Jan 28 2007

Science Fiction In Litvinenko Case

This is just a summary of some discussions I have seen in response to the Tea Pot news that came out last week and continues to roil the Litvinenko story today. What has been an eye opener for me is how little people generally understand the chemistry and physics of nuclear materials and their “poisoning” abilities. That is not meant as a slam on anyone, it is just a reminder to me how diverse people are and how they are very,very different from my own life experience. We spend so much time looking for common ground we sometimes forget to see the gaps that make us unique.

Here is a classic example of the current reporting and how, if it is accurate, it also must be completely impossible in reality.

A POT full of radioactive tea was used to poison former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, police revealed yesterday.

The “hot” teapot was found at London’s Millennium Hotel with sky-high readings of Polonium-210 – the deadly radioactive material used to murder the former KGB man.

And despite a huge police investigation, the teapot wasn’t found so it was STILL IN USE at the posh hotel in Mayfair until December 10 – six weeks after the poisoning. Even then it had “off the chart” radioactivity readings.

The problem here is a general one of all liquids – they do not change their content when moved from one container to another. So the ‘hot’ pot has to be aligned with the dead Litvinenko.

A dissolved solution (‘dissolved’ being a key assumption of an assassination, in order to esure the attack was never uncovered) has the same properties and contents from pot to cup (or bowl) to mouth. Even if we assume there was some solid material left behind at the bottom of the liquid in the tea pot, it has to be within a certain range consistent with what Litvinenko ingested.

Let’s use chicken soup as an example, and we will flavor it with some salt (the form Po-210 would be in for dissolving in an acid based liquid). If we put salt in our pot of soup the entire pot has about the same amount through out since it dissolves throughout the liquid. No matter where it ends up it is a dosage of so many grams per volume of liquid. What you will NOT see is a gently salted solution (100ths of a gram per ounce) in a cup that came from a pot that is loaded with a pound of salt. This is the problem when ‘orders of magnitude’ differences appear to be showing up between Litvinenko’s dosage and the signature of Po-210 the tea pot and tea cup.

I believe those criminally involved in this event are just like most people and don’t have a good grasp of the physics and chemistry – which is not a negative statement on anyone. But it may have led them to make a critical blunder. Since I do not have access to the actual levels found, my assessments are based on speculation from reporting. But when dealing with orders of magnitude (1, 10, 100, 1000) then speculation within some reasonable boundaries can be relatively safe.

Remember: the tea cup was mentioned by Litvinenko’s supporters BEFORE he died. This was a time when it was clear Litvinenko would not survive and an autopsy was unavoidable (as would then be the discovery of the Po-210, because any radiation death will be investigated until solved). Now this tea cup detail could be a simple recollection on events, or it could be the beginning of the diversion campaign. Which coincided with Berezovsky’s PR campaign.

What is important is that there is no way to know when the tea pot or cup where contaminated. The radioactive decay rate is tied to when the material was produced. Now, if there is a difference in the decay signature in the Po-210 in the pot and Litvinenko then clealry the tea pot has nothing to do with his death. But if the Po-210 is from the same production run, then it will show the same decay rate no matter when it was deposited. Decay rate will not help determine when the Po-210 was deposited.

A key question for me is whether the tea pot was part of the original story from Litvinenko’s police statement. Or was it a detail added weeks later which is why the police missed it? These are important details because the cup, pot and Litvinenko may have come into contact with different amounts of Po-210, which makes it impossible for their contact to be the Po-210 spiked tea. The liquid would have a fixed amount of Po-210 dissolved, so the doses it applied to the pot, cup and victim MUST be consistent to some level.

There is one scenarion where the Tea Pot could stand out – a bit. It is where the Pot was contaminated originally and some of the Po-210 sunk to the bottom. Then a small gradient of difference would be seen between pot and cup. But the cup and Litvinenko would still need to see a consistent dosage between the two, and they do not. The cup was always seen as being possibly ‘hotter’ with Po-10 than Litvinenko because it was the vessel in which the PO-210 was administered. But now with a Pot as the point of Po-210 injection, the tea cup cannot be drastically different from Litvenenko’s dose. Since it has been reported to be hot enough to stand out from all other cups, this is now the case.

But the difference between cup and pot cannot be a huge difference as well. It has to be a reasonable change, all due to solid material left in the pot. Just like my example of how a pound of salt in pot will not show a modest flavoring in the cup, chemistry dictates these differences are bounded to some level.

We shall see whether I am right (again) or not, because the tea pot is so hot, sadly, it must have contaminated others while it was in use at the hotel over the 6 weeks from Litvinenko’s poisoning to its discovery.

Health officials are bracing themselves for hundreds of calls from guests who may have been served tea at the Millennium, though last night the Health Protection Agency tried to downplay the blunder, saying there was no risk to public health.

I doubt the police missed something this ‘hot’. But those who came into contact with it will be the key to determinig when the tea pot was contaminated. The pot will poison others, and it will be consistent amounts as time progresses. From the day the pot is contaminated the amount of Po-210 sticking to the surface will drop off with every wash and as the material decays. It will deposit a certain amount of poison per volume of liquid each time it was used, and therefore the people contaminated will show a declining exposure (while accounting for the volume ingested) as time progresses from the initial contamination. Working backwards from the trail of people poisoned will determine when the pot became ‘hot’..

If I am correct and this is a plant, then people will be showing up very sick soon, or not at all! And this last point is important.

If this was a plant, but not intended or wanted to expose more people to avoid further attention, then no one may be contaminated. If the police were tipped off in a manner that the Po-210 was not exposed to the public for long few if anyone would be sick from the tea pot. For it to really be tied to Litvinenko’s poisoning on November 1 we should see many more critically sick people. This is because to be linked, it would have had to be used for 6 weeks and exposed many others.

76 responses so far

76 Responses to “Science Fiction In Litvinenko Case”

  1. Carol_Herman says:

    Per: Madame Curie was a recorded Po-210 death.

    Plus, russia is rife with radiation illnesses. All those who went in to help put out the fire at Chernobyl exposed themselves to risk.

    I think you’re confusing “not reading about these deaths in the newspaper,” with something that says “couldn’t happen.”

    Accidental deaths can come from the ways people poorly handle materials. You’d be surprised how OSHA, in the USA, works at trying to reduce “on the job mishaps.

    All the word “accidental” means, when it comes to Litvinenko’s death, is that it somehow went from “being carried about,” to “going IN.”

    That’s why I think after handling a “spill” … he picked his nose.

    Sure. Conjecture. Now, if he died from rat poisoning, I’d “conjecture” his wife prepared “the tea.”

  2. per says:

    “Geiger counters don’t work on alpha emitters …”
    oh, that’s strange. This page says that the geiger counter was developed to measure alpha particles; this page” says you can detect alpha with geigers, and oh, what do you know, so does this one.

    the tea cup and Litvinenko must now be nearly identical in levels, and clearly it was not…
    if only you knew the level of radiation in either; but you don’t, and your definitive pronouncements based on lack of knowedge is incomprehensible.

    So how is it a tenth of a watt will contaminate porcelain? Prove YOUR assumptions.
    it is you who assumes that radioactivity cannot contaminate a teacup; an assumption that flies in the face of any practical use of radioisotope. Unlike you, I have had practical experience of handling radioisotopes, and I know that they produce fixed contamination in any solid substance they come into contact with.

    You make assumption, after assumption, many of which are wrong. Why are you so eager to deny the obvious; that Litvinenko was murdered ? Can you not see that a state that has such few scruples about one of its citizens, will have the same scruples for them all ?


  3. per says:

    the hair falling out is a clear sign of radiation poisoning …
    it’s a great shame you weren’t there; you could have made the diagnosis for these poor incompetent doctors much earlier. In fact, given the massive publicity, I am surprised you didn’t diagnose him on your blog- oh, until after you knew what the result was…

    These things are so obvious to you; yet, oh how strange – here is another example of a putin enemy getting suspiciously similar poisoning, and even though it was in Russia, they couldn’t make the diagnosis. Presumably, this was “accidental” poisoning as well ?


  4. AJStrata says:


    Sorry if your little theory fell apart so fast. Mabye you should think before posting. No need to get all in a snit because I pointed out the obvious. You did know the original diagnosis was Thallium – right?

    I am only looking at the Litvinenko incident and the reporting around it. Other incidents have no bearing on what the evidence is in the matter hat hand. Looking for a grand conspiracy pattern is why you make ludicrous claims. You are trying to fill in a fantasy in your head.

    I look at the data, point out anomolies and try and speculate on what the anomolies mean. Clearly a smuggling operation where containment failed and caused a burst of Po-210 dust into the air fits the reported facts. As I have said, I would really prefer this not be the scenario for obvious reasons. But the information is what it is. I am not wedded to one theory or the other because my assessment of the facts is sound. Not right, just sound.

    That is as good as scientific analysis gets. I also predicted many times what we would see next, given the smuggling theory. They all came to pass. That included: the Po-210 trail leading to Berezovsky, more sites than the Millenium hotel showing contamination (multiple trips into London), the trail leading to other places (i.e., Hamburgm, Germany) and the poisoning be in the hotel room and not the hotel bar (which was reported the other week). So that too is part of the scientific method of proof. You test your hypothesis by predicting knew outcomes based on your premises.

    The fact you keep trying to ridicule the process demonstrates an interesting insecurity, It’s just speculation based on information being reported. Why are you so threatened by this?

  5. AJStrata says:


    Your ignorance is astounding to say the least. So let me get this straight – your sum knowledge is what you read on websites? It all depends on how they define the detection device I guess, but the classic Geiger counter will not work because they have a class shield in front of the detector surface and that will stop alpha rays from hitting it.

    The alpha emitters have such short distances for the radiation that their detection by standard radiation monitors is nearly impossible.

    Now that you read that on a website maybe you will know a little more than you did yesterday.

  6. Gotta Know says:

    Per wrote:

    “If it is an accident, Litvinenko must knowingly handle what he knows to be a massively supralethal dose of Po-210, and “accidentally” get it into a cup which he drinks tea from. One might wonder why he would deal with this compound; why he would handle such a dangerous amount; and why he would contaminate his tea cup…Maybe Lugovoi and Kovtun were smuggling Po, and “accidentally” contaminated Litvinenko. Sadly for this scenario, there is no black market for Po-210, and no reason to smuggle it…”

    Per, we know there was massive incompetence in handling the PO. It’s everywhere. As AJ has speculated, the tea cup was not used as a poisoning tool, it was used as a container for spilled PO. There is some evidence that Litvinenko actually inhaled the PO, not ingested it. Some experts have said that PO in a baggie should be safe, so the smugglers may have been operating under that assumption.

    No reason to smuggle PO? How about detonating a nuclear device?

  7. copydude says:

    Important. There is no Scotland Yard confirmation for this story whatsoever.

    We are only assuming there was a teapot because Gordievsky said so.

    We are only assuming Vladislav made the tea in a teapot because Gordievsky said so.

    But Gordievsky originally said Sasha had a cup of tea in the Pine Bar.

    Marina Litvinenko said Sasha said the tea was cold. She told ‘Panorama’ so.

    But Gordievsky said that Vladislav put Polonium tea to make it hot. Gordievsky says that Sasha told him.

    But according to Marina Litvinenko Sasha died a few hours BEFORE the lab released the results of his urinanalysis. Marina lamented that “Sasha died not knowing what killed him”.

    And let’s go back to the original teacup story – as told by Goldfarb.

    ” Litvinenko had dashed to the hotel’s Pine Bar the morning of Nov. 1 to discuss a joint business venture with Andrei Lugovoi, also an ex-Soviet agent, and Russian businessman Dmitry Kovtun. Alex Goldfarb, a friend of Litvinenko, said the former spy sipped tea during the meeting, while Lugovoi said he recalls ordering a bottle of gin ”

    The poisoned tea cup in the Pine Bar story ran for six weeks – even appeared on BBC TV – without any official corroboration.

    By the way, during the last four years in Russia, and while being married to a Russian, I’ve never seen anyone make tea except in a cup with a tea-bag. Green tea fans may use an infuser.

    If you wanted to poison someone’s tea, simple, lace a tea-bag. They would then even help themselves.

  8. per says:

    it has been fascinating to see how you pronounce on what is and isn’t possible, when you state you don’t even know the concentration of radioactivity in either the pot, the cup, or Litvinenko. But it is really eye-opening to see what happens when you make statements that can be checked….
    “the classic Geiger counter will not work”
    In fact, Hans Geiger developed this device for the purpose of measuring alpha radiation ! And he succeeded ! This stuff is so elementary, that it is taught to children in school. So that’s one thing wrong.
    “they have a class shield in front of the detector surface…”
    In fact, the use of mica in Geiger tubes is well characterised, e.g. here, here. That’s two things wrong.
    “that will stop alpha rays …”
    generally, scientists make a distinction between rays (e.g. gamma rays), and particles (alpha particles). Clearly, you are a top-notch forensic nuclear physicist, but if you make mistakes like that, people will get the wrong idea… That’s three things wrong.

    “The alpha emitters have such short distances for the radiation that their detection by standard radiation monitors is nearly impossible.”
    so far, I have pointed you to numerous web pages that say the opposite; feel free to search for millions more. I have personally seen the use of a geiger counter to detect alpha sources; it is so standard, it is part of the routine teaching of secondary school kids. That’s four things wrong.

    I am impressed.

  9. per says:

    “Clearly a smuggling operation where containment failed and caused a burst of Po-210 dust into the air fits the reported facts.”

    The only thing that is clear here is that you have not one shred of evidence to support your speculation. Solid Po dust ? You have already established that such material would be impossible to see without special equipment, would be at very high temperatures and would be practically impossible to handle. Yet the very lunacy of this suggestion appears to be your reason for suggesting this was what happened. And of course, it goes without saying that there is no evidence whatsoever that backs up your idea that it was a solid, and excludes the much more rational idea that it was in solution.

    Oh yeah, and they are smuggling this Po cause it’s a nuclear trigger. Like you have any idea what are the characteristics of Po in a nuclear trigger, or if it would be any use to anybody. Lugovoi is back in russia at the moment, and for some strange reason, they don’t seem to mind that he was selling triggers for nuclear bombs. What utter rubbish.


  10. AJStrata says:


    Alpha radiation at Wiki (your speed)

    Alpha verses Beta and Gamma – (for idiots)

    Definition of a Geiger Counter Instrument– note the glass tube kid. Note alpha radiation doesn\’t penetrate glass. Note the Radon counter (Radon is an alpha emitter as well). Also note the difference between a Gieger-Mueller Proportional Counter and a Gieger Counter (not the same instrument).

    Now, to my level – doubt you will keep up. The Geiger Counter, as lay people understand it, is a vacuum tube device. See here.

    Here is more on the proportional counter– which some of us would call a distinct instrument from the Gieger Counter.

    The key problem you have is you have to get the material in question tpast the glass. So while the Gieger counter claims it can detect an alpha particle, it cannot measure the levels.

    Since alpha particles are emitted in nature it is nearly impossible to use the Geiger for what was needed in the Litvinenko case. So, can you detect an alpha particle with a geiger counter? Once in a while. Can you measure alpha radiation levels? Not really.

    Thus endeth the lesson. Come back when you know the difference between an anode and cathode and why Argon gas (a noble gas) is used in the tube.

  11. per says:

    “As AJ has speculated, the tea cup was not used as a poisoning tool, it was used as a container for spilled PO.”
    why would you spill Po-210 if you are trying to smuggle it ? If it’s a solid you can’t see it, if it’s a liquid, why are you trying to spill it ; and how do you know in advance that you are going to spill it ? why on earth would you manipulate such dangerous and difficult to handle material ? Under any circumstances, how did Litvinenko get such a massive dose ?

    Occam’s razor; the cup was used to administer the Po to Litvinenko.

    “There is some evidence that Litvinenko actually inhaled the PO, not ingested it. “
    Not that I am aware of; no-one has provided a shred of evidence that this is so. If you know of such evidence, let me know what it is.

    “Some experts have said that PO in a baggie should be safe, “
    Well, in a vial, maybe. I think it has already been covered that Polonium (as a salt) would be extremely hot – hundreds of C, no matter the size of particle. Polonium particles would be impossible to handle, and would be likely to be lost like dust when such a bag were opened. It seems bizarre that someone would want to smuggle Po, and then do it in such a way that they carelessly lose the Po they have smuggled.

    “No reason to smuggle PO? How about detonating a nuclear device?”
    How much Po would be needed ? what form ? Do you have any idea if there are any such geriatric weapons still about in a usable form ? Not being an expert myself, I am still fairly sure that it is public knowledge that the use of Po in nuclear devices was ditched because vastly superior methods for detonating a nuclear bomb came along.

    I suspect that the Po-210 smuggling hypothesis is gibberish.

  12. per says:

    this is amusing. If I follow your links, they have nothing to do with what you say they do. Your link that mentions glass ? the word isn’t even on the page.

    All your links to Geigers show that geigers do detect alpha radiation.

    “can you detect an alpha particle with a geiger counter? Once in a while. Can you measure alpha radiation levels? Not really.”
    Strangely, your references seem to say exactly the opposite of what you are saying. How about this from your own citation (OSHA) :
    ” Detection of individual events, i.e. alpha or beta particles & secondary electrons, for measuring activity (in samples or on surfaces)”
    seems to say you detect individual alpha particles, and measure alpha activity on surfaces.
    And you still haven’t understood that many Geiger counters have a mica window.

    as well as failing to understand the difference between a particle and a ray, it still seems you don’t even know about the fundamentals of geiger counters.
    “The alpha emitters have such short distances for the radiation that their detection by standard radiation monitors is nearly impossible.”

  13. AJStrata says:


    You are coming late to a months long debate. The Po-210 was spilled in a room on the 4th floor of the hotel. The rug showed high levels and had been in contact with Po-210 (not a salt form). The light switch in the room also showed a strong Po-210. IF (we do speculate here) the Po-210 was in some pelletized solid or other single mass form and the container failed in handling, then someone might try and pick it up and drop it in a nearby tea cup for a moment while a new container was readied. All rooms have ready cups for tea or coffee.

    If you assume the Po-210, which showed up in three hotels over three weeks was being smuggled, the evidence is quite consistent. Each hotel is timed with a Lugovoi trip to London to meet Litvinenko. Each trip has a hotel laced with P0-210 across numerous rooms associated with people Lugovoi and/or Litvinenko knew.

    Why three trips and all this Po-210 if you only want to get a few millionths of a gram into Litvinenko? A sugar packet’s worth of Po-210 salt would be over kill. An ounce of P0-210 dissolved in a mild acid solution contained in a small glass vile looking like medicine would be more than enough volume.

    So why three trips? Why spread over something like 10 rooms? Why a solid vs a solution. Do you know why it looks like Litvinenk o inhaled the Po-210 as well as ingested? We have a post on Marina’s description of his last days and she notes ALL of his mucous membranes swelled up as if burned. It would seem he inhaled more than he ingested by far (which is why the urine tests were not showing up as much radiation as they thought).

    There are weeks of posts reviewing reports and generally accepted aspects of this. Maybe you should poor through them. Tear them apart, put your ideas forward. Make the chemistry fit the trail. Give us an estimate of how much material would have to be present at all these sites to register well above the natural levels. We have four hotels with about 8-9 rooms contaminated, the Pine bar and kitchen, three cars, 1-2 airplanes, an apartment and house in Hmaburg, Litvinenko’s house, three business offices, three restaurants, the UK embassy in Moscow and two locations at Aresenal Stadium. Oh and a tea cup and a tea pot. We have 13 people poisoned to about the level of Marina Litvinenko. We have Lugovoi and Kovtun poisoned quite high. We think Scaramella was contaminated (some P0-210 did show up back in Italy I believe) and we have Litvinenkos’ 10 millionths of a gram.

    How much Po-210 is this? My guess is there is more Po-210 on the trail than in Litvinenko, but I have not sat down and made an estimate on the minimal level we could detect and then start summing it all up? Some places were OK as is, some required ‘remediation’ (aka, decontamination). Some are still closed.

    Feel free to apply your expertise to this puzzle.

  14. AJStrata says:


    You don’t know what a vacuum tube filled with gas is made of??????????

    You are kidding – right?

  15. per says:

    it is worthwhile to point out what we don’t know. When journalists report readings that are “high”, “off-scale”, etc., that is meaningless. Unless you get numbers, you are wasting your time. Your idea that you can calculate based on this sort of information is ludicrous.

    Just to illustrate, Panorama gave an estimate for Litvinenko’s dose/burden at 10 (9) Becquerels; 10 Bq is easily detectable, and 10(3) Bq is well “off-scale” for some detectors. (here’s another clue; scientists talk in units of radioactivity).

    Given that L&K had a tube containing in excess of 10(9) Bq, probably substantially more, and in liquid solution (because that is the only sane way to proceed); I suspect all they had to do was open the tube, and they would have been seriously contaminated by the radioactive “creep” of Po-210. I suspect that is more than enough to explain L&K being contaminated, and passing on the contamination widely.

    Many things are possible; it may be that they tried to poison Litvinenko before, but he wouldn’t drink. It may be that they spilt one batch of poison; we really don’t know. You can speculate endlessly; but given two non-scientists with vast amounts of radioisotope and no geiger counter, it sounds about right.

    Your suggestion of solid polonium or its salts, remains insanity. Apart from the impossibility of handling the amounts involved, the heat generation is constant per unit mass, and would even give glass some problems.

    “We have a post on Marina’s description of his last days and she notes ALL of his mucous membranes swelled up as if burned.”
    You are not a medic. The idea that the state of his mucous membranes tells us anything about the route of exposure is bizarre, and you haven’t seen the autopsy report.

    I also note you have relied upon reports from a website called http://www.llrc.org. I would characterise some of the material on that site as eccentric. Yet you seem to agree with their claim that geiger counters can’t detect alpha particles, in spite of the vast amount of reliable literature that says otherwise.


  16. BarbaraS says:

    You make assumption, after assumption, many of which are wrong. Why are you so eager to deny the obvious; that Litvinenko was murdered ? Can you not see that a state that has such few scruples about one of its citizens, will have the same scruples for them all ?

    What you don’t understand is that we would prefer that he was murdered. It is a scary situation that there may be that much polonium in the hands of people who would use it to kill thousands of people. Saying Putin had him murdered is like saying that Putin is the only bad guy in this controversy. That’s not true. They are all bad guys.