Follow-up on the Polonium-210 murder

Having spent several posts on the science behind Polonium-210 (here, here, here), we thought we'd bring you a follow up on the case to date. The murder weapon seems to be a pot of tea. How very English:

British officials say police have cracked the murder-by-poison case of former spy Alexander Litvinenko, including the discovery of a "hot" teapot at London's Millennium Hotel with an off-the-charts reading for Polonium-210, the radioactive material used in the killing.

A senior official tells ABC News the "hot" teapot remained in use at the hotel for several weeks after Litvinenko's death before being tested in the second week of December. The official said investigators were embarrassed at the oversight.

The official says investigators have concluded, based on forensic evidence and intelligence reports, that the murder was a "state-sponsored" assassination orchestrated by Russian security services. (ABC)

The Russian security service of course denies the charge. What does anyone expect them to say? Yes, and we are sorry for bungling it so badly? The Brits are fingering a former Russian agent, Andrei Lugovoi, who met with the victim Andrei Litvinenko just before his illness from acute radiation poisoning. Lugovoi denies doing it. What does anyone expect him to say? Yes, and I am sorry for bungling it so badly?

As for collateral damage, there is this:

British health officials say some 128 people were discovered to have had "probable contact" with Polonium-210, including at least eight hotel staff members and one guest.

None of these individuals has yet displayed symptoms of radiation poisoning, and only 13 individuals of the 128 tested at a level for which there is any known long-term health concern, officials said.

What a relief. "Only" 13.

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[This is Part II of our explanation of some of the science behind the Polonium-210 poisoning case of Alexander Litvinenko. Part I. is here.] In Part I. we sketched the physical background to understand radioisotopes like Polonium-210, the agent in the Litvinenko poisoning, but have yet to explain…
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I would not be surprised if the assassin and their controlers may have been to clever for their own good. There is not an extensive history of assassination using radioactive materials in the open literature. They may well have run what amounted to a live experiment in an operational environment. If they had not used the material operationally before it may not have occured to anyone that the polonium might create what amounted to a set of fluorescent footprints leading back to the point of origin of the assassins.

No Carl I believe that this was a hit of the highest order. First was the cost of bombarding I believe its bismuth in a reactor. Next is the transport... Dont want to get caught. Next is ensuring that if it was the tea pot that it gets in front of the right person. Cant have any loose ends. Finally dont get caught and even though they have a body, they ensured that if ever brought to trial that they would have to prove it was they who gave it to him. Kinda hard when the half-life on this stuff is like 21 days or something close to it. Where is the evidence? Not in his body any longer. Very, Very KGB and Cold War days stuff.

Message though was clear. Dissidents will be handled at home or abroad.

By M. Randolph Kruger (not verified) on 29 Jan 2007 #permalink

Randolph, I was not arging that the hit was not done by professionals. That was evident. What I was arguing is that this sort of thing traditionally has been either an unsolved murder (bullet in back of head), accident (bus), and there are a few examples of exotic poisons (ricin events). What I was saying is that operational handling of the polonium apparently was not clean enough to prevent the Brits from backtracking the team all the way to Moscow using traces of the polonium as the above noted "fluorescent footprints." I doubt the boys who did this intended to leave that set of footprints which dramatically undermined Moscow ability to deny. They left those footprints, in my opinion, because they had not used this in an operational environment before and essentially mishandled the material. Yes the liquidated the dissident but they also left a trail to Moscow.

Do you have Cleudo in the US?

Done in with the pot of tea in the sushi bar by the KGB. That was never in my game. Colonel Mustard in the library with the lead pipe.

Peter: Yes. We call it "Clue" here. But Col. Mustard is still Col. Mustard. In this case he just didn't cut it, I guess.

Apparently Moscow got more "fallout" than they expected...

Very strange logic - not yours Revere - but the KGB (or however). Why use such a sophisticated poison it limits the suspects to those who have access an irradiation source and the operational capability to implement all the necessary stages, which in turn leads us strait back to state sponsored murder and, given the victim's politics, Russia. Why not use a common poison that anyone could have got hold of and vastly increase the uncertainty.

JJackson: I assume because they were sending a message to other dissidents.