Friday, December 01, 2006

More on the KGB, UFOs, Po-210 Coffee Mugs

Articles suggesting that the isotope used to kill former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London last month can be had on the Internet for $69 are, to say the least, misleading. A piece by Jessica Bennett on Newsweek's Web site goes some way toward clearing up the confusion about Polonium 210 and its availability. The stuff -- or what purports to be the stuff -- is being marketed by Bob Lazar, who formerly claimed he worked at Area 51 where UFOs are stored. Nobody we've found has actually tested the product he's selling to see if it amounts to more than the trace elements that can be discovered, for instance, in cigarette smoke. Or if the isotope is present in his samples at all. According to the Newsweek article, you pay $69 for one microcurie, which is one millionth of a curie, which is already a very, very, very small amount.

According to the nuclear experts I talked to for my column earlier this week, the assumption based on animal experiments is that 525 microcuries of Polonium-210 would be enough to kill you if ingested, and a gram would represent, roughly, 10,000 times the lethal dose.

But the fact is that there's not much known research on the ingestion of this rare isotope -- who would you feed it to? who would have been eating it or breathing it by accident? -- so some scientists suggest it would take hundreds of micrograms to kill someone.

Presumably an assassin would come to the same conclusion. That's yet another reason to suppose the stuff that killed Litvinenko came from an operation capable of bombarding highly pure bismuth, and which did so in the last few months -- ie., the kind of facility that exists in a nuclear weapons state and, as far as I know, nowhere else.

I also got e-mails asking about the "signature" or the "fingerprint" of this isotope. As I understand it the problem here is that no investigators, not those at the IAEA, much less those from Scotland Yard, have access to the facilities of the nuclear weapons states, and therfore cannot compare the Po-210 that killed Litvinenko with everything that might be available. Nor is it likely that the Russians, Israelis, or for that matter the Americans and the British, are going to open their labs and production facilities for police examination.

That traces of radiation were found on BA planes which flew from Moscow to London and back in the week before Litvinenko showed symptoms of poisoning would seem to point the finger even more clearly at Russians, although not necessarily at Putin. The current illness of former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar would seem to be another plot twist.

But I confess it's Lazar that interests -- and darkly amuses -- me. On his Web site he notes that the polonium-210 he sells, such as it is, would be almost impossible to use as a poison. But another isotope found in smoke detectors ... would work just great. I haven't tested that claim, and don't intend to.

This article about Lazar which appeared in the Albuquerque Journal earlier this year gives a pretty good picture of the "UFO guy":
http://www.abqjournal.com/news/state/463826nm05-28-06.htm

And this one in Wired probably tells you more than you ever wanted to know:
http://wired.com/wired/archive/14.06/chemistry.html

For a statement from the man himself, see: http://www.unitednuclear.com/isotopes.htm

If you like, you can also order a Polonium coffee mug:
http://www.unitednuclear.com/mugs.htm
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