Jeff Charlton says insurers need to protect themselves from long-term liabilities

The recent assassination of the former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko has caused considerable fear and disruption for certain businesses and areas of central London. But the real ramifications have yet to be evaluated.

Initial information released suggests the assassin(s) dosed the victim with Polonium 210, a very powerful radioactive isotope with a half life of 138 days. This means it is capable of 50% of its contamination for that period, and 50% is capable of harm for nearly a year, depending on quantity. The lethal dose of radiation required from Polonium 210 is carried on a microgram. If you consider that a bank note weighs just a gram, cut that up into a thousand pieces and swallow just one piece.

We now have the size and quantity of threat and should now evaluate its delivery. These professionals travelled in several planes back to Russia which were subsequently grounded and showed signs of contamination. Equally Litvinenko moved around London and contaminated at least six buildings, unknown taxis, buses and other facilities.

Contamination on this scale must be removed by experts and it will be expensive. The only good news about Polonium 210 is it irradiates short-wave alpha radiation, which can be stopped by skin or paper and therefore has to be ingested to be a risk. The bad news is that it can be difficult to detect from a distance. This means identification or clearance can be difficult and of course creates the potential for long-term unknown liabilities.

The number of competent contractors available has been severely restricted or culled by the introduction of the CCA Civil Contingencies Act, which allows the confiscation of goods or services by government agencies, thereby removing effective contracting potential or indeed availability.

What should alarm insurers is that the current potential contamination threat has involved the grounding of six aircraft, closure of six buildings and the request for care by 3,000 people with 300 receiving treatment or the need further investigation.

All this from the clandestine murder of one or two men. Consider the ramifications of a terrorist dirty bomb, or the engineered use of radio isotopes.

While insurers may have policy exclusions regarding contamination, they do cover business interruption and can be affected by share or property values. The closure of major city areas is now a very real possibility and proactive defensive measures must be considered. The cost and scale of decontamination can be seen from just one opened anthrax letter at the Hart Building in the US five years ago and this is described in a visual detail on terrorism section with costs of over £100m.

The need to have controls in place to defend buildings and protect the occupants is growing daily and a free check list on building defence can be found on

The threat of a terrorist incident using weapons of mass destruction is with us today. Unless procedures are put in place to reduce the risk and hazard the current contamination issues may pale into insignificance.

Jeff Charlton is principle consultant for Disaster Advice