Thursday, November 30, 2006

$1 Million Hit? The Real Deal on Polonium

Polonium-210, the radioactive substance that killed former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko, is easily available on the Internet, but it could take $1 million to amass a lethal amount, according to leading authorities.

Polonium-210 isotopes are offered online by a number of companies, including United Nuclear of New Mexico. The company sells polonium-210 isotopes for about $69 but says it would take about 15,000 orders, for a total cost of over $1 million, to have a toxic amount.

United Nuclear today posted an online clarification to answer concerns they are selling weapons of assassination.

"These quantities of radioactive material are not hazardous," says the statement on United Nuclear's Web site. "Another point to keep in mind is that an order for 15,000 sources would look a tad suspicious, considering we sell about one or two sources every three months."

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) agrees that the quantities sold by United Nuclear and similar companies are not hazardous. Even a large amount of polonium-210 is only toxic if swallowed or absorbed.

It remains unclear how anyone could have obtained the amount apparently used in the poisoning death of the former Russian spy. Speculation that it must have come from a Russian nuclear reactor is being discounted by many experts.

"The idea that you'd have to have access to the Russian nuclear complex is silly," said Michael Levi, Fellow for Science and Technology at the Council on Foreign Relations. Levi says that while it isn't easy to obtain a deadly amount of polonium online, it also isn't prohibitively difficult.

Some devices that are used to clean records and film contain polonium-210, which Levi says could be extracted from the devices given some chemistry skills and provided the person had the other necessary materials. That equipment could be bought for a couple hundred dollars.

Many of those devices, however, are designed to prevent the polonium from being extractable and, according to the NRC, the devices would be a "highly unlikely source" from which someone would acquire a hazardous amount of polonium-210.

"It's not easy to get," said David McIntyre at the NRC. "Any amount if you were to disassemble the device would be very difficult to get, and it still wouldn't be in a hazardous form."

Levi agrees with the NRC that it would be hard, but he says it is far from impossible. "It doesn't help that vendors provide engineering diagrams of their devices on the web," he said.

So where else could one get polonium-210 without climbing the walls at a Russian nuclear complex? Other possible sources include commercial and research reactors overseas that deal with polonium isotopes.

Whatever the source, experts agree that the use of polonium as a murder weapon is a peculiar choice.

"There certainly are more tried and true ways to kill people," said Levi. "You shouldn't be particularly scared about polonium because there are a lot of other ways to kill people by slipping something into their drink."


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