Theories Discussion > KGB / Radiation / Military involvement

Radiation from potash?

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The part that I keep getting stuck on is chief radiologist Levashov’s report. It’s clear that all of the Ravine 4 were wearing clothing with radioactive contamination well above background, and some of the clothing samples exceeded sanitary guidelines for nuclear workers. But these are hikers, not nuclear workers, so anything significantly above background should raise eyebrows. The Ravine 4 were also the last to be discovered (according to the official records, although they may have been re-discovered if the 1079 theory is correct) and the only ones tested for radiation, at least according to extant records.

If Levashov is truthful and competent, the radiation is beta only. No alpha or gamma detected. This really should raise eyebrows because pure beta emitters are typically manmade isotopes like Sr-90. What would hikers be doing contaminated with Sr-90?

Now there is a caveat here. I remember being very surprised after a Chernobyl trip because a small amount of contamination accidentally found on clothing appeared to be beta only, when I know for a fact that the fission products left in Chernobyl mainly give off a lot of both beta and gamma due to Sr-90 and Cs-137. I later learned that the issue is Geiger counter efficiency. A Geiger counter will register a count for nearly 100% of betas that hit it (assuming they are energetic enough to get through the window), but only a small % of gammas will register a count; most gammas get ignored by the Geiger tube. The amount of contamination was small enough that the beta activity was noticeably above background, but a few percent of the the gamma activity would not register significantly above background. (A more accurate instrument like a NaI(Tl) scintillator has a much higher gamma counting efficiency, but Sverdlovsk probably didn’t have such sophisticated equipment and relied on Geiger counters.)

So it is possible that beta-gamma contamination of the clothing would be recorded as beta-only if the amount was small enough that only the beta could be detected above background. That said, alpha detection is fairly efficient, so any significant amount of alpha contamination (Radium, Thorium, Uranium) can be ruled out.

Lately, I’ve been considering the 1079 theory that the bodies were moved. Could whatever was used to move them before Ivanov’s team re-discovered them have contaminated them? Or could something have happened to them during the move that contaminated them?

Today, I had a new idea. I’m not sure if it is viable, but it can definitely be quantified.

Farmers use chemical fertilizer. Potassium is a common ingredient. For example, potash, which includes potassium compounds such as K2O. Could the bodies have been transported in a truck that carried potash? Also, potash is used for ice melting. Could people have dumped potash on the bodies to speed their thawing during the first investigation before they were brought back to the mountain? (Again, assuming the 1079 theory…)

Let’s try to quantify this. 0.0117% of all potassium is K-40, which is radioactive. K-40 has a  1.251x10^9 year half life. 10.72% of the time it decays by electron capture, emitting a gamma. 89.28% of the time it emits a beta. Yes, it’s not pure beta, but we will examine this later.

The most radioactive clothing was Dubinina’s brown sweater. I also want to double-check Levashov. This measured 640 counts per minute. The background for the instrument was 90 counts per minute. So the sweater was 550 counts per minute. Now there’s an 8.9 correction factor, so the beta activity of the sweater is 4895 cpm. The table lists it as 4900, so we are in agreement and will use that. 4900 cpm / 60 seconds/min = 81.67 Bq (beta decays per second.) If we assume this is all K-40, 81.67 / 0.8928 = 91.5 Bq of K-40 activity.

Now let’s look at electron capture decays producing a gamma. 91.5 Bq * 0.1072 * 0.03 / 8.9 * 60 seconds = 1.2 counts per minute gamma. (I’m making the assumption that the detector is 3% efficient on detecting gammas. I’m also assuming the beta efficiency is 100%, meaning the 8.9 correction factor is all due to detector geometry, and that same geometry applies to gammas.) Considering background is 90 cpm, an additional 1.2 cpm of gamma would likely be considered insignificant. Of note, soil from the site was reported at 96 cpm, so 6 cpm above background, and Levashov did not consider that significant. So I believe K-40 contamination in this amount would be reported by Levashov as beta only.

Next, we need the K-40 specific activity.

SA = (NA * ln 2) / (T1/2 * M) = (6.022E23 * 0.6931) / (1.251E9 * 365 * 24 * 3600 * 40) = 264,500 Bq / g K-40

So we can find the mass of the K-40 that will produce this activity:

91.5 / 264,500 = 346 micrograms K-40

Using the elemental abundance:

346E-6 / 0.000117 = 2.96 g K

Using the molecular weights for K2O:

2.96 g * (39*2+16)/(39*2) = 3.56 g K20

We know Dubinina’s sweater sample was 75 cm^2. So if it was contaminated with 3.6 g potash at the time of discovery, this would exactly explain the radioactivity. That said, that seems like more than one would pick up via trace contamination. I question whether a wheelbarrow that previously held potash would transfer 3.6 g potash to 75 cm^2 of clothing if used to transport the body.

But is it possible that people tried to deice the Ravine 4 bodies with potash or another substance containing potassium, such as potassium chloride? That seems like it might transfer the necessary amounts to their clothing such that if the bodies were then returned to the site and dumped in the ravine, the clothing would still be radioactive.

I’m still a little wary about water solubility, e.g. that the potash or KCl stayed in their clothes and didn’t wash away during the running water in the ravine, as I think they would be water soluble. Also, it must have really got into the clothing, because washing the clothes in the lab in cold water for 3 hours only removed 30-60% of the radioactivity.

Also, it doesn’t explain why anyone on Ivanov’s team would have a Geiger counter and use it to check the bodies for radiation in the first place.

Still, potassium is one simple explanation for the bizarre beta-only results that Levashov observed, which doesn’t require a purified manmade isotope like Sr-90.

Some more thoughts along these lines:

Potassium is right below sodium on the periodic table and is similar in properties. Sodium hydroxide, NaOH, is commonly known as lye, and people trying to make bodies disappear have attempted to dissolve them in lye. Potassium hydroxide, KOH, is likewise a strong base known as caustic potash.

I’ve admittedly not finished the 1079 book but have been skimming various parts of it. From what I’ve read, the idea is that a tree fell on the tent, (most of) the bodies were discovered soon after, and there was concern that the tree falling could be blamed on geologic prospecting with explosives, so the tent was moved and the scene staged to make it look like the hikers left their tent and died of hypothermia.

The Ravine 4 include the three most seriously injured bodies. What if they were not intended to be found, as their injuries would contradict the hypothermia story that was being staged? So they were dumped in the ravine, and caustic potash was dumped on them in an unsuccessful attempt to speed their decomposition? But Ivanov’s team found them anyway.

Then, if we assume someone in Ivanov’s group had a Geiger counter, all the potassium dumped on these four bodies would have set it off, prompting the radiological examination of these four, and this would be consistent with the reported results. It follows that the remaining five bodies would not have been covered with caustic potash, so they would not set off a Geiger counter if they were scanned.

I like the basic idea you had there.
I've been skimming through wikipedia for a while now, but all chemical compounds of potash I found were either easily soluable in water or react rather violently with water.
I'm not sure, how that would work, taking into account the amounts of snow and the thawing creek, the corpses were found in...

You’re right, most potassium compounds that don’t react violently with water are going to be very water soluble. Still, if a lot of potassium hydroxide was used, this still might be possible.

I know more about radioactivity and radioactive measurement than I do general chemistry. I don’t know if this is possible, but it does seem plausible to me. Specifically:

We are dealing with a “conspiracy” that isn’t well educated in forensics or body disposal. They are making decisions as they go, rather than executing a careful plan. They are under a lot of pressure and make big mistakes.

The bodies are in Ivdel. They’ve been washed, dressed in new clothes, and suddenly there’s a rush to strip them, put them in their original clothing (which is done haphazardly because nobody was sure who was wearing what, and some was cut off), and take them back to stage.

Once they get on site, and are moving the tent to the new location, someone realizes the foolishness of the plan. Dubinina and Zolotaryov have had their chests crushed, Thibeaux-Brignolle has a crushed skull, and Kolevatov had neck and facial wounds, none of which look like the hypothermia deaths they want to stage. (Slobodin’s skull injuries may not be visible to the group, so his body was deemed presentable for the hypothermia ruse.)

People who have seen too many bad movies think that a caustic like lye will dissolve bodies. Caustic potash is the closest chemical that anyone has on hand, so the four bodies are dumped in the ravine, tens of kilograms of KOH are dumped on them, snow is shoveled on top, and they figure (incorrectly) that they succeeded.

Meanwhile, the KOH drops the freezing point of the water. Some snow melts, forms a supersaturated solution, which is exothermic as KOH dissociates, and melts more snow until all the KOH is in solution, and soaks into the clothing. Then the overall cold causes everything to freeze. (And it also prevents the KOH from dissolving the bodies as planned.) The bodies stay this way essentially until spring. There may be some snow melt, which may carry more KOH into the clothing, or which might wash some away.)

Ivanov’s team (re)discovers these bodies while they are still frozen. He wants to get them to Ivdel before they can thaw. As they do thaw, the frozen KOH solution that was absorbed by the fibers in the clothing becomes liquid, and eventually evaporates, leaving KOH in the fibers.

This has the unusual side effect of making all the clothing that absorbed the KOH measurably radioactive.

We need 3 g of K in the 75 cm2 sample of Dubinina’s sweater. Given the atomic weights, that means 3g * ((39+16+1)/39) = 4.3g KOH. KOH is soluble in 0 C water at 97 g / 100 mL. So the 75 cm^2 sweater sample only needs to retain 4.3 mL of saturated KOH solution. That seems reasonable it could retain that much moisture before the water evaporated and it dried, leaving KOH in the fibers.

Yes, there was snow melt and parts of the bodies were found in running water. That could certainly wash KOH away. But not all of the bodies are going to be washed uniformly. Any area not washed, or whose geometry would lend itself to retaining the KOH, would yield hot spots. How the sampling of the clothing was done at Sverdlovsk was not stated, but I think it likely that they used a handheld Geiger counter on the clothing and tried to pick samples to measure that were hot.

I’m also concerned because several cloth samples were washed for 3 hours under cold running water and measured again, but significant amounts of the radioisotope(s) remained. Maybe certain fibers hold on to certain things better than others? I’m not sure.

But ultimately, this does provide a simple explanation for the radioactivity that integrates with the theory in the 1079 book. It does not require the military detonating dirty bombs dispersing Sr-90. Its plausibility can be tested. I can picture MythBusters doing experiments with potassium hydroxide, snow, a deep freezer, and fiber samples. Forensic experts can be consulted to determine what would happen in this kind of botched body disposal scenario. It would also be interesting to know about the availability of potassium hydroxide in that part of the Soviet Union.

Go ahead and ask the Myth Busters. I'd watch it. thumb1

But if I understand your theory correctly, the KOH should be distributed equally across all clothes and especially all parts of the clothes. As far as I remember, there were only some hot spots as in there are areas that are radioactive and those that aren't. That doesn't go well with your theory, does it?


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