atom

A reader has written in to clear up some of the mystery around polonium-210 for us.

Firstly, Po210 does not require a reactor to be made, in fact, it doesn’t need to be made at all as it is a decay project of natural (not depleted or enriched) U238. I could, given an hour and a hand written procedure, actually teach you how to chemically separate Po from Uranium. I used to do it for a living.

Secondly, Po is a very very strange element. It is a chemical analog of Oxygen, but is a metalloid (somewhat like mercury) It has very low vaporization points and other strange properties. When it gets into the body, it targets oxygen bearing materials, particularly the blood and bone marrow. Because of size differences, it does not cross the alveoli wall in the lungs as well as oxygen does.

Thirdly, Po not only because of chemistry but because of it being radioactive, has a very strange way of moving places. Here is a story, believe it if you want. The early atomic weapons used Po210 in detonators. That Po was separated at a place called Mound in New York state, and then shipped to Los Alamos to be made into 'urchin' detonators. The Po would be separated, put into a steel container about the size of a pop can, which was then welded shut. The steel can would be picked up with tongs, and dipped into molten lead. The whole was then allowed to cool, the tongs were cut off, and the whole placed into another can, sealed, placed into a box and shipped.

The box would arrive at Los Alamos and half the Po210 would be gone….

They would find the rest all over the box, the can, the truck it came in, the driver. Polonium is the most aggressive moving radioactive isotope. To get Livitnikov to inhale this stuff would be very easy, just get some anywhere on his body and he would be internally contaminated. When I used to work with this isotope, it would move against air currents, it could not be contained, in fact, we had to have a ridiculous number of safety procedures in place to deal with the threat of loss of containment and even then we worried. We worked with this stuff only in glove boxes, and then in full protective gear besides. 100mgrams placed on his lapel would contaminate everything he touched and anyone he saw. A point to remember is that the button man is probably also very very ill, or dead by now too…

First, I have to say that this kind of information just makes my toes curl with geeky delight.  It really is sort of out of my area, being an infectious disease nerd, so to me atomic science is all exotic and shit.

(Uh.  Mah.  Gawd.  I just used the phrase "infectious disease nerd".)

This point might explain the presence of radiation in the planes:

A point to remember is that the button man is probably also very very ill, or dead by now too…

Once contaminated, a person apparently excretes radiation in their body wastes, so the traces of radioactivity in the BA planes could well have been found in the lavatories and sanitary equipment. 

Reader MarkusQ indicates that I may be totally flying blind in terms of nanotech:

You are way off base on the nanotechnology connection. Colloidal chemistry, maybe. But if someone had molecular nanotechnology (bottom up) there would be a heck of a lot better ways to use it to kill somebody than this.

–MarkusQ

You think?  John Long seemed to think it was an option in the Salon article.  It's a little spooky in what it means in terms of weapons technology, but it could have really interesting implications for the future of nuclear medicine, that is, if the technology ever becomes public and is used for less nefarious purposes. 

But anyway, this is my theory as it stands: I believe the polonium was inhaled through a loaded pack of cigarettes, which would get it past the gut-transfer barrier, although it doesn't account for the extreme, rapid lethality.  People have died of polonium-210 inhalation before, but from what I understand, it's a gradual, slow-moving death.  Medical specialists, feel free to sound off in the comments, but it usually manifests in the form of leukemia, doesn't it?  And all of this hinges on Litvinenko being a smoker.  If he wasn't, then we're back to oral ingestion.  It would make sense, though, that the guy he met for lunch could have been exposed through second-hand smoke, as well as Litvinenko's wife.

And yes, all you righteous non-smokers may now chime in about the dangers of second-hand smoke.

Grumble. 

UPDATE: In the comments we were just discussing that if someone other than the Russian government is doing this, they're not just sending a signal to the Kremlin that says, "We are framing you for these murders," they're also saying, "We have access to your nuclear chemicals."

Or someone's nuclear chemicals.  Otherwise, why not use ricin again or just a gun?