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Monday, November 27, 2006

Hot Sushi

It looks like the conspiracy theorists and spy novelists have just been handed a godsend in the supposed murder of the former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko, by all accounts with radioactive sushi.

It's certainly an intriguing tale and one, I suspect, that'll never truly become public knowledge.

The fingers, inevitably, are pointed at President Putin's [sarcasm] free and democratic [/sarcasm] government. If so, it is a very worrying state of affairs. However the conspiracist in me sees several other possible culprits. Not least because of the immense political damage this could cause to Comrade Putin. By all accounts Litvinenko was a pain in the arse, but not a huge one. Unless he was building up to a big disclosure that could do serious damage to Putin, it would seem perverse to kill him in such a technically sophisticated manner. There are plenty of nasty little poisons equally capable of doing the job available pretty much off the shelf or through wide-spread suppliers. Killing him with a rare isotope that, although present in minute quantities in nature, realistically had to come from a source with access to nuclear technology seems to be clumsy at best. Is this a warning to other dissidents to keep their mouths shut? Surely a public shooting by men described as "speaking with Russian accents" would have done the job just as well?

The political fall-out could be immense for Putin. Russia has ambitions to fuly join the "World club". They are increasingly being invited to join talks with groups such as the G8, and they are increasingly influential in arenas such as the UN Security Council. However Putin's autocratic, even dictatorial, style back home, has raised public disquiet among other world powers. The US in particular is becoming increasingly critical of Russia's clamp down on press freedom etc. It's worth noting that GWB has an increasing number of advisors from his father's presidency - many of whom probably don't quite believe that the "good old days" of the cold war are over.

Thus I can think of two other possibilities. Please feel free to post your own!

1) It was a huge cockup by "rogue elements" in the Putin government.
Putin may or may not have been aware of plans to "do something about" Litvinenko - ultimately the decision to kill him by such a method may have never come across his desk. If this is the case, it'll be interesting to see if the entire sordid affair is dealt with internally or if any scapegoats will be made public to repair the damage done. Keep an eye out for senior advisors retiring/resigning due to "ill health"/pursuing new and exciting career opportunities in Siberia.

2) It was an attempt to bring down Putin.
That Comrade Putin is not Comrade Popular in his own governemnt is hardly news. Perhaps this is an internal attempt by his political enemies to kill two birds with one stone? It was obvious that the world's fingers would be pointed directly at the top guy in the Kremlin - himself a former KGB man, let us not forget. If the Russian people see their hard won international respect being eroded by Putin's apparent recklessness, perhaps the next elections won't go his way. And as a bonus, the conspirators get rid of someone who would probably have been equally critical of their regime. Everyone's a winner - except of course for poor Mr Litvinenko and his family.

Either way, lets hope that somewhere, somehow justice is done.

As a side note, I had my radiation safety training a few weeks ago and therefore feel qualified to opine on the subject of Polonium 210 as a public health issue. The UK government has been offering the worried well who may have once met Mr Litvinenko at a wedding, the chance to piss in a bottle and have all of their worries taken away. Realistically, unless they uncover a few asymptomatic diabetics, this is unlikely to have any impact on public health.

Radio-Isotopes typically emit one of three types of radiation.
Gamma Radiation. This is the strongest, and is the type associated with nuclear bombs etc. It requires thick lead shielding. Large doses turn you into a nine foot tall raging pschopath with superhuman strength and green skin.

Beta radiation is a fast moving electron. I use this at work, in the form of Phosphorous 32 and its less energetic cousin Phosphorous 33. P32 will give a satisfying screech from the geiger counter at close range, but can be easily blocked by a centimetre of perspex. I can carry it quite safely in a perspex box with a lid from bench to bench and unless I place it down my underpants, my kids are unlikely to have two heads. The biggest danger is actually from X-rays that are released if you use a metal container to block the beta radiation. That's why we use perspex.

Polonium 210 is an alpha emitter. These are funny things. Paradoxically they are both very safe and very dangerous. Alpha particles are fast moving helium nuclei. They can be blocked by a sheet of paper. Sit next to an alpha source, and the radiation probably won't make it through the air to reach you; it certainly won't make it past your clothing and failing that through the layers of dead cells that form the outer layer of your skin.

BUT if you ingest the source, it is extremely dangerous. All of the radiation is absorbed in less than a millimetre of cells - not a problem if the cells are dead already - but potentially extremely dangerous if the cells are alive. The radiation will wreak havoc on the cells DNA, lipids, proteins - you name it. Alpha radiation is therefore extremely deadly if ingested, inhaled or administered via an open cut. Mr Litvinenko may have ingested it. The metal, toxic in its own right, will then have been distributed throughout his body killing every cell it came in contact with. Hence his systemic radiation poisoning - the hair loss etc. Unfortunately, doctors could wave a geiger counter up and down him all day and find nothing. It would only be detectable, in minute traces, in his urine etc. That someone suggested Thallium at such an early stage is a credit to them. Despite the whinging on the BBC Have your say pages, I doubt the doctors could have done much for him.

All this means of course, that unless you finished his Sushi off for him or somehow ingested his urine - you could have sat next to him all day and received no dose at all.



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