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Isotope kills ex-spy

  • GCSE
  • Popular Activity
  • Topical

Type: Activity
Learning Strategy: Communication
Topic: Radioactive decay

Alexander Litvinenko, a former soviet spy, knew he had enemies. When a mystery illness struck, he assumed he'd been poisoned. But what with? Any number of toxins could account for his symptoms - food poisoning, thallium, a radioactive isotope? As new data accumulated, the investigators' conclusions were forced to change. Nothing like this had been seen before. It took three weeks to identify the polonnium-210 he'd ingested, and by then he was dead. The activity gets students to research polonium-210 and explain how it killed Litvinenko.

14-16 How Science Works:
14 – 16 How science works

1c. how explanations of many phenomena can be developed using scientific theories, models and ideas

Published: 29th November 2006
Reviews & Comments: 29

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Learning objectives

Students will:
• Reinforce their knowledge of nuclear structure and radioactivity.
• Appreciate that theories change with time, as new evidence is presented.
• Develop their communication skills by delivering a two minute presentation.

Try the activity

You will need Acrobat Reader installed to open the activity sheets.



AQA Core Unit P1b, 13.6
AQA Additional Unit P2, 13.9
Edexel Additional P2 topic 11
C21 Core P3
Gateway Core P2
Gateway Additional P4

Running the activity

Display page 1, which presents a timeline of changing conclusions about the cause of Litvinenko's symptoms, and sets the task. Students plan presentations to explain why polonium-210 is so harmful when you ingest it. Page 2 has reference data to help them with this.

News links

The BBC story with links to supporting web sites.

Reviews & Comments

Write your online review to share your feedback and classroom tips with other teachers. How well does it work, how engaging is it, how did you use it, and how could it be improved?

Isotope kills ex-spy review

May 15th, 2011

5 Star

Reviewer: Stuart Briely

'Radioactive materials' in a real life context

May 27th, 2010

4 Star

My lower-set Year 10 class found this very engaging and all produced good-quality presentations. This activity puts radioactivity into context, allowing the students to apply their knowledge of the properties of alpha radiation.

Could be improved with differentiated resources, maybe a worksheet with questions asked by the press.

Reviewer: George Reakes

Isotope kills ex-spy review

May 6th, 2010

4 Star

It went well, and the class were engaged by the topic. Definatly gained a better undersanding of isotopes using these resources. I also used it with a low ability class who were initially engaged but who lost interest and still were not clear what an isotope was by the end of the lesson. Thanks for the actiivity.

Reviewer: Robert Daley

Year 11 Radioactivity

Mar 9th, 2010

5 Star

Pupils loved it as it was a true story and we got some news clips up on youtube. Has the whole 'James Bond' element to it.

Reviewer: Rachel Mosses


Mar 7th, 2010

5 Star

Good information used for triple science students

Reviewer: Lynn Stainer


Oct 10th, 2009

5 Star

I saw this used with a class and recommended it to another teacher. The pupils were really engaged and they loved the fact that it was a true story.

Reviewer: Lucy Crawford

Core Science - Physics

Jul 31st, 2009

5 Star

I have used this resource for my students every year since it was published. It is contemporary; relevant; and served to assist with retention. Excellent!
All students on task yippee...... and learning!

Reviewer: Hazel Butterworth


Sep 30th, 2008

5 Star

brilliant resource.
If you link it to the web-site suggested there are loads of extension activities you can do.
Students taught about Radiation and then could really understand and produce good reports on this.

Reviewer: James Mitchell

Isotope kills ex-spy review

Sep 3rd, 2008

5 Star

I love this activity!

Reviewer: Kelly Draper


Jun 10th, 2008

4 Star

I used this activity with many of my year 10 classes. It was relevant and quite recent which the students picked up on! I got them to produce an information leaflet warning about the dangers of radioactive isotopes.
The students worked well and enjoyed the lesson, thank you.

Reviewer: Emma-Jane Bradbury

Isotope kills ex-spy review

Oct 29th, 2007

4 Star

Great resource. Used with middle ability yr 11 group, but created a question worksheet. Students used the resource and my worksheet to answer the questions.

Great if we could share your w/sheet [email protected]

Reviewer: Dirki Balaska

A means to an end

Jul 2nd, 2007

5 Star

This scenario absolutely gripped my low ability Y10 Science class. You can all make up your own minds about the ethics of using a real story like this - I did, and the youngsters were not only fascinated by it, they probably learnt more about radioactivity that lesson than any five I have taught previously.
The visuals were so engaging and informative, the students were learning without realising that they were learning - and they had remembered most of the 'science' the next day.
They were not at all uncomfortable about the context.
Well done upd8.

Reviewer: Martin Scotchmer


May 3rd, 2007

5 Star

I used this with my motivaitonally challenged year 11 class and I thought it went down well.

I spent a good part of the lesson explaning and recapping, atomic structure, isotopes, radiactivty before introducing the activity.

The activity was good at grabbing their attention and they read it and were interested, I got them to write a paragraph to explain how the radiactive isotope affected the spy and eventually killed him

Reviewer: Katherine Rolls


May 1st, 2007

4 Star

Worksheet activity is a little short but the worksheet is a brilliant resource and summarises what happened superbly.
Excellent 'real life' example to use to discuss dangers of types of radiation.

Reviewer: James Mitchell

Isotope kills ex-spy review

Mar 29th, 2007

4 Star

I used this with my year 9 class, I understand the objections made by the others, but if handled sensitively this can be a useful resource, which caught the interest of my class and made radiation seem more relevant to them.

Reviewer: Teresa Anderson

Isotope kills ex-spy

Mar 6th, 2007

4 Star

I used this with a top set class when studyin radiation in P" Gateway. They wer very interested in the cause of death and have gone on to write clear accounts of the physics and biology behind the news article.

Reviewer: Susan Swan

isotope kills ex-spy

Feb 19th, 2007

5 Star

My Y11 students found this a great starter to the topic of Radiation. it got them thinking and made science relevant and up to date. well Done!

Reviewer: angela MacLeod

isotope kills ex-spy

Feb 12th, 2007

5 Star

Good information and a very topical subject. Nearly all of my pupils had heard about this story in the press and were instantly captivated. A fantastic resource!

Reviewer: Sara Newton

Alexander Litvenko

Feb 9th, 2007

5 Star

My year 10 pupils completed this task this afternoon. They were respectful about the fact that a real person had been murdered but were interested in trying to explain clearly how. It illustrated very clearly the dangers of alpha particles inside the body, and reinforced why alpha sources are unsuitable as medical tracers.

Reviewer: Jakki Ellis

Isotope kills ex-spy

Feb 7th, 2007

4 Star

Despite the tragedy of a death, this is an excellent resource. It makes students think about why alpha radiation was not detected sooner and how whoever planned this death would probably have evaded detection if Alexander Litvinenko had not had such a will to live enabling the scientists to detect the source of poisoning. The use of real situations makes science much more interesting and the use of alpha sources as poisons is able to capture students interest much more than a smoke alarm will ever manage.

Reviewer: Tracey Holmes

Isotope Kills Ex-Spy

Jan 26th, 2007

5 Star

I agree that we must be sensitive to the personal tragedy of someone's death. However, this topic is a prime example of how science works. The timeline features how scientific investigations are carried out until you arrive at a conclusion. Certainly it brings science home to my less able pupils and Upd8 uses beautiful illustrations to aid understanding.

Reviewer: Bella OKPALUGO

Isotope kills ex-spy review

Jan 26th, 2007

4 Star

I think its a great activity. It gets the pupils interested. And dont forget he wanted to publicise his death or he wouldnt have allowed the papers in to take photos. He wanted people to be aware.

Reviewer: Rhiannon Connolly


Dec 15th, 2006

5 Star

We must not take advantages of everything. There are limits.


Isotope kills ex-spy review

Dec 15th, 2006

5 Star

Pupils were already discussing the news so the topicality was perfect for engaging their interest. Considering why it took so long to identify the cause (relating to the properties of alpha particles) made the difference between the different types of radiation far more relevant for my special needs pupils. The timing (as we neared the end of a topic on waves and radiation with year 11 was perfect!

Reviewer: Elizabeth Franklin

Isotope kills ex-spy

Dec 12th, 2006

4 Star

No disrespect meant but I would look at the issue as a way by which the use of science is subjective. This would be a good topic to discuss limitations of Science. I will be using the material in my class.

Reviewer: Cesare Reyes

Alexandra livinenko

Dec 8th, 2006

4 Star

I know it is cruel to use a man's death to our advantage but musn't forget that he was a spy! The science is very real and this lesson is a good example of how it works. i shall definitely recommend it to my teachers. jiffty Chug

Reviewer: jiffty chug

Alexander Litvinenko

Dec 7th, 2006

3 Star

Using this tragic example of radiation posioning as a topical news story that matches the curriculum is no different from using ANY news story involving tragic death, such as the long-lasting effects of Fat Man and Little Boy, or the Boxing day Tsunami. Surely the whole point of teaching young people Science is so that they have a better understanding of the world around them and how it works?

Reviewer: Margaret Evans

Isotope Kills Ex-Spy

Dec 3rd, 2006

5 Star

This is exactly why I subscribe to UPD8 - quality topical science lessons that are delivered fast whilst they are in the news. This is a sad case and the death of anyone must be treated with respect and I'm sure my students will be able to appreciate the significance and apalling nature of this event by understanding the science behind it. The public understanding of science must not be simply left to the popular media. Thank you UPD8 - I'll be using your material this week.

Reviewer: T.G. Naylor

Alexander Litvinenko

Dec 2nd, 2006

1 Star

My personal view is that this is just making capital (even if it is only a lesson) out of a man's death. Any person deserves respect in death. This has gone beyond good taste. I shall answer students' questions but I will not use this lesson plan.

Reviewer: Cecilia Collier

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