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December 18, 2006

Polonium 210. Worth $10 Million?

No, no way, not a chance.

British investigators believe that Alexander Litvinenko’s killers used more than $10 million of polonium-210 to poison him. Preliminary findings from the post mortem examination on the former KGB spy suggest that he was given more than ten times the lethal dose.

United Nuclear Scientific Supplies of New Mexico, one of the few companies licensed to sell polonium-210 isotopes online, said that as a single unit costed about $69, it would take at least 15,000 orders, costing more than $10 million, to kill someone.

The company said that as it sold to only a handful of outlets in the United States every three months, anyone placing an order for 15,000 units would be spotted.

You simply cannot calculate prices in that manner. $69 per unit, 15,000 units, get to $10 million?

Firstly, the $69 figure includes all of the overheads. The licence to sell, the website, the offices, the catalogue and the transport of the tiny amounts. So of course the price does not linearly increase when 15,000 times the amount is sought.

Further, look at what they say the volume of sales is. A 'handful' every three months. Shall we say 50 a year perhaps?

Now, if someone came along and said that they've got three hundred year's supply of something, do we think that the price would stay static?

We've faced this problem innumerable times over the years. Some Russian tells us he's got 100 kg of caesium metal for example, or 10 kg of a Rubidium isotope. They look up the price per gramme (or micro- or milli-) in such scientific catalogues and then multiply the price up.  The fact that the entire world uses a few grammes of these things each year never really seems to register.

I think the worst one we had was when someone tried to sell us 20 tonnes of scandium oxide. They found the price for one gramme of scandium metal, delivered to your lab, including all those overheads of catalogues etc. Then they multiplied it  the metal price by 20 million to get the price for those two truck loads of oxide (which is in itself wrong. Rare earth metals should cost between two and three times the oxide cost in bulk.).

They ended up thus asking, for a decade's worth of world usage of the material, $13.3 billion. Yes, billion. Telling them that we could build a brand new extraction plant for $5 million still didn't dissuade them from insisting that they had the price right.

The fact is that the amount of polonium-210 used to kill Litvinenko was simply not worth $10 million or anything like it. It had no value whatsoever on the metals market for as we know, it's radioactive, with a half-life of 138 days. As no one had any use for such a volume of material before it decayed (because the world simply doesn't use that much) then it was simply an intruiging curiosity, not something that could be sold.

Another valuation method would be that it was worth exactly and only as much as whoever it was valued the killing of Litvinenko. But using that valuation would be like measuring the cost of killing JFK at an ounce or two of lead, at current prices about 2 cents US.

December 18, 2006 in Business | Permalink


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It would be very interesting to know just who 'The Times' spoke to at 'United Nuclear Scientific Supplies'.

I first saw that company's name mentioned in relation to the Litvinenko case on November 30.

According to Life Style Extra,

"United Nuclear is run by Bob Lazar, who once claimed to have worked on crashed alien spaceships at a US military base in Nevada called Area 51."


As I noted at the time,

"Actually, we now have an advance on $71.00 - according to Life Style Extra, there's a lab that will do you Polonium-210 for 69 bucks plus shipping and handling.

Oddly, its website seems to be down..."


As of this morning, the page quoted by 'Life Style Extra' is still down.

Who knows, maybe they take Tim Bell's calls.

Posted by: Martin | Dec 18, 2006 9:34:07 AM

The point here is that they're trying to demonstrate that the killer couldn't just have bought his polonium retail off the net, and thus would have to have been someone with access to polonium in wholesale quantities (which is important to know because it rules out a lot of people who can only get polonium by retail, like me for instance).

Tim adds: Why? Were you a suspect for other reasons?

Posted by: dsquared | Dec 18, 2006 10:38:31 AM


This outfit is run by someone who claims to have worked with crashed alien spaceships...at Area 51...

Bank of America it is not.

With all due respect to all concerned, does this organisation exist at all? And if so, who did 'The Times' speak to?

Posted by: Martin | Dec 18, 2006 11:14:14 AM

The web site's up for me: http://www.unitednuclear.com/

So, if you don't like that number, though, do it from the other end: how much does it cost to make 210Po in these quantities?

Tim adds: Dunno. You'd need to look at the cost of processing it out of fuel rods (I guess). Or perhaps it's made by bombardment. Sorry, simply don't know.

Posted by: Charlie (Colorado) | Dec 18, 2006 2:37:26 PM

It's made commercially by neutron absorption of bismuth-209. Bi209 is radioactive, but with a half life of around 19 million trillion years, it's essentially stable and bismuth is therefore effectively monoisotopic in nature (and fairly abundant, so it's a cheap precursor). Macroscopic quantities of polonium, i.e. in the milligram range, can be synthesised via this process: Bi209 + n -> Bi210 (t_1/2 ~ 5 days) -> Po210 + β (t_1/2 ~ 138 days) -> Pb206 + α (the alphas are what killed Litvinenko). World production is in the ca. 0.1 kg p.a. range.

Since the Po210 used to kill Litvinenko was almost certainly cooked up in a Russian reactor, the whole issue of price does not arise. It was probably just requisitioned by some goon.

Posted by: David Gillies | Dec 18, 2006 4:28:49 PM

Um, can anyone in Britain do arithmetic? $69 times 15,000 orders does not equal $10 million. It's $1 million.

So "not a chance..." and 500 words of explanation is not really necessary, Tim. Because this alone should discredit the article. Not that I disagree with any of your analysis, it's spot on as usual.


Posted by: Steve in Princeton | Dec 20, 2006 8:58:41 PM

Steve, you're right in part. The article was right in part.

United Nuclear said it would take 15,000 units at $69 each to compile a lethal dose. This comes out to just over $1 million, as you noted, not $10 million. However, the first paragraph quoted above states that the victim received more than 10 times the lethal dose, which translates to more than $10 million's worth of polonium 210 (pace Worstall's reasonable objections to this means of calculating price, of course).

Posted by: Cato | Dec 21, 2006 6:54:59 AM