quantities of money, and in this country, licensing.
Still not as easy to get as you are making it seem.
I did not propose to separate the Po from the irradiated Berillium. I do not have any chemistry knowledge beyond high school, but I would expect that similar methods can be used to extract Polonium after dissolving the foil inside the off-the-shelf Polonium-210 sources in an acid.
Anyhow, my original point is different: someone on purpose of by ignorance had fed the journalists a theory which falsely claims that Po is not widely available. Why didn't they just google prior to publishing this theory?
I do believe however that at the end of my post on this susbject, I did mention (sourced from someone else) that Polonium and Americium (apparently similar materials - "alpha emitters") and that Polonium might be readily available from static eliminators (whatever they are).
You do not need to trust me - this is the stuff you can check for yourself. The reason I posted this question is precisely because journos are talking to all the wrong people - perhaps due to the simple fact that professionals cannot give them any juicy details.
It's not really that straigthforward and I cannot reproduce your result.
From any radiological dictionary:
"Committed and Total Effective Dose Equivalents
When a person inhales or ingests a radionuclide, that radionuclide is distributed to different organs and stays there for days, months, or years until it decays or is excreted. The radionuclide will deliver a radiation dose over a period of time. The dose that a person receives from the time the nuclide enters the body until it is gone is the committed dose. FGR-11 calculates doses over a 50-year period and presents the committed dose equivalent for each organ plus the committed effective dose equivalent (CEDE)."
I used the http://www.bt.cdc.gov/radiation/glossary.asp#primer
So CEDE is the coeeficient to recalculate intake in Bequerels into radiation exposure in Sieverts over the lifetime. Note that for Po-210 the rapid decay means that almost all dose will be delivered quickly.
Now, exposure = intake * CEDE.
Substitute numbers from the original article, and you will get the result I mentioned.
And I guess the enterprising criminal mind could think all that up, buy the devices, separate the Polonium, etc., but isn't that a lot of work to kill someone? There are dozens of easier to acquire, lethal poisons....it seems to me that this was a message - we'll find you and we won't just shoot you - we'll kill you in a painful way...
Nonetheless, I applaud your diligence and agree with your premise that reporters should have done their technical homework.
"Reports say the source of the polonium 210 has now been traced by British scientists working at the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston to a nuclear power plant in Russia."
Quotes from the NYT article:
Bill Cabage, a [Oak Ridge] lab spokesman, said it sold no polonium 210 because Russia was able to do so much more inexpensively
Nuclear experts said the apparent origin of much of the world’s polonium 210 in Russia, including quantities used in American products, meant that investigations of the toxin’s provenance would probably reveal little. What would be surprising, the experts said, was if the radioactive toxin turned out to have been made or mined outside Russia.
So tracing Po-210 to the Russian manufacturer is not hard, as there is no other supply.
Once again, I do not care where the stuff came from. I wonder why journos were supplied with a false story that no one can buy Po-210 on the market and why they did not bother to check.
Can someone tell me - in plain english please - what quantity of poloniun 210 is sufficient to kill a grown man. And as is alleged in the media, is it possible to simply buy enough of this over the internet??
As with all the poisons, the actual lethal dose very much depends on a person. According to official data, 1 microgram (one millionth of a gram) is considered lethal. The devices with this lethal dose of polonium can indeed be bought on Internet. However, only a skilled chemist with decent tools will be able to extract polonium from these devices. Therefore there is no real danger of polonium being used by common criminals.
You were way out front on this one. Nice work and kudos