What is a ‘Dirty Bomb’ and Why is Russia Warning About It?
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On Sunday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu informed his NATO counterparts that Kiev may be preparing a false-flag dirty bomb attack against its own territory to accuse Moscow of nuclear terror. If such a provocation takes place, it could irradiate wide swathes of land, endanger thousands of lives, and dramatically escalate the crisis.
Russia has expressed fears that Kiev may detonate a radiation-spewing “dirty bomb” and blame Moscow for using a tactical nuclear weapon against its forces. Russia’s nuclear doctrine forbids the use of nuclear weapons of any kind unless the country is attacked using weapons of mass destruction, or faces a conventional attack so severe it threatens the country’s existence. But that fact is unlikely to stop the West from blaming Russia in the event of a false-flag dirty bomb attack, Moscow fears.
What is a Dirty Bomb and How Does it Work?
A dirty bomb is typically a conventional explosive device that contains radioactive material, be it uranium, plutonium, or other radioactive waste material byproducts generated by things like nuclear power generation or radiological medicine.
Why is Russia Warning About Dirty Bombs?
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu held a series of telephone talkswith his French, British, American, and Turkish counterparts on Sunday in which he conveyed concerns about possible provocations by Kiev involving the use of a dirty bomb.
Washington, Paris, and London dismissed the warning the same day, saying they “reject Russia’s transparently false allegations that Ukraine is preparing to use a dirty bomb on its own territory” and suggesting that “the world would see through any attempt to use this allegation as a pretext for escalation.”
On Monday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov emphasized that the dirty bomb threat was real, and would not cease to exist just because Western officials refuse to believe it. Separately, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov vowed to bring the matter up at the United Nations Security Council, and stressed that Moscow has “specific information” about the Ukrainian scientific institutions that have the technology to build a dirty bomb.
Dirty Bombs vs. Nuclear Bombs
Dirty bombs do not cause nuclear explosions, and as such do not cause the same kind of widespread material destruction that nuclear weapons do. Instead, their main purpose is to spew radioactive contamination across areas spanning dozens or even hundreds of kilometers, leaving them uninhabitable and dangerous to the health of the surrounding population and/or troops.
Why are Dirty Bombs so Dangerous?
Ordinarily, dirty bombs are the refuge of the weak. At the height of the US’ so-called “War on Terror” in the early 2000s, lawmakers fretted about what would happen if terrorists got a hold of radioactive materials and detonated them in, say, Lower Manhattan or the center or Washington, DC. Dirty bombs can be surprisingly easy to build. In 2016, a congressional investigation revealed how simple it was to create fake companies to circumvent restrictions on the purchase of radioactive materials.
Are There Other Ways Militaries Can Use Deadly Radioactive Materials?
Notwithstanding the potentially horrific consequences of the use of nuclear waste for military purposes, some governments have also not shied away from the idea. In 1950, after China entered the Korean War, US Supreme Commander Douglas MacArthur famously proposed “sowing a band of radioactive cesium across Manchuria as a kind of ‘cordon sanitaire’ against the Chinese advance.”
Similarly, during the US-led wars in Iraq, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Syria, US and NATO jets dropped thousands of tons of depleted uranium bombs, shells, and missiles on enemy targets, contaminating wide swathes of territory and giving thousands of civilians, enemy troops, and their own soldiers lethal doses of radiation poisoning. Britain used the weapons during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Does Kiev Have the Capacity to Build a Dirty Bomb?
In a briefing Monday, Russian Radiation, Chemical and Biological Defense Troops chief Igor Kirillov warned that Ukraine has the technological prowess and ample radioactive material reserves to build a dirty bomb. This includes some 1,500 tons’ worth of spent nuclear fuel from the country’s three operating nuclear power plants, and 22,000 spent fuel assemblies stored at the defunct Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant’s waste repositories, including Uranium-235 and Plutnoium-239 – the primary fissile isotopes used in nuclear weapons. Additionally, Kirillov indicated, Kiev also has the capacity to store tens of thousands of cubic meters of radioactive waste materials at several waste disposal facilities, and can mine up to 1,000 tons of uranium ore every year.
Furthermore, the officer stressed, Kiev has the scientific know-how allowing it to easily build a dirty bomb, including the legendary Kharkov Institute of Physics and Technology involved in the creation of the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons, and the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for Nuclear Research, which operates the BBP-M research reactor.
Would Experts Recognize the Difference Between a Dirty Bomb and a Nuke?
In the absence of eyewitnesses of the detonation of a dirty bomb or a low-yield nuclear weapon, it may not be possible to immediately determine what caused the explosion. However, with time, factors such as detection of above-ground seismic activity, damage to the surrounding environment, and estimates on how many kilotons of force (one kiloton = the equivalent to the energy produced by the detonation of 1,000 tons of TNT) were involved in the blast could help to determine the culprits.
However, as Lieutenant General Kirillov warned in his presentation, if Kiev did proceed with its dirty bomb provocation, the West would be likely to stick to its well-worn tactic of escalation first, and asking questions second.
“The Kiev regime plans to camouflage an explosion of this kind of ordinance as a Russian low-yield nuclear warhead containing highly enriched uranium as its charge. The presence of radioactive isotopes in the air will be recorded by the sensors of the European International Monitoring System, with the further accusation of Russia using tactical nuclear weapons,” Kirillov said.
“It is to be noted that this kind of information warfare technology has already been used by the West in Syria when the White Helmets were filming propaganda footage about the use of chemical weapons by government forces there,” the officer added, recalling the chemical weapons provocation at Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017, which prompted the US to launch airstrikes – before any investigation could begin.
The same tactic was repeated a year later, when a suspected chemical attack against the Syrian city of Douma prompted Washington, Paris, and London to launch another wave of airstrikes against the country, again before any investigation was started. Later, whistleblowers revealed that even when the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons conducted its probe into the Douma attack, inspectors pointing out efforts to doctor the report were censored and smeared.
If the Zelensky government does move forward with a dirty bomb provocation, the Russian military would undoubtedly be able to dig up iron-clad evidence proving Kiev’s responsibility. However, whether the average Western man in the street propagandized to believe their governments’ narrative on Russia and the Ukraine crisis would believe it remains to be seen.