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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

Thursday, Aug. 28


Learn more about the citys upcoming municipal elections during the presentation of the project Road Map for the Municipal Elections being presented this evening in the conference hall on the third floor of Biblioteka at 21 Nevsky Prospekt. Steve Kaddins, a coordinator for Beautiful St. Petersburg, which gives residents an online forum to lodge complaints about infrastructure problems in the city, will be on hand to answer any questions. The meeting starts at 7 p.m. and is open to all.



Friday, Aug. 29


Park Pobedy will feature the sights and sounds of the world outside of Russia during the Open Art International Festival today. Taste foreign cuisine, learn how to make tea like the Chinese or relax in a hammock during the free event. Although entrance is free, you must register beforehand if you wish to attend.



Saturday, Aug. 30


Break out the tweed and channel your inner Englishman during the English Hunt Picnic this afternoon organized by the Bagmut stables from Krasny Bor in the Leningrad Oblast. Equestrian stunts, English archery and classic hunting fashion will all be available to visitors hoping to live like the characters in Downton Abbey if only for a day. Tickets for the event cost 7,900 rubles ($219.40).


Bookworms will have their chance to swap out well-read classics for something new for their bookshelves at Knigovorot, a free book exchange that will be held in the Yusupov Garden on Sadovaya Ulitsa today. Come for the chance to get a new book or take the opportunity to discuss the literary merits of your favorite authors with fellow fans.



Sunday, Aug. 31


The Neva Delta International Blues Festival wraps up this afternoon on Vasilevsky Island with a concert featuring not only some of Russias best blues bands but international stars as well. Admission is free for all three days of the festival, which begins on Aug. 29, and the shows starting at 5 p.m. each day.



Monday, Sept. 1


Today marks the beginning of Lermontov-Fest, a fall festival celebrating the life of one of Russias most remarkable poets who, in a fate eerily similar to Pushkins, was killed in a duel at the age of 26. Organized by the Lermontov Library System, the next several months will see art exhibitions, concerts and public lectures focusing on the Lermontovs short yet prolific career. Check the Lermontov Library Systems website for more details.



Tuesday, Sept. 2


Join expats and practice your Russian during the Russian Clubs weekly meetings every Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. The club is free to participate in although you need to be a registered member of Couchsurfing.



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