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Nuclear News - Nuclear Monitor #840 - 21 March 2017

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

The Assassination of Alexander Litvinenko and Putin's War with the West

A Very Expensive Poison: The Assassination of Alexander Litvinenko and Putin's War with the West

Luke Harding


ISBN 9781101973998

Published by Vintage

Paperback and ebook available from

A true story of murder and conspiracy that points directly to Vladimir Putin, A Very Expensive Poison is written by Luke Harding, The Guardian's former Moscow bureau chief. Harding is the author of books such as Mafia State and co-author of WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy.

In November 2006, journalist and Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned in London. He died 22 days later. The cause of death? Polonium ‒ a rare, lethal, radioactive substance. Harding details this assassination story ‒ complete with KGB, CIA, MI6, and Russian mobsters. He shows how Litvinenko's murder foreshadowed the killings of other Kremlin critics, from Washington DC to Moscow, and how these are tied to Russia's current misadventures in Ukraine and Syria.

In so doing, Harding becomes a target himself and unearths a chain of corruption and death leading straight to Vladimir Putin. From his investigations of the downing of flight MH17 to the Panama Papers, Harding sheds a terrifying light on Russia's fracturing relationship with the West.

From the prologue:

Passport control, Gatwick Airport, Sussex ‒ 16 October 2006:

That morning, [Andrei] Lugovoi and [Dmitry] Kovtun were bringing something into Britain that customs had failed to detect. Not drugs, or large sums of cash. Something so rare and strange and otherworldly, it had never been seen before in this form in Europe or America. It was, as Kovtun put it, talking in confidence to a friend in Hamburg, 'a very expensive poison'. A toxin which had started its surreptitious journey to London from a secret nuclear complex in south-west Siberia. An invisible hi-tech murder weapon.

Lugovoi and Kovtun were to use it to kill a man named Alexander Litvinenko. Litvinenko was a Russian émigré who had fled to Britain six years previously. He'd become a persistent pain for the Russian government. He was a remorseless critic of Vladimir Putin, Russia's secret policeman turned president. By 2006, Litvinenko was increasingly anomalous: back in Russia many sources of opposition has been squashed.

There was a particular reason why Putin might want Litvinenko dead. Before escaping in 2000, Litvinenko had worked for the FSB, Russia's intelligence service, and the main successor agency to the KGB. Putin himself had been, briefly, his boss. But Litvinenko now had another employer: Britain's secret intelligence service, MI6.

Her Majesty's Government had given Litvinenko a fake British passport, an encrypted phone and a salary of £2,000 a month, paid anonymously into his HSBC account and appearing on his bank statement incongruously next to his groceries from Waitrose. He had an MI6 case officer, codenamed 'Martin'.

Litvinenko wasn't exactly James Bond. But he was passing to British intelligence sensitive information about the links between Russian mafia gangs active in Europe and powerful people at the very top of Russian power – including Putin. According to Litvinenko, Russian ministers and their mobster friends were, in effect, part of the same sprawling crime syndicate. A mafia state. It was his contention that a criminal code had replaced the defunct ideology of communism.

Litvinenko knew about this mafia's activities in Spain; he was, in the words of one friend, a walking encyclopedia on organised crime. So much so that MI6 loaned him out to colleagues from Spanish intelligence in Madrid. All of this made Litvinenko a traitor, and the KGB's punishment for spies who betrayed their country was understood. ...

Russia's poisoning project, when finally accomplished, would prompt a British public inquiry costing millions of pounds. One that examined the masses of evidence collected by the Metropolitan Police, from hotels, restaurants, car seats – even from a bronze phallus at a nightclub visited by the assassins in Soho. Scotland Yard was able to reconstruct minute by minute the events leading up to the murder. Its investigation – made public more than eight years later – was one of the most extensive in criminal history.

Yet despite this exposure there were soon to be other victims – opponents felled in murky circumstances abroad or, like the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, killed outside the very gates of the Kremlin. Moscow would send tanks across borders, start a war in Europe, and annex a large chunk of neighbouring territory. Its proxies – or possibly Russian servicemen – would blow a civilian plane out of the sky.

The common theme here was contempt: a poisonous disregard for human life. For Vladimir Putin's critics have an uncanny habit of turning up dead.

Uraniumgate scandal in Niger

Niger's lower house of parliament voted unanimously on March 17 to investigate accusations that President Mahamadou Issoufou's former chief of staff improperly participated in the state mining company's purchase of 5.5 million pounds of uranium. Local media have dubbed the affair uraniumgate.

A Nigerien newspaper published documents in February showing a bank transfer in November 2011 for US$320 million from an account belonging to state miner Sopamin to an account controlled by an offshore company called Optima Energy. The bank transfer was signed by Issoufou's chief of staff at the time and current finance minister, Hassoumi Massaoudou, who lawmakers have said had no authority to do so.

At a news conference in February, Massaoudou acknowledged signing the bank transfer but said his involvement in a series of transactions involving the uranium rights, ending in its sale by Sopamin to French state-owned nuclear company Areva, ultimately earned the state a profit. He also denied suggestions by some lawmakers that some uranium could have been clandestinely sold in the process. The commission of inquiry will have 45 days to conduct its investigation and will be composed of 10 deputies, lawmakers said.

Niger is one of the world's top producers of uranium but ranks at the bottom of the U.N. Human Development Index out of 188 countries.

Reuters, 17 March 2017, 'Niger's parliament to investigate 'uraniumgate' sale',

US: $600 million to clean up abandoned uranium mines on Navajo land

Mining companies and the US government will pay to clean up 94 abandoned uranium mines on Navajo Nation. A US$600 million settlement was reached by the Navajo Nation, the US government and two subsidiaries of the mining company Freeport-McMoRan. The settlement calls for Cyprus Amax Minerals Co. and Western Nuclear Inc. to clean up 94 abandoned uranium mines. The US government will contribute US$335 million of the US$600 million total.

According to data from the Navajo Nation, a total of 523 abandoned uranium mines exist on the 27,000-square-mile reservation. With this settlement, cleanup efforts are taking place at about 200 of them.

The settlement ‒ one of two reached in the past three years ‒ addresses mining operations that started with the high demand of atomic weapons at the end of World War II. Private entities swarmed to the uranium-rich Navajo Nation, where they extracted about 30 million tons of uranium between 1944 and 1986, when the last uranium mine shut down. The federal government, through the Atomic Energy Commission, was the sole purchaser of uranium until commercial sales began in 1966.

Many Navajo people worked in or near the mines, often raising their families in close proximity to radioactive substances.

Alysa Landry, 14 Feb 2017, 'Navajo Nation Abandoned Uranium Mines Cleanup Gets $600 Million',

Spain: widespread opposition to planned Salamanca uranium mine

Australian company Berkeley Resources' Retortillo open-pit uranium mine and mill project in Salamanca Province, Spain, has sparked a string of protests. The company plans to complete construction of the ore processing plant by the end of the first quarter of 2017.

On 5 March 2017, several hundred people protested against massive felling of oaks for the Retortillo project. The protest was convened by the Salamanca Antinuclear Collective and the Stop Uranium Platform.

On 10 November 2016, a protest was held at the Retortillo spa against the uranium project. 156 users gathered outside to voice their opposition.

On 30 October 2016, 500 people demonstrated at Berkeley's facilities in Retortillo. The protest was attended by representatives from different political parties plus inhabitants of nearby towns such as Villavieja de Yeltes, Villares de Yeltes, Boada and Yecla de Yeltes. They were joined by several property owners opposed to the project, who refuse to sell their land to the mining company.

On 9 October 2016, more than 1,000 people protested at a demonstration held in Zamora against the neglect of the provinces of Salamanca, Zamora, and León, and against the Retortillo uranium project.

On 20 August 2016, the Platform Stop Uranium organized a road blockade to protest the uranium mine, cutting off the N-620 highway.

In February 2017, WWF sent a report to the European Commission denouncing the environmental impacts of what would be the largest uranium mine and mill in Europe. Among the most serious impacts of the Retortillo uranium project is the probable extinction of the Salmon sardine, a protected fish species. The WWF report said the project will lead to the destruction of a Red Natura 2000 area with unique habitats, and will also put the local economy at risk, ending traditional activities such as cattle farming or rural and thermal tourism.

US: Companies file for bankruptcy after radioactive waste fines

A business owner and his two firms that were fined millions of dollars after being accused of illegally dumping low-level nuclear waste have all filed for bankruptcy in federal court.1 Advanced TENORM Services, BES and Cory David Hoskins filed separate voluntary petitions for Chapter 7 bankruptcy on March 10.

Advanced TENORM and Hoskins were each fined US$2.65 million by the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services in November 2016 for dumping out-of-state radioactive waste in landfills in Estill and Greenup counties in Kentucky. Officials say the waste was a by-product of fracking and had been transported from Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania in 2015.

Last November, the US Justice Department announced that Bechtel, URS Corp. and URS Energy and Construction (now known as AECOM Energy and Construction) agreed to pay US$125 million to resolve allegations that they made false statements and claims to the Department of Energy (DOE) by charging for deficient nuclear quality materials, services, and testing that was provided at the Waste Treatment Plant (WTP) at DOE's Hanford Site near Richland, Washington.2 The allegations were initially brought in a lawsuit filed under the whistleblower provisions of the False Claims Act by WTP employees.

The settlement also resolved allegations that Bechtel improperly used federal contract funds to pay for a comprehensive, multi-year lobbying campaign of Congress and other federal officials for continued funding at the WTP. Since 2002, DOE has paid billions of dollars to the defendants to design and build the WTP, which will be used to treat dangerous radioactive wastes that are currently stored at Hanford.

1. Associated Press, 14 March 2017, 'Companies file for bankruptcy after radioactive waste fines',

2. Department of Justice, 23 Nov 2016, 'United States Settles Lawsuit Against Energy Department Contractors for Knowingly Mischarging Costs on Contract at Nuclear Waste Treatment Plant',

Areva factory ill-equipped to make nuclear parts ‒ watchdog

Creusot Forge, a supplier of nuclear plants around the world owned by France's Areva, is under investigation for making substandard parts and falsifying documents. Now, France's nuclear regulator says machinery at the plant, which was shut for commercial production last year, is not up to the job. In an interview, Remy Catteau, the head of nuclear equipment at the ASN (Nuclear Safety Authority), said that an inspection of the plant late last year showed that it did not have the right equipment to produce the parts for the nuclear reactors.

Catteau told Reuters: "Creusot Forge is at the limit of its technical capacity. The tools at its disposal are not adequate to manufacture such huge components. In such a situation, errors are made. The inspection brought to light the fact that the safety culture in the plant is not sufficient to produce nuclear components."

Areva shut the factory after it found that manufacturing documents at the plant may have been falsified over some 40 years and parts made by the foundry did not meet specifications. The investigation by the regulator is ongoing but Areva hopes to restart production at the factory this summer, if ASN allows it.

Creusot Forge made the vessel lid and bottom for the Flamanville 3 EPR reactor under construction in western France. But at the end of 2014, Areva discovered excessive carbon concentrations in those components, which weaken the steel. Flamanville's future is now uncertain. The ASN will decide mid-year whether the new reactor can go into operation by 2018, despite those weak spots. A red light would lead to years of further delays.

Regulators from the US, Britain, China and other countries are also looking into quality and manufacturing issues at the Creusot Forge foundry after Areva unearthed the false manufacturing documentation from the 1965‒2013 period.

The ASN has long warned that the financial difficulties of France's nuclear industry pose a safety risk, and Catteau said this could also partly explain Creusot's quality breakdowns.

Geert De Clercq / Reuters, 16 March 2017, 'Areva factory ill-equipped to make nuclear parts ‒ French watchdog',