Aug 01 2007
I do not buy the idea the Litvinenko incident was an assassination. I have felt all along it was a smuggling operation which basically went awry, and Litvinenko, Lugovoi and Kovtun all suffered the consequences of a leak. If people wonder why I stay on this story it is not to be proved right. It is to make sure I am proved wrong. Because if I am right then something very dangerous was happening in London last October. The NY Times ran an Op-Ed explaining the ramifications of last fall if I am right:
Most analysts believe that about 10 people would die from radiation poisoning after a dirty bomb attack. Others believe that the only people likely to receive a lethal dose of radiation from a dirty bomb would already be dead from the blast. A perfectly feasible terrorist attack using the ingestion, inhalation or immersion of radioactive material, on the other hand, would be almost certain to kill hundreds. We call attacks of these kinds I-cubed attacks (for ingestion, inhalation and immersion). Such attacks can be sneaky, unaccompanied by a flash and bang.
Nothing we write in any way supplies terrorists with information that they donâ€™t already have. We have consulted with American government experts to be certain. Americans need to understand the risks posed by I-cubed attacks, and how to react when one occurs.
Fortunately, itâ€™s hard to kill a lot of people with an ingestion attack. Contaminating a reservoir, or even a water main, is ineffective because the radioactivity is quickly diluted, and most water is not used for drinking or cooking. Contaminating agricultural products is similarly difficult. But there are ways, if the terrorist group has enough material and access to the right kinds of facilities, to contaminate food directly.
An inhalation attack, sometimes called a smoky bomb, would use radioisotopes that can be burned, vaporized or aerosolized, and in a confined space could contaminate the air and be inhaled. Isotopes like polonium-210 that emit alpha particles are particularly effective because they can kill either quickly by radiation poisoning or slowly by causing lung cancer. Terrorists could also use something like an insecticide sprayer mounted on a truck to disperse, for example, a polonium compound dissolved in water.
An immersion attack, which would drench victims with a radioactive solution, could kill with only a small fraction of a teaspoon. Just a few drops of contaminated water on the mouth are enough to cause radiation poisoning.
It should be noted that Po-210 is always an optimal substance for these kinds of stealth nuclear attacks.
The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission believes that alpha-emitting isotopes like polonium-210 and americium are adequately regulated, but we believe that the quantities supplied without a specific license should be reduced by about a factor of 10. In all cases they should be supplied in hard-to-weaponize forms. The regulatory commission has not been diligent in checking the bona fides of applicants for licenses for large sources of any kind, but thankfully this is being changed.
In the United States, commercial users lose about one radioactive source a day â€” many large enough for I-cubed attacks â€” through theft, accidents or poor paperwork.
I have always had my suspicions that the Po-210 in London may have been manufactured in Russia, but obtained from America or Canada, which both have abysmal track records with industrial nuclear material monitoring. But what worries me to this day is there were three apparent rounds of Po-210 smuggling through London, each round indicated by a contaminated hotel with multiple rooms showing contamination. Litvinenko died from a microscopic amount (10 millionths of a gram), which is smaller than a fleck of sweatener. So it did not take three trips to move this miniscule amount of Po-210. In fact, the trail of Po-210 across London shows much larger quantities than entered Litvinenko (in my humble opinion). So what was all that Po-210 for?