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List of crimes involving radioactive substances

This is a list of criminal (or arguably, allegedly, or potentially criminal) acts involving radioactive substances. Inclusion in this list does not necessarily imply that anyone involved was guilty of a crime.


Misuse of alpha emitters for murder/attempted murder

Two well known cases exist. In Germany, a man attempted to murder a woman with plutonium. In 2006, former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko was killed in London by persons unknown (as of 2006) using the short-lived alpha emitter polonium-210.


In the German case, a man attempted to poison his ex-wife with plutonium stolen from WAK (Wiederaufbereitungsanlage Karlsruhe), a small scale reprocessing plant where he worked. He did not steal a large amount of plutonium, just some rags used for wiping surfaces and a small amount of liquid waste. The man was eventually sent to prison.[1][2] At least two people (besides the criminal) were contaminated by the plutonium.[3] Two flats in Landau in the Rhineland-Palatinate were contaminated, and had to be cleaned at a cost of two million euro.[4] Photographs of the case and details of other nuclear crimes have been presented by a worker at the Institute for Transuranium Elements.[5]

A review of the forensic matters associated with stolen plutonium has been published..[6]

The Litvinenko murder

During Litvinenko's medical treatment more than one hypothesis existed as to the cause of Litvinenko's ill health. The first theory was that it was a normal case of thallium poisoning. Later, it was suggested that a radioactive isotope of thallium had been used. The third and final hypothesis (following Litvinenko's death) was that he had been poisoned with a radioactive isotope of polonium. All the evidence now indicates that polonium was used to kill Litvinenko.

It was unlikely that the medical doctor would recognize the correct cause of the illness as very few medical doctors have experience with radiological illness or injury. Instead, Litvinenko was most likely to die of unexplained cause such as idiopathic pancytopenia.[7]

Radioactive thallium

It was then suggested that a radioactive isotope of thallium might have been used.[8]

Thallium, in large amount, can be a poison in itself, whether radioactive or not. The 201 isotope of Thallium, in traces amount, is used routinely around the world for medical procedures such as myocardial scintigraphy.

Dr. Amit Nathwani, one of Litvinenko's physicians, reported: "His symptoms are slightly odd for thallium poisoning, and the chemical levels of thallium we were able to detect are not the kind of levels you'd see in toxicity."[9] Hours before his death, three unidentified circular-shaped objects were found in his stomach via an X-ray scan.[10] It is thought these objects were almost certainly shadows caused by the presence of Prussian blue, the treatment he had been given for thallium poisoning.[11]

Following a deterioration of his condition on 20 November, Litvinenko was moved into intensive care. It was reported that his doctors had given him a 50/50 chance of survival over the three- to four-week period following the poisoning.[12]

News reports at this stage kept an open mind on the cause of Litvinenko's condition, with Scotland Yard considering whether the poison could have been self-administered.[13]


Wikinews has related news:
  • Traces of radiation found where Litvinenko ate
  • Former Russian spy Litvinenko dies, radioactive poisoning suspected
Shortly after his death, the BBC reported that preliminary tests on the body of Alexander Litvinenko have indicated that he was poisoned with the radioactive isotope polonium-210 which was most likely inhaled or ingested, and traces of which were found at three London locations: in his Muswell Hill home, at a hotel in Grosvenor Square, and at the sushi restaurant where he had met Mario Scaramella.[14][15]

The UK's Health Protection Agency confirmed that they were investigating the risks to people who have been in contact with him.[16]

Details of the radiological threat posed by polonium-210

At a committed effective dose equivalent (CEDE) of 5.14×10−7 sieverts per becquerel (1.9×103 mrem/µCi) for ingested 210Po and a specific activity of 1.66×1014 Bq/g (4.49×103 Ci/g)[17] the amount of material required to produce a lethal dose of radiation poisoning would be only about 0.12 micrograms (1.17×10−7g). The CEDE is normally used for expressing how likely internal exposure is to cause cancer, as the effective half life in humans of polonium is 37 days and the time between the poisoning and the death was short then the dose suffered by Alexander Litvinenko per unit of activity would have been lower than the CEDE. The biological halflife is 30 to 50 days in humans.[18]

Criminal use of X-ray equipment and other radiation technology by secret police

Some former East German dissidents claim that the Stasi used X-ray equipment to induce cancer in political prisoners.[19]

Similarly, some anti-Castro activists claim that the Cuban secret police sometimes used radioactive isotopes to induce cancer in "adversaries they wished to destroy with as little notice as possible".[20] In 1997, the Cuban expatriate columnist Carlos Alberto Montaner called this method "the Bulgarian Treatment", after its alleged use by the Bulgarian secret police.[21]

Atomic spies

Main article: Nuclear espionage

A number of people have been arrested and convicted of spying with regards to nuclear matters. For example see the cases of Klaus Fuchs, Theodore Hall, David Greenglass, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Harry Gold, Mordechai Vanunu and Wen Ho Lee.

Improper transport

The transport of radioactive materials is controlled by a series of criminal laws and is also covered by civil law. In several cases radioactive materials have been transported incorrectly, leading to exposure (or potential exposure) of humans to radiation.

The bus and the radiography set

Transport accidents can cause a release of radioactivity resulting in contamination or shielding to be damaged resulting in direct irradiation. In Cochabamba a defective gamma radiography set containing a iridium-192 source was transported in a passenger bus as cargo.[22] The gamma source was outside the shielding, and it irradiated some bus passengers. The dose suffered by the passengers was initially estimated as being between 20 mGy and 2.77 Gy (Gy = Gray (unit)), but when the accident was reconstructed by placing dosimeters on seats before placing a similar radiography source in the cargo hold of the bus, the dose estimated by this experiment was no more than 500 mGy for the most exposed passenger.

As an indication of what these doses mean, the LD50 (Lethal Dose for 50% of subjects) in men is 4.5 Gy in one shot. It can be as high as 80 Gy if administered over several days (as in radiotherapy treatments where doses are often delivered in fractions of 1 or 2 Gy/day).

AEA technology and the medical source

March 11, 2002 – A 2.5 tonne 60Co gamma source was transported from Cookridge Hospital, Leeds, England, to Sellafield with defective shielding. As the radiation escaped from the package downwards into the ground, it is not thought that this event caused any injury or disease in either a human or an animal. This event was treated in a serious manner because the defense in depth type of protection for the source had been eroded. If the container had been tipped over in a road crash then a strong beam of gamma rays would have been directed in a direction where it would be likely to irradiate humans. The company responsible for the transport of the source, AEA Technology plc, was fined £250,000 by a British court.

Kramatorsk incident

In 1989, a small capsule containing highly radioactive isotope Cesium-137 was found inside the concrete wall in an apartment building in Kramatorsk, Ukraine. It is believed that the capsule, originally a part of a measurement device, was lost sometime during late 1970's and ended up mixed with gravel used to construct that building in 1980. By the time the capsule was discovered, 6 residents of the building died from leukemia and 17 more received varying doses of radiation. [23] -->

Trafficking in radioactive and nuclear materials

Some cases of theft and/or smuggling of nuclear/radioactive materials have been reported.[24] These cases differ from the scrap metal theft which results in the lost source events because it is the intention of the criminal to obtain radioactive/nuclear materials. Many of these events involve unenriched uranium or thorium, but a few of them involve either enriched uranium or plutonium.[25]

In the case of Polonium 210, its almost exclusive alpha emission makes it very hard to detect. As damaging as its emission can be when inside a living organism, it is stopped by a simple paper sheet or the very first layer of skin. Therefore, it can only be scanned by direct contact and could be smuggled fairly easily inside a passenger bag, with no risk to its bearer.


For an overview please see [1].

Nature of the radioactive source

By means of radiometric methods such as Gamma spectroscopy (or a method using a chemical separation followed by an activity measurement with a non-energy-dispersive counter), it is possible to measure the concentrations of radioisotopes and to distinguish one from another. Below is a graph drawn from databooks of how the gamma spectra of three different isotopes which relate to this case using an energy-dispersive counter such as a germanium semiconductor detector or a sodium iodide crystal (doped with thallium) scintillation counter. In this chart the line width of the spectral lines is about 1 keV and no noise is present, in real life background noise would be present and depending on the detector the line width would be larger so making it harder to make an identification and measurement of the isotope. In biological/medical work it is common to use the natural 40K present in all tissues/body fluids as a check of the equipment and as an internal standard.  

See also


  1. ^ Welcome. World Information Service on Energy.. Retrieved on 2006-12-05.
  2. ^ Germany: Plutonium soup as a murder weapon?. World Information Service on Energy (October 5 2001). Retrieved on 2006-12-05.
  3. ^ English Edition. German News (24 February 2005). Retrieved on 2006-12-05.
  4. ^ Clean-up of a GIGA-BQ-PU contamination of two apartments (pdf). Hagen Hoefer. Retrieved on 2006-12-05.
  5. ^ Ray, Ian. Nuclear Forensic Science and Illicit Trafficking (pdf). Institute for Transuranium Elements. Retrieved on 2006-12-05.
  6. ^ Maria Wallenius, Klaus Lützenkirchen, Klaus Mayer, Ian Ray, Laura Aldave de las Heras, Maria Betti, Omer Cromboom, Marc Hild, Brian Lynch, Adrian Nicholl, et al., Journal of Alloys and Compounds, In press doi:10.1016/j.jallcom.2006.10.161
  7. ^ Idiopathic aplastic anemia
  8. ^ London doctor: Radioactive poison may be in ex-Russian spy. USA Today (21 November 2006). Retrieved on 2006-11-24.
  9. ^ Doctors in dark on poisoned ex-spy. CNN (21 November 2006). Retrieved on 2006-11-22.
  10. ^ (Spanish)Murió Alexander Litvinenko, el ex espía ruso que fue envenenado en Londres. El Tiempo (24 November 2006). Retrieved on 2006-11-24.
  11. ^ Ex-spy's condition deteriorates. BBC (24 November 2006). Retrieved on 2006-11-24.
  12. ^ Ex-Russian spy dies in hospital. BBC (24 November 2006). Retrieved on 2006-11-24.
  13. ^ Poisoned former KGB man dies in hospital. The Guardian (24 November 2006). Retrieved on 2006-11-24.
  14. ^ Hall, Ben (November 28 2006). Polonium 210 found at Berezovsky's office. MSNBC. Retrieved on 2006-12-01.
  15. ^ Radiation tests after spy death. BBC (24 November 2006). Retrieved on 2006-11-24.
  16. ^ Health Protection Agency press release. HPA (24 November 2006). Retrieved on 2006-11-24.
  17. ^ Nuclide Safety Data Sheet Polonium – 210 (pdf). North Carolina Chapter of the Health Physics Society. Retrieved on 2006-12-07.
  18. ^ Energy Citations Database. Office of Scientific and Technical Information. Retrieved on 2006-12-07.
  19. ^ Dissidents say Stasi gave them cancer. BBC (25 May 1999). Retrieved on 2006-12-07.
  20. ^ Stride, Jonathan T. (30 December 1997). Castro said to be using cancer instigating weapons for warfare. Florida International University. Retrieved on 2006-12-07.
  21. ^ Montaner, Carlos Alberto (28 December 1997). The Bulgarian Treatment. Firmas Press. Retrieved on 2006-12-07.
  22. ^ The Radiological Accident in Cochabamba (pdf). International Atomic Energy Agency (July 2004). Retrieved on 2006-12-07.
  23. ^ Security and Nonproliferation, Kyiv, 2005
  24. ^ Chronology of Nuclear Smuggling Incidents. Federation of American Scientists (20 March 1996). Retrieved on 2006-12-08.
  25. ^ Orlov, Vladimir A (20 March 1996). What is Nuclear Trafficking?. International Atomic Energy Agency. Retrieved on 2006-12-08.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "List_of_crimes_involving_radioactive_substances". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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