‘Po’ is a Tamil word that is generally used to express disgusted dismissal. Something like ‘go away, don’t bother me’. Back in university (1973), my girlfriend, a comely Tamil girl, would say it often when she was tired of my kisses and cuddles. Me being what I was back in those early days of long hair, bell-bottoms and awakening body parts, the only test I regularly used to pass with an A+ was the test of sterone.
What am I supposed to do? I am a touchy feely guy.
Po is also the chemical symbol for Polonium, an element discovered by French nuclear chemist, Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre, in the dying days of the nineteenth century. Named in her honor after her native country, Poland, Polonium is a metal that is so heavy that you’d need both hands and hunch your shoulders, to hold just a fist sized lump. If you see a guy with a crick in his armpits, could be he had been carrying Polonium around. Though, that would make him a schmuck because Polonium is a highly radioactive alpha emitter and you don’t want to have it lying around near you.
Don’t worry about the ‘alpha emitter’ bit. I shall explain what an alpha emitter is, a little later on. Just get yourself a beer, set yoreself down and make sure you can read simple sentences in English.
Placed just ahead of Bismuth in the periodic table, Polonium is known to exist in many forms or isotopes, 33 different isotopes in fact. Don’t know what an isotope is? I’d guessed as much. You cannot possibly know everything I do.
Isotopes of an element are like siblings from the same parents. All have the same number of protons but behave very differently because they have a different number of neutrons in the nucleus of the atom. I’m showing off, you can skip the page if you like. But this is really my blog and if I want ta fill it with isotopes, I will.
Highly radioactive, Polonium continuously loses mass, in a spontaneous process called radioactive decay. Because the numbers of protons and neutrons don’t match in isotopes, they are unstable, or in other words, radioactive. From the moment they are formed, they try desperately to reach a more stable state, by letting go of the excess neutrons and protons so that the number of each in the nucleus match. In this process of trying to reach stability, they form entirely new elements. Polonium, for instance, decays into an isotope of Lead, Pb-206, which is stable, ie: it is not radioactive and therefore will not decay to some other element.
Do you know how I know all this? I am a nuclear scientist, yeah. In fact there’s a charged particle named after me – ”Spunkyon”. Actually that’s not true. I just googled “fun facts about Polonium“. I am the bloggers’ version of a hustler who copies stuff from the internet and puts it in his blog. Nothing, but nothing, in here is original and I take pride in that fact.
There’s more to radioactive decay – like alpha decay, beta decay and gamma decay, but I won’t get into that, knowing how short and severely impaired your attention span is. Besides, I have no idea what they are and you’ll have to wait till I look them up on Wikipedia, which you could do by yourselves of course, but I’d rather you waited till I told you about them, at some later occasion. Remember, the only reliable information is the one that is in Spunkypedia.
Radioactive decay is remorseless. It happens spontaneously and there’s absolutely nothing you can do to make it change it’s mind and stop. Like the famous 1960s nautch girl of Bollywood, Helen and her screen lover, that short, stout guy in skin-tight pants in those old R.D.Burman dance sequences. The moment Helen entered a scene, you knew she was going to take her clothes off and Shorty would soon be writhing around her dancing figure, panting on the shiny nightclub floor…ahha,,ha,,ahha..ha, ahha..ha. No way you could stop them from doing that.
The time it takes for a radioactive isotope to decay down to half it’s original mass is termed it’s half-life. Let’s take Polonium 210 which has a half-life of 138 days. A 10 gm sample will have 5 gms remaining after 138 days, while the rest is converted to Pb-206. After the next 138 days, there will be only 2.5 gms. And so on. Thus, the content of Po 210 will get smaller and smaller exponentially, halving in mass every 138 days.
Of the 33 known isotopes of Polonium, only three are the rock stars – Po-208, 209 and 210. They’re the three evil step sisters. The others’ half-lives are in microseconds. The three sisters stand out with appreciable half-lives and are therefore available for exploitation. Po-208 has a half-life of 2.9 years and Po-209, 103 years And Po-210, 138 days. All three are lethal and you wouldn’t want to be anywhere near them.
I’d love to tell you more about all three step sisters but Pierre, my carpool partner, will arrive any moment and I have to get to work, so I’ll focus on only the most scary, the zinger – Polonium 210. As a start, let’s assume Po-210 is female, being toxic and all. So let’s call her PollyTwoTen. I always give objects names. Who knows, maybe they’re alive and it’s us who are dead.
A dull, sinister-grey metal, PollyTwoTen keeps releasing massive amounts of energy spontaneously in the form of intense heat and alpha particles. A lump of Polonium-210 will cast an evil greenish glow and remain really hot, 500°C hot, as it decays to Lead-206. Aside from the sophisticated technology necessary to produce even 10 gms of it, handling and storage of this mother is a branch of nuclear science in itself.
Remember I said I’ll tell you what alpha decay is? Alpha decay is the spontaneous release by a radioactive isotope of high energy alpha particles and alpha particles are sub-atomic particles, each consisting of 2 protons and 2 neutrons joined together in matrimony. Alpha particles are deadly but more of that later.
PollyTwoTen exists in nature in such insignificant concentrations that the metal has to be extracted and that’s done by carefully controlled radioactive decay, either from Uranium-238 or Radium–226, inside a nuclear reactor. The extraction process is high-tech and classified, the technology strictly controlled and available with only a few governments round the world, those that have produced nuclear bombs – US, Russia, China, UK, France, India, Pakistan and Israel. Given the investment necessary and the strictures in place on import and export of Po-210, it is unlikely that any private commercial enterprise will be able to or even be allowed to produce the stuff. Only around 100gms of the metal are produced worldwide every year, mostly in Russia.
Since it has extra neutrons lying around, Polly is used as an initiater in a nuclear bomb, to bombard a lump of Uranium-235 with a blizzard of neutrons to hasten the chain reaction that causes a nuclear detonation. Besides use in a nuclear bomb, Polly210 also finds application in “static eliminators“ that neutralize static electricity build-up in manufacturing set-ups.
Back in the 1960s, PollyTwoTen’s natural ability to radiate heat made the metal invaluable as a heat and power source to keep the electronics inside spacecraft functioning normally in deep space where ambient temperatures hit 2-3º above absolute zero. However, due to it’s short half-life of only 138 days, it was replaced by another hot babe with a much longer half-life of 87.7 years – Plutonium-238. How do you think the Voyager-1, now in interstellar space, 13.5 billion miles from earth – 42 years after launch, is still going strong? It is expected to retain it’s hard-on through 2050.
In recent decades, Polonium-210 has found a sinister use – assassinations. State-sponsored assassinations. When inhaled or ingested through food or a cut or wound, the alpha particles from Polly will smash through bone and tissue at the atomic level, combining and changing the very molecular cell structure of the organ it strikes, mutating cells, fragmenting nuclei and damaging DNA irreversibly, in a sort of drunken binge. They will start a chain reaction that sees the body gradually turn upon itself when it realizes that it’s now made of something else other than healthy blood and tissue. The process is gradual and terminal and the poor sod who gets the dose is history within a matter of two to three very agonizing weeks.
Among radioactive elements, Polonium is considered the most lethal, but in general, all gamma and alpha emitters are considered lethal, as well as any element that has a short half-life which means that it will emit massive amounts of radiation in a short while. PollyTwoTen is 250000 times more toxic than the most toxic poison, potassium cyanide and a maybe million times more lethal than highly toxic mercury.
Some of us consume Polly willfully. Tobacco contains polonium and inhalation of cigarette smoke causes the polonium to be deposited on the mucous lining of the respiratory tract. It starts emitting alpha particles from there, damaging the linings of cells, leading to lung cancer.
There is a silver lining though – alpha particles released from decaying Po-210 don’t get too far – just a couple of centimetres actually. They can be easily stopped by an ordinary sheet of bond paper or even the epidermis (the outer crust of the human skin), provided it isn’t ruptured, as in a wound. The risk of contamination is minimal, unless it is inhaled or ingested through food or the blood.
The story of the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko is a well known one. In the 1990s Litvinenko, a lieutenant-colonel in Russia’s internal security agency, investigated corruption and organized crime in Russia that all too often led to the doors of senior bureaucrats. In 1998, he went on TV to denounce the order to assassinate the billionaire dissident, Boris Berezovsky in England. By going public, Litvinenko pissed off the establishment, big time.
Soon Litvinenko was telling anyone who’d listen that the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings were carried out not by Chechen terrorists but by FSB agents, on orders coming straight from the very top. The purpose – to justify the start of a brutal campaign of suppression in Chechnia. Exactly the same strategy the Nazis used to win support for Hitler’s extreme policies, when in 1933 they burned down their own parliament building, the Reichstag.
In 2000, fearing arrest, Litvinenko fled to the UK where he wrote two damning books further infuriating his erstwhile masters, ‘Blowing Up Russia: Terror from Within’ and ‘Lubyanka Criminal Group’. Litvinenko also accused Putin of ordering the now infamous killing of Russian journalist, Anna Politkovskaya.
By constantly levelling serious accusations, Litvinenko stepped over a “lakshman rekha” and signed his own death warrant.
On an overcast November 2006 evening in London, Alexander Litvinenko put on his favourite hunting jacket, kissed his wife, Marina, lightly on her cheek and walked over to Soho to meet longtime ex-FSB buddies, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun for drinks and dinner. Immediately after, Litvinenko started feeling stomach pains and had to be hospitalised, where he initially suffered from severe diarrhoea and vomiting.
The hospital, at first, diagnosed him with a stomach infection and began treatment for it. However, Litvinenko’s condition continued to worsen and doctors discovered that his white blood cell count had plummeted, impairing his immune system. After a while, his skin turned yellow, indicating possible liver dysfunction. Having no clue initially, doctors had him tested for the two most likely causes, hepatitis and AIDS, but both tested negative.
It was when Litvinenko’s hair began falling out in clumps that the attending surgeons realized he was suffering from radiation poisoning. Further tests identified Polonium-210 as the culprit.
14 days after he had taken the first sip from a tea cup at a cafe in Soho, Alexander Litvinenko’s body stopped fighting itself, on November 23, 2006.
Something similarly sinister is now believed to have befallen Yasser Arafat, the late enigmatic leader of the paramilitary group Al Fatah and Chairman of the PLO. One afternoon in October 2004, Arafat collapsed during a meeting, suffering from vomiting and diarrhoea. An hour earlier he had ingested medications that were routinely imported for him, into the Ramallah Compound on the Gaza Strip, in an ambulance that had to pass through several Israeli check points. Usually the ambulance driver was ordered to remain at the wheel while Israeli border guards opened the rear door of the van and pulled out the box and inspected the medications.
Within hours, Arafat began developing symptoms very similar to Litvinenko’s and as his condition deteriorated, he was airlifted to the Percy Military Hospital in West Paris. His illness galloping unchecked through his body, refusing to respond to treatment, Arafat passed away on November 11, 2004. The French doctors did not suspect radiation poisoning and therefore he was not tested for it. Strangely, these specialists were never questioned and are known to have gone to ground since.
Eight years after Arafat died, Al Jazeera’s investigative unit, with the consent of Arafat’s widow, Suha, launched an investigation to find out if Polonium-210 had been used to kill him. Arafat’s last-worn clothes, his iconic kaffiyeh, his toothbrush and other personal belongings were sent to the Institut de Radiophysique, in Lausanne, Switzerland, which detected unusually high levels of radiation.
In 2012 Suha Arafat had the Palestinian Authority exhume his body for more detailed tests. Samples were sent to three different labs, in Switzerland, Russia and France. The Swiss test results showed 18 times the normal level of Po-210 in Arafat’s body. Given that 8 years had passed since his death, the initial dose must have been massive. The Swiss report stated that the findings “support the proposition that the death was by poisoning with Polonium-210”.
The French investigations could not confirm the presence of Po-210 in the remains and failed to check for Lead-206, which Po-210 decays to and whose presence would indicate the presence of Po-210. The whole thing stank of political pressure from Israel, which by then had a burgeoning nuclear program and ample opportunity to stockpile Polonium. Incidentally, the Israeli reactor at Dimona was built by French engineers.
That wasn’t the first time that the French buckled under Israeli pressure. Mossad’s wanton assassinations of Iraqi nuclear scientists on French soil in the 1980s with the covert blessings of the french security service, the DGSI, are well documented.
As to the investigations by the Russian lab, the results from Russia were negative. Al Jazeera has quoted an unnamed Russian source alleging that the Russian forensic team had been instructed by the Russian foreign ministry to announce negative results. The source claimed that it was an effort by Putin to distance Russia from the murder. Strange behaviour, given Arafat’s historically warm relations with the Soviets and later on, Putin’s Russia. Political observers surmise that Putin considered Israel to be a bridge to Washington didn’t want to upset the Israelis by publishing findings that pointed to murder.
Israel has vehemently denied having anything to do with Arafat’s death and on seeing the responses from the French and Russian labs and feeling the undercurrents, the Swiss – forever the slithery double-dealing diplomats – receded into the background, making themselves unavailable for further comment.
Arafat had many enemies, both within and without. His longevity, his makeover from terrorist to good guy and his winning the Nobel for peace, his charisma and his secular credentials, all of these attributes were a thorn to the Israelis who were desperately looking for a raison de survivre – extremist groups like the Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad who helped Israel maintain the illusion of a threat of Arab invasion and thereby justify the huge amounts of military aid that they demanded from America. Arafat, with his iconic international stature and the extended olive branch, frustrated them. Israel, like Pakistan, is incapable of survival without external support.
Killing by Po-210 has a major disadvantage – traceability. Every batch has a chemical signature that can be traced to it’s source of manufacture. In the case of Litvinenko, the production source was found to be a Russian nuclear reactor.
In Arafat’s case, the source – suspected to be Israel’s Dimona reactor – was never revealed. Such is the power and political reach of a pipsqueak nation that measures just 250 by 70 miles, one that a modern airliner would take just 7 minutes to cross from east to west.
Next comes the question ‘why’. Why commit murder with a messy hazardous-to-handle substance that leaves traces all over? Why choose a method that takes two horrible pain-filled weeks to kill?
The answer lies in the question itself. Po-210 is meant by the killers to be discovered. The killer, invariably a sovereign state, is protected by the doctrine of “sovereign immunity” whereby a sovereign state is immune from prosecution at the International Criminal Court. Po-210 is a stark warning from a criminal state to those who rebel or dissent.
To the assassin, Po-210 is a darling because only an amount equivalent to a grain of salt (roughly 3milligrams) is needed to kill the average Joe. The assassin finds it easy to transport the stuff provided he does not himself accidentally ingest it. The victim’s symptoms come on gradually, giving the assassin sufficient time to make good his escape. In the case of Alexander Litvinenko, the assassins (Lugovoi and Kovtun) were safely inside Moscow before the British realized what had actually happened. Another important advantage to the assassin is that an alpha emitter like polonium does not set off radiation detectors in airports and therefore can be smuggled into a country easily.
Polonium-210 is also believed to have killed several other people, including Marie Curie’s daughter Irene, also a Nobel Prize winning nuclear physicist like her mother. In 1946, a glass vial containing Po-210 that she was holding slipped from her hand and hit the lab table inches from her, shattering explosively and coating her face with the deadly powder. Irene Curie contracted leukemia shortly thereafter and died at 58 a month later.
Marie Curie herself died from aplastic anemia, brought on by radiation poisoning from being in close proximity to another hottie, Radium, an element she discovered on her way to winning the first of her two Nobel Prizes.
In addition to alpha emission, radium also emits lethal gamma rays that are virtually unstoppable and can penetrate through three metres of concrete. Ironically, today gamma rays are used in radiation treatment to ’burn’ cancerous tumors.
Like polonium, radium too glows naturally. Marie Curie would casually stuff vials of the glowing stuff in her lab coat pocket and repeatedly let it come in contact with her freely. “Radium, my beautiful Radium,” she would be heard whispering to it, as she brought the vial up, to stare at the stuff inside.
Madame Curie had no idea how hazardous radium was. No one did at the time. Today, radiation sickness is an entire branch of medical science.