Monday, November 27, 2006

Polonium 210 A most peculiar poison

I was going to write an article deriding the idea that we should be worried about polonium 210, but having done some calculations I decided not to.

Polonium is a very odd thing to kill some one with. It is a bit poisonous but highly radioactive. People make the mistake of thinking that Uranium 235 is radioactive. It is a bit but not much. It is fissile which means that you can split its atoms with a slow moving neutron but is fairly harmless otherwise.

Polonium 210 on the other hand is highly radioactive. To give you an idea it radiates at 4,500 Curie per gram. A Curie is a unit or radioactivity. It is to radiation what the Fared is to capacitance and the Cubic Mile is to measuring milk. It is a phenomenally large measure of radioactivity.

Here are some other interesting facts.

The acceptable level of Polonium 210 in water is 0.2 Bq/L or 0.2 decays per second in 1 liter of water.

One Curie is 37 billion Becquerels.

Polonium 210 is rare. Very very rare. In fact estimated annual production is 100 grams. Not much. But then you don't need much to kill someone either.

A milligram ought to do it.

However it is a bit like killing someone with a hallmarked platinum bullet. Except that with the number of sites that this material turning up, its a bit like a machine gun burst of hallmarked platinum bullets. Bizarre. It also should not be that hard to track the source of the polonium either. So in effect the murder was signed. Who would do something like that?

I also found this article interesting.


Ellee said...

Having said you were not going to write about this subject, you then went ahead and did so, which I find very amusing. The public at large knows about about this substance, so I think it is good to talk about it and explain simplistically. It sounds the most terrifying substance and as I said on my post, I feel this is the real weapon of mass destruction, such a tiny amount can cause so many deaths, and it looks so insignificant.

Benedict White said...

Sorry! I thought I was saying I was going to write about how we need not be worried, then decided not too.

The saving grace is that it can't be used as a weapon all over the place because it is rare. Not only that but as it has a short half life, half of the years production no longer exists at the end of the year.

It is dangerous though. Very dangerous.

towcestarian said...

As I undedrstand it Poloniun 210 is almost undetectable. So this particular hallmarked platinum bullet is actually rather a good way of bumping off dissidents. Except in the UK, where we have the the equipment to detect it, which is were Putin's henchmen screwed up.

I suspect a lot of Anglo-Russian diplomacy credits are available for us if we agree to keep this one quiet.

Benedict White said...

towcestarian, It is undetectable in the sense that if you wanted to get some through the airport then you could easily shield the radiation so that would not be detected. It is as dense as lead, but as you could only be shipping a tiny quantity about that would not show up either.

However once deployed, and you notice radiation sickness, and you go looking for it, polonium 210 sings like a canary. It would drive gieger counters nuts, even in small or rather very very small doses.

What is more it would be interesting to know what it has been cut with and what impurities it has as that may lead you back to its source.

If they really wanted the man dead, I have to say there would have been a lot more subtly ways of doing it. You don't need to smuggle guns or knives here and it could have been made to look like a mugging gone wrong.