What are dirty bombs and what you should know

24 October 2022, 06:40 PM
Dirty bomb (Photo:CC)

Dirty bomb (Photo:CC)

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced the Ukrainian side was allegedly preparing false flag attacks with the use of a “dirty bomb” to blame Moscow.

Talks about the use of such weapons in Ukraine have been going on since 2015. What should people know about them?

Russia reported on Oct. 23 that Shoigu had conversations with French Defense Minister Sébastien Lecornu, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, and British Defense Minister Ben Wallace.

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In particular, Shoigu expressed “concern” about possible provocations by Ukraine using a dirty bomb.

The Ukrainian side, represented by presidential advisor Mykhailo Podolyak and Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, called these statements absurd and evidence-free.

“Russian lies about Ukraine allegedly planning to use a ‘dirty bomb’ are as absurd as they are dangerous,” Kuleba tweeted on Oct. 23.

“Firstly, Ukraine is a committed NPT (the Non-Proliferation Treaty) member: we neither have any ‘dirty bombs,’ nor plan to acquire any. Secondly, Russians often accuse others of what they plan themselves.”

The foreign minister added that “Russia’s ‘dirty bomb’ disinformation campaign might be aimed at creating a pretext for a false flag operation. Kuleba confirmed that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken shares the same opinion, with whom they discussed “further practical steps to boost Ukraine’s air defense.”

Back in mid-2015, the U.S.-based Newsweek and the UK-based The Times online newspapers wrote that the fighters of the sham republics “LPR/DPR” consulted with Russian specialists in the field of nuclear weapons to produce a dirty bomb.

In February 2022, Russian propaganda accused Ukraine’s National Corps of creating a dirty bomb, in parallel with the statement of the Russian intelligence’s head about the preparation of Ukrainian “jihadists” for an offensive in the Donbas.

NV found out what a dirty bomb actually is, who has these weapons, and whether there were recorded cases of its use in hostilities.

Nuclear weapons” at a minimum

A dirty bomb is a type of radiological weapon of mass destruction that scatters a radioactive substance over a quite large area.

“A dirty bomb works completely differently (from a nuclear bomb) and cannot create an atomic blast,” experts at the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention say.

“Instead, a dirty bomb uses dynamite or other explosives to scatter radioactive dust, smoke, or other material in order to cause radioactive contamination.”

The concept of radiological weapons appeared in the middle of the 20th century, after the U.S. Manhattan Project and the only combat use of nuclear weapons in history, against the Imperial Japan in World War 2.

Dirty bombs work on the theory that radioactive isotopes, including iodine-131, cesium-137, strontium-89, etc. will scatter over a certain territory and cause damage to enemy manpower by ionizing radiation.

In addition, long-term contamination can make the territory unfit for habitation, hostilities, or economic activity.

Due to the relatively low power of the explosion (or its absence), radiological weapons are inferior in effectiveness to nuclear warheads. However, such weapons are much easier to manufacture if their developers have access to radioactive materials.

As for the dirty bomb itself, in fact, it is a high-explosive munition, whose charge is supplemented with radioactive material. This material is scattered over the area during the detonation, subsequently affecting all living organisms.

Despite a number of shortcomings, taking into account the low efficiency, the danger of manufacturing and the risk of the spread of radioactive substances not only on enemy territory, it is known that the United States and the Soviet Union tested various types of radiological weapons, including dirty bombs, in the second half of the 20th century.

Later, this type of weapon began to attract various terrorist groups interested in causing harm in any way.

The use of dirty bombs

Several countries, including the United States, Russia, and Great Britain, have shells made of depleted uranium in service. Various sides claimed the use of such weapons during hostilities in Yugoslavia, Iraq and Syria.

Despite the low radioactivity of depleted uranium and its use in warheads as fuel, scientists stated the severe consequences of these weapons for people, as well as the difficulties in decontaminating areas where depleted uranium weapons have been used.

Dirty bombs, on the other hand, have never been officially used and are not in service with any country. However, in the early 1990s, Russian authorities announced several dozen alleged cases of theft of radioactive materials from state facilities.

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The threat of nuclear terrorism in Russia was primarily associated with the armed conflict in Chechnya. According to the Russian newspaper Kommersant, in late 1995, law enforcement agencies of Chelyabinsk Oblast began a probe into a criminal case regarding the theft of radioactive cesium-137 from the Bakal Iron Ore Enterprise.

Around the same time, on Nov. 21, 1995, Chechen opposition leader Shamil Basayev allegedly personally indicated to Russian journalist Yelena Masyuk the location of a “container with radioactive materials” in Moscow’s Izmaylovsky Park.

The Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations said the container emitted 600 micro-X-rays per hour at a distance of one meter. It was assumed that it was a technical device for calibrating radioactive devices.

In 2021, Israeli and Turkish scientists reported that they had developed a solution in the event of usage of a dirty bomb. Israeli authorities feared that such weapons could be used against their citizens by the Islamist organization Hezbollah, which controls Lebanon and supports the Assad regime in Syria.

It was assumed that dirty bomb may be deployed against the Israeli parliament building or the prime minister’s office.

Dirty bombs in Ukraine

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission says most dirty bombs “would not release enough radiation to kill people or cause severe illness,” but could create panic and contaminate property.

“The world would see through any attempt to use this allegation as a pretext for escalation,” the U.S., British and French ministers said in response to “Russia’s transparently false allegations.”

"We further reject any pretext for escalation by Russia.”

Russian Defense Minister Shoigu, as well as the Russian media, which circulated his statements, did not provide any actual evidence of the presence of radiological weapons or dirty bombs in Ukraine.

“Russia has made similar unfounded accusations about Ukraine planning to use dirty bombs and nuclear weapons since the early days of the invasion,” Forbes journalist Carlie Porterfield wrote on Oct. 23.

Russia has previously blamed Ukraine for shelling the occupied Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant, despite conducting the shelling themselves.

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