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. Weight of Glory says:

    Snapple wrote :”England’s paper of record says a Russian named Vladislav made the tea in the hotel room. But you bloggers all know better”

    First, that last part is a bit snarky, and silly. Second, since you are one who has posted about the horrible use of assumptions upon assumptions by AJ, let’s take a look at the several baseless assumptions you make in this one sentence.

    “England’s paper of record says…” The assumption that any paper of record is required to tell the truth about anything is an assumption. It is a reasonable one, but an assumption none the less. To see the damage that assumption can yield, simply google Jason Blair, and see what he wrote about in our “paper of record.”

    “…Russian named Vladislav…” You seem to imply that because he is Russian, then there is only one way for him to make tea. Again, it is somewhat reasonable to assume that, but it is also an assumption. For all we know, he was one who had made tea the Russian way his whole life but grew tired of it a few years back and decided to make tea the British way. You never know…people can be weird like that…you know not being culturally traditional.

    “…made the tea in the hotel room.” Here, I think, is the biggest problem I have with this new information coming out about this “hot-pot.” If investigators new of the tea cup long ago, and knew, as you have pointed out via the “paper of record,” that the tea he drank was made by some one in a hotel room, then why oh why did it take this long to get the tea pot! Did no investigator, upon finding the “hot-cup” think to himself, “hey I might need to look for the thingy that held the batch of tea that was made by this Russian guy in a hotel room.” Nope; doesn’t jive. Yes investigators make mistakes, and miss things, but this is silly. Months later they find the pot…months.

    Also, just a bit on assumptions; they are unavoidable. Yet they must be reasonable. So for those whose proverbial panties are in a proverbial wad about the incorporation of assumptions…take a deep breath and relax

  2. per says:

    Gotta Know
    “There is no way of knowing whether L’s death was accidental or homocidal based on the evidence, and your leap of faith that it was absolutely a homocide is insane. “
    Let us examine your proposition that this was an accident. This of course glides over how the Po came to be there- a minor detail 🙂

    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. If you knew you were dealing with radioisotopes, there are steps you would take to avoid contamination. These issues alone render your suggestion risible.

    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; how did they manage to get so much Po-210 into Litvinenko’s teacup ? This is no small dose that they got in there; it must have been a substantial proportion of the amount they were carrying, if not all.

    Scenario 3; one of L&K (or both) deliberately set out to poison Litvinenko with Po-210. They succeed. Explains all the facts.

    Alternatively, in your world, people take vast amounts of radioactive compound from nuclear reactors without anyone raising an eyebrow. People “accidentally” die from these compounds on a regular basis. And no-one bats an eyelid about people transporting Curies of radiation between countries.

  3. Snapple says:

    Dear Gotta Know,

    Can’t you argue with what I said? You have to write what I didn’t say? That is not debate.

    The British and American experts say it was a teapot and a murder.
    They are going to make their case in public since they won’t be able to get the suspects extradited. These people are pretty smart, ok?

    They said there were several murder attempts. I am pointing out that this zavarka is sometimes used for a day or so. It might be carried in a pot and spilled in the hotel. It might be taken in a thermos to the sports arena. It might even have been in some thermos on a plane.

    More conservatively, the Russian practice of diluting the concentrated brew–Zavarka–with boiling water means that the pot and the teacup would not be contaminated the same.

    I am surprised at the bashing of Litvinenko’s friend Gordievsky. He worked for the British while serving as a KGB officer. When he came under suspicion, the British sneaked him out of Russia. He has written highly-praised critical books about the USSR.

    Putin had a motive–his KGB agents are defecting and telling on him. They are criticizing his Chechnya policy. He is real pissed-off about that.

  4. BarbaraS says:

    I am surprised at the bashing of Litvinenko’s friend Gordievsky. He worked for the British while serving as a KGB officer. When he came under suspicion, the British sneaked him out of Russia. He has written highly-praised critical books about the USSR.

    Maybe this comes from him changing his story multiple times.

    Sadly for this scenario, there is no black market for Po-210, and no reason to smuggle it;

    You are misinformed. Polonium 210 can be used as a trigger for a dirty bomb and there definitely is a market for it.

    “for the pot to be as hot as reported …Litvinenko would have gotten a … very weak cup of tea”
    If only you had some of the facts, you would be able to make a sensible comment; instead of a completely unfounded one.

    The magnitude of the dosage in the pot as opposed to the dose in Litvinenko is what I am basing my theory on. They are evidently polar opposites.

    It is interesting that someone would come on to a new site cold and immediately begin attacking one of a bunch of theorists about a death under mysterious circumstances. Who are you to shoot down any theory in such a derogatory fashion? Is this death somehow important to you? Or is it that you must argue about any subject under the sun? Probably you got mad because I said in so many words that liberals’ thinking processes are weird and convoluted which is true. Liberals can twist and turn any fact to suit their ideology. It all sounds reasonable to them but the rest of us we wonder what planet they came fromand if the air is so rarified on that planet that their brains are cooked. You can tell a liberal from a mile away because of the way someone patiently tells them proven facts and they still repeat their baseless theories.

  5. per says:

    “no different than if we find a body in a lake and want to know if the drowning were accidental or intentional.”
    I am enjoying this, so I thought I would run a little bit more with your logic.

    I think your analogy is bad; after all, people really do accidentally drown. So far, I am not aware of no-one else ever in history being lethally poisoned with Po-210. Po-210 is man made; so the analogy to drowning is flawed. It is much more like finding someone with a lethal gunshot wound, and a guy with a smoking gun next to him. It might not be murder; but I would certainly want to ask him a few questions.

    Just on your theory of Litvinenko being “accidentally” poisoned; one of the strange things is why L&K should be transporting Po-210. Even stranger; if you are smuggling Po (because you are going to sell it for millions of pounds), wouldn’t it be a bit strange if you lost all your money because your friend “accidentally” swallowed it in his tea ? Wouldn’t that kind of defeat the point of smuggling it in the first place ? Wouldn’t you take the tea back pretty sharp, and say “that’s worth millions ” ?

    Your theory of “accidental” death beggars belief.


  6. BarbaraS says:


    We get it about the Russian way of making tea. You have told us more than we want to know about this subject. The smuggling theorists think the tea idea is irrelevant. We believe the tea, the cup and the pot are plants and not germane to the polonium incident at all. What was purported to be in the pot still after all these weeks and what was actually in Litvinenko are polar opposites. Evidently even a teaspoon of your concentrate would not account for the difference in dosages.

    AJ, Crosspatch and Merlin are all in the chemistry field and it is ridiculous for the posters on this site to argue with them about chemistry when they (the posters) have no background in same. I know nothing about chemistry and admit it freely. I dropped freshman chemistry in college because it was absolute Greek to me and to this day know nothing about this subject. I leave it to the experts in this field to tell me the facts and not the people who have access to Wikapedia. I can, however, figure out that when a dosage in the body is 10ng and the dosage in the pot is 1000ng then the dosage in the body did not come from the pot no matter how much it was diluted.

  7. per says:

    “Polonium 210 can be used as a trigger for a dirty bomb and there definitely is a market for it.”
    I am very impressed by your knowledge of the international dirty bomb market, and your clear statement of the market. Perhaps you can tell me the price you can get for a Curie of Polonium 210, and who you would sell it to ? It isn’t often I get a chance to speak to an international nuclear arms dealer, so I am grateful for your advice. Alternatively, there is the possibility that your assertions about the use of Po210, the market and dirty bombs is pure fantasy.

    “The magnitude of the dosage in the pot as opposed to the dose in Litvinenko is what I am basing my theory on.”
    okay; so tell us what the count level in the pot is, what the count level in Litvinenko is and was ? You don’t have the faintest idea. I will give you a clue- “off the scale” is journalese, not science.

    Likewise, if you are subscribing to AJ’s theories that you can only get radio-labelling of cups/ teapots with grammes of solid Po, you should be aware that he is talking unsubstantiated dreck. Anyone who works with radioisotopes will tell you that they adsorb/ react with any solid, and teacups are no exception.

    “Is this death somehow important to you? “
    This is state-sponsored assassination, just like the murder of Georgi Markov. I find state-sponsored murder to be deplorable.

    I find some of the arguments deployed here to be based on an absence of knowledge, and I can point out fairly clearly when supposition is based on speculation, based on innuendo, based on ignorance.

    but feel free to prove me wrong; just come out with the facts and figures that prove your wild assertions !

  8. per says:

    “I can, however, figure out that when a dosage in the body is 10ng and the dosage in the pot is 1000ng then the dosage in the body did not come from the pot no matter how much it was diluted.”
    Barbara, have a look at http://www.hpa.org.uk/polonium/Dose_Assessment.pdf. You will find that if Litvinenko’s terminal Po body burden was 10 ng, he was administered approximately 200 ng- or quite close to the 1000 ng in the (hypothetical) pot.

    You still don’t have a clue how much radioactivity is in the teapot/ teacup. That would be kind of helpful, don’t you think ? Before you start comparing with the amount in Litvinenko ?


  9. AJStrata says:


    Prove a dosage of 100 micrograms is enough to scare a tea pot.

    The point is the dosage in the cup has to be the same as Litvinenko. But the 100 micrograms barely produces a tenth of a watt. All of the radiation in an alpha emitter is heat energy. So how is it a tenth of a watt will contaminate porcelain?

    Prove YOUR assumptions.

  10. sammy small says:

    Per brings up an interesting point about poisoning with the tea. Lets assume someone had just spent $xM on Po-210 and smuggled in a few grains in an attempt to poison someone, and then got tired of waiting and smuggled in a gram to speed up the kill. The gram was added to tea and Sasha drank enough to be fatally poisoned.

    What happened to the remaining “hot” tea? I would assume it was dumped down the drain. I wonder if the drains have been checked for alpha radiation and where it drains to. Wouldn’t you have to assume that mass contamination of something would occur, maybe fish, humans, etc. Where is it. If the teapot was so “hot”, where is the residual contamination? Maybe it doesn’t exist.

  11. Mariposa says:

    Oh yes, Barabara S, anyone who believes the assassination theory is a flaming lib. Like these guys: http://www.frontpagemag.com/Articles/ReadArticle.asp?ID=26509, right?

    Dismissing an assasination theory out of hand as you do leaves you — and countries — vulnerable to a greater danger than al Qaeda. That’s not liberal or conservative. It’s just rash.

    Snapple, thanks. I’m not at all concerned about calculating “the differences” of the polonium found in the teapot and the cup because it’s not my strong point, but we don’t know the facts yet, so why even waste time debating woulda-coulda? Which is basically my point on all of this. It will come out. Have at it then. Or not: spin your wheels deeper into the rut.

    Have fun, folks!

  12. AJStrata says:


    No, duration does not make the Po-210 stronger. Po-210 is an alpha emitter, it produces heat or energy. Do the math. A gram of Po-210 produces 140 watts or two lightbulbs worth plus some change.

    A tenth of a gram produces 14 watts. A hundredth of a gram produces 1.4 watts, something you could touch with your finger. A thousandth of a gram produces .14 watts. Ten thousandths .014 watts, 100 thousandths .0014 watts. 1 millionth of a gram produces .00014 watts. The problem the lay people are having is even a pot full of Litvinenko sized doses is nowhere near a gram. And if in a liguid only those atoms withing centimeters of the wall will have any effect on the container. So while a large volume of liquid can hold a lot of Po-210, only the thin volume a few centimeters from the surface can interact with the surface. So while the container size grows as a cube, the interaction layer onl grows a a square. In reality, a tea cup only has a few times the surface are of a cup, while it has many times the volume.

    So, folks should understand their own personal limitations in these discussions. For Po-210 to scar a tea pot it would have to be much more concentrated than we see in the Litvinenko numbers. That is why the tea cup COULD have had a scar if it was used to mix the material. The time a solid was in the bottom awaiting the liquid would give the required density, proximity and time to damage the porcelain. But once dispersed in a liquid the density goes way down (diluted), and the density proximity goes way down (all the material in one place on the surface vs the material floating in a liquid – much of it too far distant for its radiation to hit the surface).

    Sorry folks, the tea cup and Litvinenko must now be nearly identical in levels, and clearly it was not.

  13. AJStrata says:


    Geiger counters don’t work on alpha emitters For so much arrogance you have little credibility to back it up. And yes, the hair falling out is a clear sign of radiation poisoning – as was the blistering of his intestinal tract and mucous membranes. There were signs galore this was radiation – the urine only nailed the source (alpha radiation from Po-210).

    LOL! well, at least you are consistently wrong.

  14. AJStrata says:


    None of my satellites fell from the sky. My physics and science is top notch. The fact you disagree is irrelevant.

  15. jerry says:

    “Geiger counters don’t work on alpha emitters ”

    This is false, I’ve posted on this previously on Stratasphere. Here’s a link:


  16. jerry says:

    “my satellites ”

    AJ, surely your coworkers would think differently?

  17. jerry says:

    AJ, do you surrender now?

  18. jerry says:

    Where have you gone AJ? I thought you were Physics Man, Science Man. What Potemkin Argument will you foist on us now?

  19. jerry says:

    Come on baby, just say hello. I know you’re there AJ, talk to me…. Ok, tomorrow… nighters.

  20. Carol_Herman says:

    AJ, take heart. You’re attacked because you’re good.

    There really are parasites in this world. (Not all are russians.)

    The ones who show up here, claiming they’re scientists are really claiming bragging rights designed to fool people. And, they don’t fool anybody!

    I’ve followed this story here. Nowhere else does it really reach over-the-radar-level. Except that Glenn Reynolds linked, yesterday, to the story, itself. And, today, so does Drudge. Goldfarb knows his business. But other than that?

    London, and our government, too. Are risk averse. They’d love the fears that people carry to calm down. Where Goldfarb’s PR actually rests on the “assassination plot.” And, not a smuggling plot, where russians can scamper about in the wide open. Handling radioactive matierals, as if there’s nothing to it.

    Even when women at airports were told to “drink their own breast milk,” I also noticed a lot of travelers, bringing gifts of alcohol, and expensive perfume, with them. Had this stuff “lifted” by airport personnel. So what happens is that the average person loses perspective. And thinks “the deal” is that the security personnel are just a bunch of robbers. That’s our front line of defense?

    IF the polonium-210 “product” is out there? It “could” end up being used at some popular event. And, the fewest people, who were closest to the “spritz” … are in the line of fire. Then, they Go home. Get sick. And, unlike Litvinenko’s story; where Goldfarb was PAID to drop PR …

    I can only say? Then, some people will GOOGLE “Goldfarb” hoping he’ll carry their stories forward. How many birth defects show up? Or unexpected cancers suddenly going from bad to worse. To dead. But for the most part? It will all slip under the radar. Oddly enough; that’s actually the threat. We’re not told the truth. And, when people have to avoid “certain hotels.” “Certain venues,” they just won’t know. Because who’d believe you could let off radioactive materials as easily as you can fart?

    While Tin Lizzys bonnie-prince-charlie, it’s been rumored, has already coverted to islam.

    Our military, the finest in the world, was built up to protect us from enemy ARMIES. Not little rats who start epidemics.

    Go ahead, and laugh away. But if you knew you couldn’t beat the American military; why not spend money on something like the Black Plague? Especially, if Litvinenko didn’t drop dead, himself. Would have escaped notice.

    And, then here? You get the “comedians.” Unbelievable.