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  Polonium-210 and Uranium-235 on the Loose - Should We Be Worried?

Family Security Foundation | January 30, 2007


If you think you’ve had enough to worry about while contemplating suicide bombers in the U.S., think again. Nothing is more deadly and terrifying than the threat of loose radioactive materials, and that threat is now real. FSM Contributing Editor, Willa (her pseudonym while a CIA operations officer, now retired), explains in breath-taking detail.

Polonium-210 and Uranium-235 on the Loose
Should We Be Worried?

The stunning case of the November poisoning in London of former Russian intelligence (FSB) officer, Alexander Litvinenko, riveted us to the news, evoking the most chilling images of Cold War espionage. Back in the news again this week, a simple English teapot used by Mr. Litvinenko on that grim November day in the Millenium Hotel was found to carry what British sources are calling “off the scale” readings of the radioactive isotope, Polonium 210 (P-210). Somehow small traces of P-210 made their way from a closed facility in Russia to a simple English teapot in London.

Who could imagine a poisoning more terrifying than that of the Bulgarian intelligence officer Georgi Markov who was killed by poison dart filled with ricin and fired from an umbrella in London in 1978?

While waiting for a bus to return home after work one day, Markov felt a sharp stab in his thigh and saw a man picking up an umbrella. He soon developed a high temperature and was dead in only four days. A post mortem revealed that he had been killed by a tiny pellet containing 0.2 milligrams of ricin, a deadly poison. Markov's murder was detected only because the pellet carrying the poison hadn’t dissolved as was expected. His assassin has never been captured despite close cooperation between British and Bulgarian authorities, including Interpol.

But Litvinenko died a horrible death, a death caused by minute traces of P-210. One only has to see the pictures of him in his three-week passage from good health to death to see how serious the effects are of this radioactive isotope.

The world has become more dangerous than ever. P-210 was a tightly controlled substance in the former Soviet Union. A very rare isotope with a short shelf life, P-210 is largely produced by four Russian facilities and at a level of only a few grams per year. Now we know that traces of pure P-210 found their way into the black market and fell into dangerous hands, ending up in London. If loose fragments of P-210 were to find their way to a major U.S. city, untold damage could be done.

Just as the murderous teapot has surfaced, reports appeared last week that 80-100 grams of highly enriched uranium (HEU) were discovered in a sting operation in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. According to the Center for Non-Proliferation Studies (CNS,) this uranium likely came from the Novosibirsk Chemical Concentrate Plant, which manufactures nuclear fuel for various purposes, including HEU fuel for research and other reactors. A fissile isotope, U-235 has the ability to cause a rapidly expanding fission chain reaction, making it a key ingredient for a nuclear bomb.

Weight-for-weight, polonium 210 is around 5 million times more toxic than hydrogen cyanide. It has been estimated that a minimal lethal dose of polonium 210 for a 175 pound person is only 0.89 micrograms, an extremely small amount. Only one gram of polonium 210 could thus in theory poison 100 million people of whom 50 million would die, although the actual toxicity of polonium 210 is lower that these estimates because radiation exposure that is spread out over several weeks is somewhat less damaging than an instantaneous dose. And we are wringing our hands over suicide bombings?

Why do these single incidents matter to us? There is the threat to a former, disgruntled Russian intelligence officer and presumably a warning for dissidents like Litvinenko to stop their anti-Russian, anti-FSB activities. But that is a remnant of the Cold War mentality, making this sound like just another spy story to most of us. In fact it is one of the most vitally important real life stories of our day. Why?

Because somehow, formerly State-controlled radioactive toxins, such as P-210, have found their way into the public domain. Some experts downplay its potential threat by saying that traces of P-210 can be found even in tobacco. That is true, but the traces are miniscule, and P-210 is very tightly controlled in the U.S. Our country has even been buying Russian P-210 in recent years to ensure that it does not get into the open marketplace.

Clearly this effort has not been entirely successful. So, the question is, where are these materials coming from, and how are they leaking out into the black market? How much more is there? And does anyone really have control over that supply? These two very recent cases of P-210 and U-235 show that the supply is not totally controlled. This should be one of our biggest concerns in the war on terrorism.

Preoccupied with the War in Iraq, we are not giving enough attention to the enormous threat posed by the potential transfer, sale and use of controlled radioactive substances in the black market. Even though the culprits of the U-235 were apprehended, the rogue sale of U-235 is perfect evidence that this problem exists. And we would be very naïve to believe that we have tracked down every trace of this black market activity. The Litvinenko and U-235 cases are merely two very recent examples of the unprotected flow of these materials.

There is no question that this has been a major concern of our Government since the end of the Cold War, particularly with the economic problems faced by former Soviet states. And, indeed the U-235 story announced last week is a success story. But that story is direct evidence that weapons-grade materials are slipping out of formerly protected facilities into the wrong hands. Following 9/11 and the necessary emphasis on counterterrorism and the Iraq War, we have not publicly discussed this threat to the extent needed.

As writer E.J. Epstein wrote, “If a rogue nation (or terrorist group) obtained access to any quantity of polonium….it could use it as an initiator for setting off the chain reaction in a crude nuclear bomb. With a fissile fuel, such as U-235, and beryllium (which is mixed in layers with the polonium-210), someone could make a "poor man's" nuke. Even lacking these other ingredients, the polonium-210, which aerosolizes at about 130 degrees Fahrenheit, could be used with a conventional explosive, like dynamite, to make a dirty bomb.”

Black market efforts to sell small traces of these weapons-grade materials could change the face of terrorism – and our futures – irrevocably. If Litvinenko can be poisoned by a radioactive substance in the heart of London and die a horrible death within three weeks, what more warning do the rest of us need that these substances must be more tightly controlled?

Although our Government is working on this, we must all be more aware of the danger and act more aggressively to address the concern of loose weapons-grade materials. This means, among other things, that we must work in conjunction with other nations to stem the flow of these dangerous substances. It is not too soon. Release of a toxic radioactive substance in a U.S. city could kill untold numbers of people, forever altering our world. Using such materials to attack a US city would be a tragic sequel to 9/11 and one that would really get our attention…too late. Let your Congressional representatives know you care so that we all can work together and internationally to address this critical issue now!

FSM Contributing Editor, Willa, is a pseudonym for this former CIA operations officer who worked to protect our country for over 30 years in the CIA's Directorate of Operations (DO). She maintained several aliases as well during her many years of service.

Note -- The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, views, and/or philosophy of The Family Security Foundation, Inc.

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