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Death of Alexander Litvinenko by radioactive poisoning

How Radioactive Poison Became the Assassin’s Weapon of Choice, Matter, 26 Nov 2013, The mysterious life and brutal death of a Russian dissident.

TUCKED INTO THE Millennium Hotel on London’s Grosvenor Square, the Pine Bar is a place of hush and shadows. Dark wood panelling, leather seats, and black shaded chandeliers cosset those who seek discretion in style. Head barman Norberto Andrade has hidden many celebrities in its recesses during his 27 years of service, including James Bond stars Sean Connery and George Lazenby.

The three Russians who ordered drinks on the chilly afternoon of November 1, 2006 had little of the lethal glamour one might expect of spies. ………

The men eventually left, and Andrade cleared the table. As he poured the remaining tea away, he noticed that the consistency of the liquid that tipped into the sink was strange. Gooey. He couldn’t have known it as he puzzled over its weird yellow tinge, but the man who’d been sipping the tea was a 43-year-old Russian dissident called Alexander Litvinenko, and the tea itself, draining away into the London sewers, was lethally radioactive. …….

During the night, his temperature plummeted, yet he begged for the windows to be opened so he could gulp down more of the freezing November air.

“It looks like they’ve poisoned me,” he said to his wife.

The next night she called an ambulance: doctors took a cursory look, diagnosed a stomach infection, and sent him home. But two days later he was sicker yet. His doctor immediately sent him to Barnet General, a bright local hospital not far from his home. When Litvinenko told the medics his theory — that he’d been poisoned by the Russian security services — they suggested he call a psychiatrist. The probability, they thought, was that his sickness had a far more routine cause: food poisoning from an unfortunate lunchtime dose of sushi.

The doctors treated Litvinenko with a heavy dose of antibiotics. And yet his body continued to break down. ………….

Polonium-210 spits out alpha particles. Normally, alphas aren’t a problem. Their huge size means that even a barrier as thin as a few inches of air — or a layer of human skin — stops them before they can do any harm. But if a high dose finds its way inside a human body, the damage can be immense. “An alpha particle leaves the equivalent of a motorway as it goes through tissue,” says Wakeford. “Sufficient cells in your body would commit suicide that you’d die.”

Polonium-210 is unusual in another way, too: it leaves the body relatively quickly. It sheds radiation so fast that the amount of poison in the body decreases by half in less than two months. “It’s sufficiently long lived that it’ll be around for a bit, but after that will leave no trace,” says Wakeford.

Polonium-210 is very rare in that it is almost a pure alpha emitter. When it gives out alpha particles there’s hardly any chance of there being a gamma particle emitted as well. You need a special instrument to look for alpha particles, because they’re so easy to block. ”

In short, it’s deadly, hard to find and doesn’t hang around. “And that,” says Wakeford, “is why it makes such a good poison.”……….

Polonium is hugely radioactive, firing off a massive bombardment of alpha particles — and without any screening, the delicate mechanisms of the body’s internal organs get the full dose. As the atoms try to stabilize, alpha particles crash into nearby body tissue, knocking electrons from the molecules they encounter. Each time they do, the trail of wrecked cells expands; the poison turns them cancerous, or kills them off entirely.

And that is just the beginning………..

THE IDEA OF POISONING — radioactive or otherwise — is not new to Russian intelligence. According to former Russian intelligence officer Boris Volodarsky, now a historian and one-time associate of Litvinenko, the Russians have a history of substance assassination going back nearly a century. It was Lenin who ordered the establishment of their first laboratory, known simply as the ‘Special Room’, for developing new lethal toxins.

“There is also a long succession of poisonings by Russian intelligence services in different countries, starting in the early 1920s,” he says.

At its height, says Volodarsky, the Soviet Union had the largest biological warfare program in the world. Sources have claimed there were 40,000 individuals, including 9,000 scientists, working at 47 different facilities. More than 1,000 of these experts specialized in the development and application of deadly compounds. They used lethal gasses, skin contact poisons that were smeared on door handles and nerve toxins said to be untraceable. The idea, at all times, was to make death seem natural — or, at the very least, to confuse doctors and investigators. “It’s never designed to demonstrate anything, only to kill the victim, quietly and unobtrusively,” Volodarsky writes in The KGB’s Poison Factory. “This was an unbreakable principle.”

Murderous poisons come in three varieties: chemical, biological, and radiological. It’s believed that the first Soviet attempt at a radiological assassination took place in 1957. The target was Nikolai Khokhlov, a defector who had left for the United States a few years earlier. He became drastically ill after drinking coffee at an anti-communist conference he was speaking at in West Germany. After his collapse, he was successfully treated at a US army hospital in Frankfurt for what was believed to be poisoning by radioactive thallium.

In the years before Litvinenko’s murder, a series of other killings bore similar hallmarks. In 2004, Roman Tsepov, a prominent and controversial political operative from St Petersburg, died after being poisoned with an unidentified radioactive substance on a visit to Moscow. The year before, Yuri Shchekochikhin had died in similarly mysterious circumstances. An investigative journalist and member of parliament, he had exposed a series of scandals, including an FSB racket that laundered money through the Bank of New York. His death came after a brief, undiagnosed illness with familiar symptoms: hair loss, vomiting, red blotches, fatigue. He was due to fly to the United States to meet FBI agents just days later.

The Russians may not be the only ones to have used nuclear technology for targeted execution, however. East Germany’s secret police, the Stasi, are alleged to have used radioactive poisons and even deployed modified x-ray machines to irradiate and injure political prisoners. They also used radiation as a tool, surreptitiously tagging dissidents with chemicals so they could trace and track them with Geiger counters.

And in November 2013, scientists in Switzerland announced that they had found heightened levels of polonium in the remains of the former Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat. Investigations began two years previously, when researchers discovered the strange news that some of the personal items that Arafat had been wearing shortly before his death appeared to be contaminated with high levels of polonium-210 and were emitting alpha radiation. It was a finding that raised difficult questions for those who may have wanted to get rid of him.

But still, Russia’s ability to source and use radioactive poisons seems to be pre-eminent. Only about 100 grams of polonium are manufactured each year, and just three countries are known to produce it reliably: Israel, the United States, and Russia. And 97 percent of that supply is manufactured in one place — a converted nuclear weapons facility that operates under high security, on the banks of the Volga, 450 miles south east of the Kremlin.

The case for official Russian involvement in Litvinenko’s death was growing. And there was more evidence to come: unbeknown to them, the assassins had left a trail — and it seemed to lead east…………

This story was written by Will Storredited by Deborah Blum, fact-checked byFangfei Shenand copy-edited by Rupert GoodwinsThe illustrations were by Ed Tucker, and the audiobook was narrated by Ian Parkinson.

December 10, 2018 - Posted by | secrets,lies and civil liberties, UK

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