Nuclear physicist Alexander Borovoi, a professor at the Kurchatov Institute research center, pinpointed my cause of concern: "The worst part of the story is that it was like a rehearsal for a dirty bomb. The incident shows that something dangerous is cooking in the terrorist kitchen, with menacing ideas and plans that can generally be described as a crime."
"Litvinenko or one of his close friends have somehow got hold of polonium," Borovoi said. "From them we can trace a connection to those whose dream is to get hold of a dirty bomb - terrorists."
It is a fact that terrorist number one, Osama bin Laden, once bought from shady arms dealers three containers with weapons-grade fissionable materials. The world was saved then only because the dealers cheated bin Laden by selling him medical wastes, which also set off the Geiger meter.
We were probably lucky this autumn too, because something apparently went amiss in London. Polonium doesn't forgive lax attitudes.
Professor Borovoi said people incapable of working with Polonium-210 professionally probably handled the vial, letting the jinni out.
"I don't think polonium was a random choice," Borovoi said. "I believe a first-rate specialist is advising the terrorists."
Silvery polonium looks like common lead and is an interim phase in the long chain of uranium decay; it is produced in nuclear reactors for technical purposes. It emits alpha particles that spread out at a huge speed, pulling along other, undecayed, atoms that pollute the air. Those who breathe them in are doomed.
"My colleague, Irina Simanovskaya, who has worked with polonium, told me that she handled the stuff at minimum distances with all possible precautions in the lab hood. However, it turned out several days later that polonium had penetrated the hood polluting the equipment installed there," Borovoi said.
According to him, polonium can be detected only by special gauges, spreads out from the polluted place almost without restraint, and much time will pass before it becomes clear why people are dying.
Polonium is widely used for medical purposes in special equipment, and can be bought in nearly any country, including over the Internet. One can do this openly in the Untied States because only minuscule parts are sold. But we cannot be sure that criminals will not pay more to acquire a bigger amount of the deadly substance.
On the subject of the rumored involvement of security services in the Litvinenko incident, Borovoi said: "No security services will become involved with a dirty bomb, and I see no reason why they would do this. Such methods are inadmissible in state politics because they amount to the use of nuclear weapons."
If somebody wanted to do away with Litvinenko, they would not have used such a dangerous and expensive weapon as polonium, the physicist said.
"In my view, this is a warning to us," he said. "Terrorists could have acquired a horrible weapon. We must wake up to reality, see the threat, exert maximum caution, and take emergency measures to stop radioactive terrorism."
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