The Litvinenko Inquiry – Confirmation and denials.


How easy is it to actually kill someone anonymously?  I leaned into that question, albeit in a somewhat glib manner, with the post Not in front of the children. I ask it now because many commenting on the Litvinenko Inquiry have questioned why a would-be assassin might employ such a bizarre and sophisticated method as radiation poisoning when a ‘fatal mugging’ would more assuredly have achieved the same effect. But if the killer’s aim is to (a) ensure his own escape and (b) employ a method unlikely to be discovered, polonium-210 is the weapon of choice; no point getting up close and personal. Today, the inquiry learned how it kills and why it is so difficult to attribute blame.

Dr Nathaniel Cary was the lead pathologist that conducted the three-hour post-mortem, nine days after the death of Alexander Litvinenko on December 1st 2006.  He described how, as one of only about 35 Home Office-registered consultant forensic pathologists, he is able to give opinions and not just factual findings in relation to post-mortem examinations. He explained that while Litvinenko was in University College Hospital (UCH), apparently suffering from an unknown illness, Professor John Henry suggested testing for alpha radiation; a product of polonium-210 poisoning. It was the blood and urine samples, taken while Litvinenko was alive, and confirmed by testing a sample of thigh muscle tissue taken on the day of his death, that confirmed the presence of polonium-210.

Professor Henry we will not meet, as he died in 2007. As a London-based specialist in drugs and poisons we can assume he heard of the odd case at UCH and offered his advice. Nevertheless, without his suggestion, Dr Cary said the postmortem would probably not have detected alpha radiation as it is not routinely tested for, and that “polonium-210 detection is the smoking gun in this case”. As Mr Emmerson said, it is “capable of being used as a poison for assassination that would not necessarily be detected”. Professor Henry’s intervention was, therefore, timely and pivotal.

That is not to suggest he was acting on behalf of the intelligence services.  And we will never know anyway.  As Mr Garnham, Counsel for the Home Secretary, explained in his opening statement yesterday, the British Government operate a policy of Neither Confirm Nor Deny (NDNC) regarding the activities of the security and intelligence agencies. As he explained, “to deny a particular activity in one instance, the inference might well be drawn that the absence of a denial in another amounted to confirmation of the alleged activity”. Put another way, “useful ambiguity on these things is the most important thing,” as a senior politician connected to the intelligence agencies explained to me.

Dr Cary said the post-mortem was “one of the most dangerous ever undertaken in the Western world”. He described how he wore two suits with full radiation protection, battery-powered oxygen pumps and a colleague on hand to wipe off any blood splashes that, unchecked, may have contaminated him. Other paramedics watched from outside the secured room for signs of heat stress, and emergency evacuation procedures in the event of his fainting were rehearsed. Polonium-210 attacks bone marrow, preventing the production of white blood cells, with the victim eventually dying from multiple organ failure. Mr Litvinenko’s body had to be transported in two body bags and is now in a lead-lined coffin in Highgate cemetery in north London.

The inquiry then learned of the properties of polonium-210.  The anonymous ‘Scientist A1’, a well-spoken English woman with a soft Liverpudlian burr, screened from public view, has worked for Britain’s Atomic Weapons Establishment (and its forebears) for 34 years. She described polonium-210 as a rare, radioactive element which can, if exposed in the open, attach itself to water molecules in the air and be dispersed; leading to local contamination and the (slightly overblown) claims of a threat to thousands of Londoners. Nevertheless, it is fatal in quantities of sub-millionths of a gramme, which is pretty small.

There are three ways of producing polonium-210: deliberately produce it in a nuclear reactor, extract it from ore contained in a huge quantity of rock or inadvertently produce it in a nuclear reactor and put the resultant product through a refinement and filtration process.  Of these, only the first is practicable, and then only in a state-operated facility. So, the polonium-210 found in Mr Litvinenko, Scientist A1 suggested, could not be produced by an amateur outfit. But the trouble with state-sponsored nuclear reactors is that, the odd Chernobyl aside, they are usually pretty good at their job. And the stuff that killed Mr Litvinenko contained no impurities that may have indicated which reactor produced it. So, as Mr Tam said yesterday, although 97% of polonium is produced in Russia, “the fatal dose could easily have come from the other 3 per cent”. So not such a smoking gun after all.

Although the source of the polonium-210 looks unlikely to be revealed, Scientist A1 did leave the inquiry in no doubt whatsoever that it had been present in at least two locations. Andrei Lugovoy (one of the alleged assassins) stayed in the Sheraton Hotel on Park Lane, London, between 25th and 28th October 2006. His room was tested for traces of polonium-210 in December 2006.  As can be seen from the 3D graphic here, there are multiple traces of radiation that simply could not occur naturally. Scientist A1 told the inquiry that a naturally occurring sample of polonium-210 would barely register on measurement devices and that if ingested and exhuded through the skin by sweating would only reach about 150 Counts Per Second (CPS). There are areas of Lugovoy’s room that registered over 10,000 CPS.  Likewise the Pine Bar in the Millennium Hotel where the supposed poisoning of Mr Litvinenko took place.  The graphic here shows the nest of three tables at which Litvinenko, Lugovoy and Kovtun sat. One of the chairs registered 24,000 CPS and the tea pot from which Litvinenko supposedly ingested the polonium-210 that killed him is of particular interest. Scientist A1 described how easily the stuff could be spread, a possible reason for such widespread contamination.  Whether the person handling this highly radioactive substance knew what it was or what an obvious signature (at least to those who knew what to look for) it would leave, is another matter.

Thank goodness for the intervention of (the now deceased) Professor Henry.

More to follow when the inquiry sits again on Monday 2nd February…

All linked material reproduced here is courtesy of the Litvinenko Inquiry –


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