Polonium polonium, where’s the polonium?
Welcome to the era of nuclear terror. I have no idea who killed Sasha Litvinenko. But whoever did it left a trail of radionuclide pollution from Moscow to London, and at least two others are hospitalized with radiation poisoning (Lugovoi and Kovtun). Seven employees of the Pine Bar have been exposed. They have a “slightly elevated” risk of cancer later in life. We’ll be watching to see if Lugovoi and Kovtun survive.
     The mainstream press is following the Litvinenko case as a murder mystery. But this incident is a calling card announcing the availability of radioactive substances for evil. Let the nuclear genie out of the bottle in a crowded subway and a few weeks later a large number of people become mysteriously ill. Or perhaps a polonium spike in the punch at the Inaugural Ball would bring new meaning to ‘regime change’.
    While the TSA confiscates liquids over 3 ounces from air travelers, it would be entirely possible to smuggle polonium in a bottle that looked like Chanel #5. Scotland Yard seems to think the polonium was smuggled into Britain on board a regular flight.
    Who uses polonium and is it available? 3M cooks polonium into ceramic micro-spheres which are then sandwiched in aluminum and used in anti-static devices. Therefore, I assume 3M has some polonium as a raw material. I have no idea whether a disgruntled employee could walk out of the 3M plant with raw polonium.  
     But given that there were security problems tracking plutonium at Los Alamos in 2004 that prompted firings and rearrangement of where the nuclear goodies were kept, I personally don’t feel confident that radionuclides in the U.S. are really under lock and key. Plutonium plutonium, where did we put that plutonium?  
     In 2005 the UK’s Sellafield nuke lost about 30 kilos of plutonium. Just an accounting error, or maybe a rounding error they say.
     Northeast Utilities lost a couple of pieces of a nuclear fuel rod in Connecticut in October 2001, though they assure us the rods are at one of several storage facilities. They’re just not sure where they sent them. And in California PG&E lost a fuel rod in 2004. But PG&E says there’s no evidence it was stolen. It’s just lost. We understand. We all lose things.
      In August 2006 Southern Nuclear said it couldn’t find some fuel from the Hatch nuclear power plant. They have found quite a few fragments, but they don’t add up.
     The Economist says the nuke fuel inventory doesn’t add up in France or Japan either.
      Remember Karen Silkwood? We’ll never know if she was poisoned deliberately with plutonium by someone. What we do know is that there was a trail of plutonium from her fridge and bathroom and her roommates were also exposed. Lax security at the plant back in the 1970s.
     Seems not too much has changed.
     So while the news media is busy asking who poisoned Litvinenko, and implicitly blaming the Russians, I’m wondering where the missing nuclear fuel is.
Friday, December 15, 2006