Saturday, December 02, 2006

One man's poison is another's terror

Litvinenko contact exposed to polonium 210
The British investigation into the death of the former Russian spy, Alexander Litvinenko, widened on Friday as Mario Scaramella, a contact of Livtinenko’s, tested positive for the poison polonium 210.

“We are confirming that one further person who was in direct contact with Mr Litvinenko has been found to have a significant quantity of polonium 210 in their body. This is being investigated further in hospital,” a spokesman for the Health Protection Agency said. The agency declined to confirm that man was Mr Scaramella.

Mr Scaramella is not thought to be suffering the same symptoms that Litvinenko underwent. The Italian academic met the former spy at a sushi restaurant on the day he was poisoned.

Cobra, the government’s emergency planning committee, is meeting to discuss the latest developments.

Investigators were examining traces of radioactivity at 12 locations in and around London, John Reid, the UK home secretary, told parliament on Thursday.

The locations included two British Airways aircraft grounded at Heathrow airport on Tuesday after they had made several flights to and from Moscow and other European cities.

A third British aircraft was being tested in Moscow, while a further two Russian aircraft, one operated by Transaero, were expected to be tested for radiation at Heathrow.

Mr Reid on Thursday insisted the levels of radiation found were low and there was a very low risk to the public or individuals who may have been close to the traces found.

Polonium, Fresh from the Reactor

Charlie Stross is frightened by the Litvinenko assassination:

Astute readers of the daily fishwraps will have no doubt been aware of the Litvinenko poisoning. (Synopsis for aliens: a former FSB colonel, resident in London and noted for making serious accusations of terrorism at the Russian government, fell ill a month ago and died last week. The cause of death is now believed to be poisoning with radioactive Polonium 210....

Polonium 210 is interesting stuff. As noted in a variety of places on the web, it is entirely artificial — it doesn't occur naturally, but has to be created by irradiating bismuth in a nuclear reactor or particle accelerator — and it has a half life of 138 days, decaying via alpha emission. To do any damage, it needs to be up close and personal, inside the victim, because alpha particles are absorbed very rapidly: but the biological damage they cause is much more severe than gamma radiation, neutrons, or beta radiation, precisely because all their energy gets dumped into bodily tissues promptly, rather than most of it zipping right through the victim and dissipating harmlessly in mid-air.

And the Wikipedia section on Polonium toxicity makes for sobering reading. ("250 billion times as toxic as hydrogen cyanide" is not a typo!)

Anyway, I digress.

The point is, someone with access to fresh Polonium 210 (read: less than a year old, hot from the reactor) decided to use it to bump off an enemy.

And the terrorism alert status hasn't risen a notch? Pull the other one.

Anyway, to the point: this wasn't simply an assassination. There are any number of poisons out there that would do the job painfully well but much more rapidly, and without the same scope for a diplomatic incident. Likewise, a bullet to the back of the head would have worked just as well (as witness the assassination of Anna Politkovskaya).

What this is, is a warning: "we have the capability to detonate a dirty bomb in central London any time we feel like it, so don't fuck with us". (Just take Polonium and add a little TNT.)

Who the warning is from, and who the intended recipient is, are another question entirely. I don't think it's any accident that the COBRA committee was convened the day after Litvinenko's death (on a Saturday, no less). And I don't think it's any accident that the British press have been very carefully pretending the phrase "dirty bomb" is not part of their vocabulary for the past week.

We're actually facing a national security nightmare: someone has demonstrated the capability to use radiological weapons on the streets of London and we don't know who they are. (Although we can make a couple of guesses.) ....

Litvinenko case 'frightening glimpse' of nuclear risk
While the sketchwriters on Britain's quality papers may be having fun with the deepening mystery and intrigue of the Litvinenko affair, nuclear experts are warning that the radioactive poisoning of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko bears the potential of a 'much more serious incident.'

'For decades we expected the Russians to send their nuclear payload over in rockets. Now it seems they can dispatch it along with the in-flight magazines, duty frees and Plasticine-flavoured smoked salmon starters,' the Guardian's sketchwriter Simon Hoggart observed.

But behind the light-hearted humour there is a growing fear that the poisoning of the former agent at a public venue in a major European capital could be a sign of things to come: the use of radioactive materials by terrorists and other 'rogue elements' against perceived enemies on a 'much larger scale.'

It may sound like a passage from an Airport spy thriller, but according to a report in the Daily Telegraph Friday those responsible for Litvinenko's death left a 'powerful radioactive scent' as they brought the deadly material to London.

'The assassins were so bungling that they dropped the polonium on the floor of a London hotel room,' a senior government source told the Telegraph.

British atomic scientists believe they have identified the nuclear plant which made the polonium, the isotope that killed Litvinenko, and specified the British Airways flight on which it was carried from Moscow to London on October 25.

Clear traces of the radiation had been found on the floor and the light switch of a room in London's Millenium Hotel where Litvinenko met two Russian contacts on November 1, the day he fell ill.

'The traces were so strong that they indicated the actual source of the radiation was present, not a secondary source such as excretions from Litvinneko's contaminated body,' said the Daily Telegraph.

Whilst Guambat lies shuddering in his burrow, he wonders, again, how it is that paranoia strikes so deep. Probably has something to do with the clamour, agenda and newspaper sales of many different interests. And little Guambats joining in the prattle.

Guambat longs for a worry-ometer which will tell him when the real thing comes along.


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