Most Polonium Made Near the Volga River
Published: January 23, 2007 (Issue # 1239)
Ninety-seven percent of the legal production of one of the world’s 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 world’s reactors.
Still, Russia’s near total domination of the world’s legal trade in the substance has focused new international attention on the country’s 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.Pages:  [2 ]