Dec 28 2006

Polonium, Mercury, And A Dirty Bomb?

The Litvinenko story has taken a strange twist with reports of a Mercury Trail that covers Moscow and London and, apparently, overlaps the Polonium-210 trail associated with Litvinenko’s bizzare death last month.

The prosecutor general’s office said traces of evaporated mercury had been found in cars, flats, cottages and offices in both Moscow and London.

It did not say who owned or used the properties.

Significant amounts of polonium 210 were found in Litvinenko’s body after his death, but it was unclear what role mercury could have played.

Under the theory that the Polonium-210 in the Litvinenko incident, which has a trail spanning three countries and is much larger than would be required to kill a single man, is associated with a smuggling ring the addition of a Mercury trail could be very disturbing. We don’t know what form the Mercury is in or its relationship with Polonium. But one of the uses of Mercury is in small explosives, like detonator caps:

Mercury fulminate (Hg(ONC)2) is a primary explosive. It is highly sensitive to friction and shock. It is mainly used in blasting caps. It is also known as mercury(II) cyanate.

Today mercury fulminate tends to be replaced by other primary explosives which are less toxic and more stable in time: lead azide, lead styphnate and tetrazene derivatives.

One only needs to recall how small a dose Litvinenko ingested – equivalent to a grain of salt – to ponder how an explosive like Mercury Fulminate could be used to create small dirty bombs of Polonium 210. The question of how to disperese the Polonium 210 in order to expose a lot of people is answered in a frightenly easy way – fireworks

(b) The State Fire Marshal shall adopt reasonable regulations, in accordance with chapter 54, for the granting of permits for supervised displays of fireworks or for the indoor use of pyrotechnics, sparklers and fountains for special effects by municipalities, fair associations, amusement parks, other organizations or groups of individuals or artisans in pursuit of their trade.

In an aerial bomb, no salute, report or maroon may be used that is composed of a formula of chlorate of potash, sulphur, black needle antimony and dark aluminum. Formulas that may be used in a salute, report or maroon are as follows: (A) Perchlorate of potash, black needle antimony and dark aluminum, and (B) perchlorate of potash, dark aluminum and sulphur. No high explosive such as dynamite, fulminate of mercury or other stimulator for detonating shall be used in any aerial bomb or other pyrotechnics.

Clealry, the need to make Mercury Fulminate illegal in firework construction means it is possible to use it in firework construction. Why would one use such an unstable detonator? Why would someone use Polonium-210 to kill Litvinenko. But it might be as simple as what materials draw attention or which ones could be accessed on the black market.

The reality is the lethality of Polonium-210 means one only requires small explosions to disperse the material if it is in a fine granular form. A sugar packet’s worth of Polonium-210 is not very much to disperse but it could kill tens of thousands. I am not sure if one could make a small firecracker sized version of a Polonium dirty bomb, but if it is possible it would be hard to detect amongst all the other activities one sees around New Years Eve. I am speculating on all of this of course, but the pattern of evidence and timing seems too coincidental. One thing that does draw crowds around this time of year are New Years Eve celebrations – and their fireworks.

10 responses so far

10 Responses to “Polonium, Mercury, And A Dirty Bomb?”

  1. crosspatch says:

    Yes, the thought if fireworks being used as a cover for more dangerous things has crossed my mind too. And one would use the more unstable materials for the kinds of things that explode when you toss them onto the ground. You know those little “poppers” that snap when you throw them? I am not sure how popular they are there, but they are very popular here in the SF Bay area, particularly around Chinese New Year.

    There are even more horrifying ways to distribute something like po-210 that wouldn’t require any explosive at all. The source of it needs to be located and secured as well as any that may have been delivered.

  2. crosspatch says:

    Also, if someone were engaged in the repackaging of the material, I would expect to find polonium traces in the waste water stream.

  3. jerry says:

    Through a quick Google search I see that mercury is used as a coolant for nuclear accelerator targets (I see CP also says it’s used in satellite power supplies). While I haven’t followed the news of these new timelines/trails if the Po210 was produced in an accelerator, by hitting bismuth with neutrons, maybe there might be Hg co-contamination?

  4. jerry says:

    Sorry, make that bismuth plus protons (thks to Wikipedia).

  5. crosspatch says:

    The problem with proton irradiation of Pb/Bi targets in an accellerator is that it produces Po-208 and po-206, I believe, not po-210.

  6. Barbara says:

    What’s next on the agenda is the fireworks companies suing the government because of loss of business due to the government actions. Everywhere we turn the is something new. But you understand there is no war on terror. It is all our imagination.

  7. Lizarde1 says:

    Remembering that about two weeks ago there was a big explosion and fire in a fireworks factory near London – anybody remember – probably a coincidence.

  8. Barbara says:

    Maybe the authorities need to check on the people involved in that explosion to see if there is polonium there. I wonder if they have tied that to their investigation.

  9. jerry says:

    Following up CPs point about Po208,209 I’ve found that when mercury is used as a target in an accellerator it will produce neutrons, a neutron source which could be used to go from bismuth to Po210.
    Since I really don’t know anything about this stuff, I’m still not certain if mercury contamination could have resulted if the Po210 was made in this way.

  10. jerry says:

    Thinking a bit more, it wouldn’t surprise me if bismuth is placed in some container of mercury and the mercury zapped with protons from the accellerator – neutrons released by the mercury hitting the bismuth an all sides would probably be the most efficient method of irradiation. So maybe mercury contamination is common with Po samples that have been produced this way.