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Most Polonium Made Near the Volga River

Published: January 23, 2007 (Issue # 1239)


Ninety-seven percent of the legal production of one of the worlds rarest industrial products the intensely radioactive isotope polonium-210 takes place at a closely guarded nuclear reactor near the Volga River, 700 kilometers southeast of Moscow.

In an average year, about 85 grams of the substance is made at the Avangard facility, a former nuclear weapons plant, and then sold under strict controls to Russian and foreign companies that prize it for its abilities to reduce static electricity.

Last fall, a microscopic quantity of polonium-210, from somewhere, found its way into the body of Alexander Litvinenko. He died an agonizing death in a hospital 22 days later.

Now an international investigation is trying to track that dose back to its source. Detectives from Scotland Yard have said little about where the trail of evidence may be leading; Russian officials have been more willing to talk, saying Avangard is tightly audited and that illicit production of polonium-210 is technically possible at many of the worlds reactors.

Still, Russias near total domination of the worlds legal trade in the substance has focused new international attention on the countrys production system and controls. Russia is the main source of polonium in part because it offers high quality and the best price for commercial users, said Nick Priest, professor of radiation toxicology at Middlesex University and a former head of biomedical research at the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority. No polonium is produced in Britain, and officials in Russia said none had been exported commercially to Britain for at least five years.

Polonium-210 is produced in reactors by irradiating bismuth-209. Specialists say that around the world, reactors capable of this operation belong either to state agencies or universities and so are highly regulated. Everything connected with polonium production and application is controlled by governments, said Boris Zhuikov, head of the radioisotope laboratory in the Nuclear Studies Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences. You cannot just put any target inside a reactor. It is regulated and checked by many, many people. It would be discovered.

The Avangard plant operates under close government scrutiny. Officials said four organizations were licensed to handle the material made there: the chemistry faculty of Moscow State University; the Federal Nuclear Center in Samara, also on the Volga; Tenex, the state-controlled uranium supplier; and one private company, Nuclon, which uses it for medical devices and transports isotopes to customers.

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ALL ABOUT TOWN

Friday, Oct. 31


Put your grammar and logical thinking to the test in a fun and friendly environment during the British Book Centers Board Game Evening starting at 5 p.m. today. The event is free and all are welcome to attend.



Saturday, Nov. 1


The men and women who dedicate their lives to fitness get their chance to compete for the title of best body in Russia at todays Grand Prix Fitness House PRO, the nations premier bodybuilding competition. Not only will men and women be competing for thousands of dollars in prizes and a trip to represent their nation at Mr. Olympia but sporting goods and nutritional supplements will also be available for sale. Learn more about the culture of the Indian subcontinent during Diwali, the annual festival of lights that will be celebrated in St. Petersburg this weekend at the Culture Palace on Tambovskaya Ul. For 100 rubles ($2.40), festival-goers listen to Indian music, try on traditional Indian outfits and sample dishes highlighting the culinary diversity of the billion-plus people in the South Asian superpower.



Sunday, Nov. 2


Check out the latest video and interactive games at the Gaming Festival at the Mayakovsky Library ending today. Meet with the developers of the popular and learn more about their work, or learn how to play one of their creations with the opportunity to ask the creators themselves about the exact rules.



Monday, Nov. 3


Non-athletes can get feed their need for competition without breaking a sweat at the Rock-Paper-Scissors tournament this evening at the Cube Bar at Lomonosova 1. Referees will judge the validity of each matchup award points to winners while the citys elite fight for the chance to be called the best of the best. Those hoping to play must arrange a team beforehand and pay 200 rubles ($4.80) to enter.



Tuesday, Nov. 4


Attend the premiere of Canadian director Xavier Dolans latest film Mommy at the Avrora theater this evening. The fifth picture from the 25-year-old, it is the story of an unruly teenager but the most alluring (or unappealing) aspect is the way the film was shot: in a 1:1 format that is more reminiscent of Instagram videos than cinematic art. Tickets cost 400 rubles ($9.60) and snacks and drinks will be available.



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