If the poisoning of one man can pose such a serious test for the British government, how would it handle a full-scale radiological attack?
A week after former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko was killed by the radioactive poison Polonium 210, some security analysts see major flaws in the emergency response system and question its ability to cope with a larger crisis.
Among their chief concerns is the three weeks it took for doctors to establish that the dying Litvinenko had been poisoned by a nuclear substance.
“The man was radioactive in a hospital for weeks and nobody knew it. That’s terrifying,” said Robert Ayers, a former U.S. intelligence officer now working for London’s Chatham House think-tank.
Independent nuclear expert John Large told Reuters: “It’s taken us three to four weeks to literally get on the case. In terms of us being prepared for a radiological incident, this is a very bad portent.”
He added: “Good heavens, we can’t handle one radiation incident, let alone someone exploding a dirty bomb.”
Security officials have been braced for years for the scenario of a dirty bomb -- a device containing a mix of explosives and radioactive material -- that might only kill a few people but would contaminate a wide area and spread panic.
But the detection challenge would be much greater, Ayers said, in the event of a more insidious attack such as spreading radioactive material in a public place where many people would be exposed and only gradually fall ill.
“What we should be focusing on is our ability to detect and react to events like this in the future,” he said.
Since Litvinenko’s death on Nov. 23, investigations have gradually uncovered a radioactive trail across London of a dozen contaminated locations, some visited by the former Russian agent after he fell ill but others so far unexplained.
The government has reassured Britons that the risk is negligible, because Polonium 210 is not dangerous unless swallowed, inhaled or absorbed through a wound. But public unease grew with this week’s disclosure that some 33,000 passengers have traveled in the past month on planes suspected of bearing traces of radioactivity.
The case has posed a severe communications test for the authorities.
With a major police investigation in progress, they have declined to give answers to some obvious questions, such as what material was found on board the planes and where.
And the mere fact of alerting tens of thousands of people to an issue as emotive as nuclear radiation is almost bound to spread alarm, experts said.
Mike Grannatt, a former government emergency planner, said the authorities were right to strive for openness, including by admitting the gaps in their knowledge.
“Saying ’we don’t know yet, but we’ll tell you’, is much more credible than trying to bluff your way through it,” he told the BBC.
Home Secretary John Reid has pledged to draw lessons from the Litvinenko affair.
But the communication challenge may, if anything, grow as the investigation widens.
“This ever-increasing story is now causing people a great deal of anxiety because we don’t understand the origin of it, the pervasiveness of it, and what the real threat may be,” Ayers said.
“What’s going to be the announcement the day after tomorrow?”