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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 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.

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ALL ABOUT TOWN

Thursday, July 10


Enjoy the Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Regio Torino as they perform a free concert this evening in the Great Courtyard of the Winter Palace at 9 p.m.



Friday, July 11


Yevgeni Grishkovetz, a famous Russian author and director, will present his new book, “Pain,” at 7 p.m. in the Bukvoed book store at 46 Nevsky Prospekt.


Explore the mysterious Petrograd side of the city during today’s English-language guided tour. The trip starts at 7:45 p.m. at Gorkovskaya metro station. The price is 250 rubles ($7).



Saturday, July 12


Russian culture will be the focus of today’s Neva Rus Festival. Starting at noon, St. Petersburg’s 300th Anniversary Park will be a venue for a round dance master class, hand-to-hand fighting, folk music concerts and a traditional handicraft fair.


Visit today’s ShubaShorti urban flea market, where everyone can buy, change or just have for free various vintage knick-knackery, clothes and books. The event starts at noon at the Uppsala Circus at 44 Sverdlovskaya Naberezhnaya.


The 3rd International Opera for All Festival opens this evening with a free performance on Cathedral Square in the Peter and Paul fortress at 7 p.m.


The Tsunami Picnic Car Festival will allow visitors to see hundreds of exclusive cars outdoors and to watch races featuring professional drivers. The event will take place in the town of Sestroretsk at noon.


Coffee lovers will be able to try hundreds of different kinds of coffee and enjoy baristas’ shows as well as live music during Coffee Day in the Cultural Space Salon at 11 Bolshoi Kazachy pereulok.



Sunday, July 13


Starcon, a festival dedicated to science fiction and innovation, plans to lure visitors by exposing them to the best video games and comics as well as holding lectures on new and exciting technologies. The event will take place at Lenexpo, 103 Bolshoi prospect on Vasilievsky Island, at noon. The entrance fee is 850 rubles ($23).



Monday, July 14


More than 30 young artists will present their work including sculptures, painted skateboards and graffiti, during Boards & Paint, which will run through Aug. 3 at Loft Project Etagi, 74 Ligovsky Prospekt.



Tuesday, July 15


Be amazed by 50 life-sized moving dinosaur models at the Dinosaurs Show, the world’s largest such exhibition, which will be at Lenexpo on Vasilievsky Island until Sept. 21.



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