UK draws dirty bomb lessons from Litvinenko murder

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LONDON, Nov 13 (Reuters) The polonium poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko tested Britain's response to a radiation emergency and made clear it would need international help to deal with a ''dirty bomb'' attack, a top health adviser says.

Nigel Lightfoot, chief adviser to the head of the Health Protection Agency (HPA), said Britain would work closely with European Union and G7 partners in response to such an attack, and some patients might even be treated in France.

In a Reuters interview, he expanded on a recent speech in which he said ''no country is going to be able to cope by itself'' with a dirty bomb.

He also said that whoever handled the polonium that killed Litvinenko a year ago appeared ignorant of its properties, particularly the ease with which it would leak out and form a radioactive trail across London.

An ex-KGB agent who had become a harsh emigre critic of the Kremlin, Litvinenko died in London on November 23 last year, three weeks after being poisoned. Russia has denied allegations of a state-backed murder plot and refused British demands to extradite chief suspect Andrei Lugovoy, also a KGB veteran.

The Cold War-style episode sparked a public health alert as radiation traces were found at dozens of sites including hotels, restaurants, offices, on planes and at Arsenal's soccer stadium.

Over 750 people were tested for exposure to the rare element.

More than 130 were found to have come into probable contact with it, but only 17 at levels that might cause a very slight increase in their long-term risk of getting cancer.

''With a dirty bomb, you'll find there will be more people exposed and requiring screening,'' Lightfoot said.

''It's become clear to most of us internationally, working through all this in international planning, that we'd all have to work together and help each other.'' In a dirty bomb, radioactive material is packed alongside conventional explosives and dispersed on detonation. Security officials have long feared such a device could be attractive to terrorists because of the potential for panic and disruption.

BOMB SCENARIO A 2005 disaster planning paper by the US Department of Homeland Security considered a scenario in which three dirty bombs went off in nearby cities. At each site, it estimated 180 fatalities, 270 injuries and up to 20,000 people contaminated.

The economic impact could be ''up to billions of dollars''.

Lightfoot said some patients might be treated in other countries after a dirty bomb attack in Britain, though this would be for recovering patients, not those needing acute care.

''You might want to think about moving patients to somebody else's facilities,'' he said, citing France as an example. ''Why not? They've got a very big radiation hospital in Paris.'' Lightfoot said the amount of polonium that killed Litvinenko was like ''a few grains of salt on your nail''. He is believed to have drunk it in a cup of tea he was served when meeting two Russians at a London hotel on Nov. 1 last year.

He fell ill immediately, but it took three weeks to diagnose internal radiation poisoning as the former security agent lay dying in agony in a London hospital.

Lightfoot rejected criticism from security experts who questioned at the time how authorities would deal with a larger-scale radiation incident.

Radiation from a dirty bomb would immediately be detected through equipment carried by emergency services, he said.

More insidious would be an ''emplacement device'', in which a source of radiation was left in a public place. In that case, he said, it could take days before patients began reporting radiation burns or other symptoms of poisoning.

REUTERS SKB RAI1624

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