November 23rd is the tenth anniversary of Alexander Litvinenko’s death. Litvinenko is the Russian ex-secret service operative who, according to United Kingdom authorities, was assassinated with a unique poison, which most experts agree could only be manufactured by a clandestine state-sponsored activity.
The poison is the radioactive isotope, polonium-210. Ingesting an amount the equivalent to the size of the period at the end of this sentence is fatal.
Litvinenko had been granted asylum in the U.K. where he reportedly investigated undercover Russian individuals and companies.
In Russia, he was an officer in the KGB and later the Federal Security Service, a position he’d been dismissed from after he publicly announced illegal activity within the organization.
On Nov. 1, 2006, Litvinenko met over tea in the bar of the Millennium Hotel in London with two men, reportedly a former KGB bodyguard and a Red Army deserter.
That evening, Litvinenko arrived at a local hospital with acute abdominal pain where he died 22 days later, all of his primary organs having failed.
It was discovered only hours before his death, that he had been poisoned with the radioactive polonium-210, which had been placed into his tea.
(Newsnight’s Richard Watson has been piecing together the story behind the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, eight years ago in London. He speaks to intelligence sources and key witnesses – about the motives for the killing, the role of the Russian state and the polonium trail left in London. Courtesy of the BBC Newsnight and YouTube)
An investigative report commissioned in the U.K. and released earlier this year concluded that there is a “strong circumstantial case that the Russian State was responsible for Mr. Litvinenko’s death.”
We are all aware of the ultimate terrorist threat of a nuclear weapon or an improvised nuclear device. (The latter is often referred to as the “Hiroshima in a suitcase.”)
Polonium poisoning is only one of several additional ways extremists could engage in nuclear terrorism today.
For example, there’s the “silent source” scenario, where a covert source of radiation is employed to expose people.
Then there is the feared “dirty bomb” plot: lacing a conventional bomb with a radioactive isotope like cobalt 60 that emits highly penetrating gamma rays.
These possibilities emphasize and reaffirm the importance of radioactive source security in nuclear power plants, universities where radioactive isotopes are widespread for research purposes, hospitals with nuclear medicine departments, and cancer clinics that provide radiation therapy.
And that’s only a short list.
The opportunity for smuggling nuclear material and using it as a weapon of terrorism today is greater than ever.
According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, over a recent ten-year period there have been more than fifteen hundred confirmed incidents of illicit trafficking of nuclear and radiological materials worldwide.
Tens of thousands of these potent radioactive sources are in private hands.
Experts tell us that much of the world’s smuggled nuclear material is traceable to stockpiles in Russia and other former Soviet nations, where many research facilities remain poorly protected by underpaid guards, maintenance staff, and unreliable security systems.
Today, internationally organized crime and criminal gangs could make sizeable profits from the sale of radioactive sources to extremist groups.
The Bottom Line
First, awareness by everyone about possibilities far beyond “typical” terrorist scenarios. Beyond that, vigilance and security are required with all things nuclear.
About the Author
James Marshall Smith, Ph.D. was chief of radiation studies for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta from 1991-2003, a consultant on nuclear-threat countermeasures for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, and an advisor to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in the wake of 9/11.
Part of this report was taken from the account in his medical thriller, “Silent Source” (Stealth Books, Oct. 2016), inspired by one of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s top scenarios for terrorist attacks on the U.S.