Article in Science / Physics / Nuclear Physics
A public enquiry, established by the UK government, and chaired by Sir Robert Owen, to look into the death of Alexander Litvinenko, published its report on 26th January 2016. Litvinenko, a former Russian spy and MI6 agent, died of radiation sickness in London on 23 November 2006. He was allegedly...


A public enquiry, established by the UK government, and chaired by Sir Robert Owen, to look into the death of Alexander Litvinenko, published its report on 26th January 2016. Litvinenko, a former Russian spy and MI6 agent, died of radiation sickness in London on 23rd November 2006. He was allegedly poisoned with the radioactive isotope polonium-210 while drinking tea, containing a fatal amount of Polonium-121, at a business meeting with two Russians, both of whom have been charged with murder by the British. The Russian government refuses to extradite them.

Alexander Valterovich Litvinenko, born on 30 August 1962, was a former officer of the Russian secret service who specialized in tackling organized crime. In November 1998, Litvinenko and several other FSB officers publicly accused their superiors of ordering the assassination of the Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky. Litvinenko was arrested the following March, charged with exceeding the authority of his position. Acquitted in November 1999, he was re-arrested before the charges were again dismissed in 2000. He then fled with his family to London and was granted asylum in the United Kingdom. He worked in the UK as a journalist, writer and agent for the British intelligence services.


The element polonium (Po) was discovered by Marie Curie in the late 19th century. A Polish chemist, Curie named the element after her home country Poland. Her discovery won her the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911, which was also a recognition of her discovery of another element, radium.

Polonium-210 is exceedingly poisonous. Hydrogen cyanide, well known to be highly poisonous, is considerably less toxic than polonium-210; for a given mass, polonium-210 is 250 billion times more toxic than hydrogen cyanide. Whereas the lethal dose of hydrogen cyanide is 250 milligrams, a minute amount of Po-210, a speck of less than a microgram, can be fatal if it enters the body by being breathed in, swallowed, or through broken skin. It is one of the most toxic substances known to humankind.

Plutonium is a rare radioactive metal with a silver colour. The isotope Po-210, one of twenty-five known radioactive isotopes of polonium, has a half-life of 138 days. The half-life is the time taken for one half of an amount to undergo radioactive decay.

Po-210 decays, by emitting alpha-particles, to a stable isotope of lead. An alpha particle, which consists of two protons and two neutrons bound together, is a very energetic form of energy. An alpha particle does not travel far. It can be absorbed by a few sheets of paper and can lose all its energy after passing through a few centimeters of air. This means that, in theory, whoever poisoned Litvinenko could have carried in Po-210 in a sealed envelope.

Polonium is very rare, as Marie Curie found when she discovered it in a source of uranium known as pitchblende. As little as about 100 micrograms (0.0001 grams) of polonium occurs in one ton of uranium ore. Curie's pioneering work, however, produced enough polonium to fatally expose her daughter Irène in a laboratory accident in 1946. Irene died from leukaemia in 1956 at the age of 58.

Polonium-210 is used to insulate instruments in Russian lunar landing craft. Usually electroplated onto other metals, it is used in commercial devices to remove static electricity; to inspect oil wells (using the same principles as when using polonium to trigger nuclear weapons); it is used to measure the thickness of industrial coatings (through the attenuation of the alpha radiation).

According to Professor Nick Priest, one of few UK experts to have worked with polonium-210, quoted in the New Scientist magazine, the people who murdered Alexander Litvinenko's murder by polonium poisoning would have needed access to "a reactor capable of producing and irradiating materials, and a radiochemical laboratory.” At the 2016 British public inquiry into Litvinenko's death, Norman Dombey, emeritus professor of theoretical physics at the University of Sussex, said the polonium used was produced at a closed nuclear facility in the city of Sarov, 450 miles south-east of Moscow.

This facility (known as Avangard) was the only place in the world with a polonium-210 production line, and the last remaining source of commercial polonium. America and Britain stopped producing polonium in the 1970s as did all other countries.

After oral ingestion, polonium-210 is initially concentrated in red blood cells, followed by the liver, kidneys, bone marrow, gastrointestinal tract, and gonads (testicles or ovaries).By mouth, polonium-210 is absorbed more readily than some other alpha-emitting radionuclides. Once absorbed into the blood, it is then distributed through the body mainly in soft tissues – about 30% to the liver; 10% to red bone marrow; 10% to the kidneys; 5% to the spleen and the remainder to the wider body, including the skin.

The radiation given off (emitted) by an amount of polonium is measured in units called Becquerels (Bq). The Bq describes the rate at which a radioactive material decays in terms of the number of disintegrations of its nucleus per second; a gigabecquerel (GBq) is 100,000,000 disintegrations per second. It is estimated between 0.1-0.3 GBq or more of polonium absorbed into the blood of an adult male would probably be fatal within a month.


Litvinenko was murdered by a minute amount of polonium-210 administered in a cup of tea. Po-210 is one of the most toxic substances known to man. Experts in toxicology estimate that one gram of polonium-210 could kill 50 million people and make another 50 million ill. Less than a microgram would have been enough to cause Litvinenko’s death. Po-210 is, to say the least, extremely difficult to obtain. Buying it from legal sources would not be feasible because it is sold in very tiny quantities.

However, Po-210 is not particularly dangerous to carry around because its radiation can be absorbed by a relatively thin barrier; it will not, for example, penetrate its container. It is unable to penetrate the skin. Its rapid production of damaging effects, its relatively safe transportation, and the minimal risk of its detection make it a very attractive poison.


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Charles F Barnaby
Frank Barnaby, a nuclear physicist, worked at the: Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, Aldermaston (1951-57); University College, London

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