Polonium-210: A pretty good way to horribly murder somebody


My problem with using polonium is that it seems an awfully complicated way to kill somebody, when other agents are available. While polonium is found in a number of industrial applications, you either have to go to somebody with the right kind of nuclear reactor, or buy a number of industrial devices like this and extract the isotope and concentrate it. Wouldn’t cyanide be easier?

So… Punchy; but doesn’t exactly store well, and not something you can just cook up with a chemistry set. So, who has nontrivial chemistry knowledge and a particularly intense neutron source and wants Arafat good and dead?


Supply is an issue; but ‘exotic and entirely without antidotes’ has its virtues.

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Not entirely without antidotes… Chelation therapy should help eliminate a good portion of it from the body, but depending on the dose it is likely too little too late…

With a half live of less than 200 days and a tiny lethal dose, how could they find this years later?

You can poison them with Po-210 the hard way – force them to chain smoke.
Everybody has a bit of Po-210 in them from the natural nuclides we are exposed to, but smokers have over 3x the levels of non-smokers (the body burden might be higher than 3x, but they excrete 3x more then non-smokers).

As is the “horribly” part. Polonium-210 doesn’t just sound like a good way to murder someone in a difficult to detect, trace, and treat way. It sounds like a good way to make sure the intended victim really suffers. It must really appeal to hit men with a sadistic streak–although as far as I know that’s the only kind there is.

It decays to Lead 206, which normally makes up between 20.84% and 27.78% of lead atoms. So they’d probably look for levels of Pb-206 much higher than 28%. (Thanks, Wikipedia!) Fun fact: Po-210 is also used in the triggers of Fat Man-type atomic bombs.

The hands-on part is relatively aseptic, with symptoms delayed by some hours, so I assume that it’s more about sending a particularly gruesome message (in cases where the target is too high profile to just disappear and reappear one piece at a time over the next few weeks), than about the personal satisfaction of the agent administering it.

There is always the good ol’ ricin pellet…

I can’t tell how literally this is supposed to be taken, though it’s very poetic…

As the polonium-210 underwent alpha decay, it was a race against the clock to solve Litvinenko’s murder. Blum says forensic investigators tracked the poison by following the radioactive trails it left all over London — “restaurant seats, airline seats, tea bars, sushi bars.”

They were trails not only left by Litvinenko, but also by the killer himself.

“You turn off all the lights in London because polonium-210 has this faint blue glow,” says Blum. “Pale blue, glowing trails lighting up the path of murder.”

I love the idea of following a visible blue glow through London, but I don’t think it happened like that…

(Also reminds me of being a werewolf and following trails of smell in Discworld Noir…)

The colonizing, Apartheid-enforcing, genocidal state of Israel?


Captain obvious is obvious.


Do they have any good neutron sources? (And did they have any reason to suspect that Arafat’s successor would be more amenable to their interests than he was?)

The phrasing : “a Swiss investigation found evidence to support the idea that Yasser Arafat was poisoned with polonium-210” is misguiding , fact is : found evidence to suspect !

For whatever this is worth (I’m not sure how P-210 fits into the scheme of things for a nuclear program), the Israelis do have a nuclear program/arsenal (that is unmonitored by the IAEA). I don’t know what they means in terms of access to neutron sources. That being said, there are a fair number of Russian Jewish immigrants in Israel, but who knows if anyof them have access to some of the stuff that was used to kill Litvinenko. Plus a secret service that is known for pulling off a number of complex operations, including a number of assassinations. I think the only other likely suspect for his death would be Hamas, as there is no love lost between the secular PLO and the religiously oriented Hamas… This doesn’t sound like them though and I doubt they have access to anything like this anyway.

Here’s some grist for anyone who wants to speculate:

  • Russian investigative journalist and Dumas member Yuri Shchekochikhin
    died in July 2003 of Toxic Epidermal Necrolysis caused by an
    unknown agent.
  • Russian bodyguard Roman Tsepov was killed with an unknown
    radiological substance
    in September 2004.
  • Yasser Arafat took ill in October 2004 and died the next month.
  • Russian dissident Alexander Litvenko was murdered with polonium in
    November 2006.
  • Russia produces 97% of the world’s known polonium.
  • the Russian exhumation report on Arafat finding no polonium seems to
    be “an inferior study”.
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The neutron source that one needs is a reactor… The Israeli Negev reactor (even if it is still the 24 MWt one from the 50’s) should have a high enough neutron flux to produce nominal quantities of Po-210. There are also many reactors throughout the world that also could do it, but it would likely be detectable at a facility monitored by the IAEA due to the need for equipment to process the material.

As far as I know, the IAEA has no monitoring of the Israeli nuclear program. The Israeli don’t admit that it exists, offically, as far as I know. Am I wrong about that, do you know? Does the IAEA regularly inspect their facilities?

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