A "dirty bomb" is a dispersal device that contains a radioactive material - possibly uranium, but it is more likely to assume low-grade materials such as cesium-137 or other radioactive materials that are commonly used in less protected medical facilities * The only country that has evidence of having used such a weapon is Russia - in Czech Nia
By Christoph Bluth, Professor of International Relations and Security, University of Bradford
Since the invasion of Ukraine in February, the threat of weapons of mass destruction being used has been a constant concern. Discussion of this threat has tended to focus on the possibility of Russia using its nuclear arsenal - something that has been hinted at several times by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his senior colleagues.
On October 23, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu called his British, French and Turkish colleagues and claimed that Ukraine was planning to use a "dirty bomb". The claim has been widely interpreted as a possible "false flag" operation by the Kremlin, which may indicate that it is Russia that plans to use such a weapon and blame it on Ukraine. But what are dirty bombs and are they ever used in combat?
The term refers to a weapon or means of warfare that uses conventional explosives mixed with radioactive materials intended to contaminate large areas. In a letter to the UN Security Council on October 24, Russia claimed that Ukraine plans to use this weapon at two sites within its territory. These are the Eastern Mineral Enrichment Plant in the Central Dnipropetrovsk Region and the Nuclear Research Institute in Kyiv.
This is not the first time that Russia has accused Ukraine of using weapons of mass destruction. In March 2022, Vasily Nebenzia, Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, told the Security Council that Russia had discovered evidence of US-funded biological weapons research in Ukraine.
Dirty bombs became part of the national security discourse when it became clear that international terrorist networks such as al-Qaeda were trying to obtain weapons of mass destruction but were unable to acquire pure fissile material or other components and technology to build a nuclear explosive device. In this case, no such weapon was ever used, despite various efforts by several terrorist groups. Two failed attempts to detonate such a device were reported in the Chechnya region of southern Russia more than 20 years ago. Investigators also found nuclear material capable of being used in a dirty bomb at an abandoned factory in Chechnya.
An unconventional weapon
A "dirty bomb" is a dispersal device containing radioactive material - possibly uranium, but more likely low-grade materials such as cesium-137 or other commonly used radioactive materials. These are sometimes found, for example, in unprotected medical facilities, such as other sites with radioactive material. In 2020, a study was published in the Journal of Instrumentation on the effects of dispersing such radioactive materials in a densely populated metropolis. He found that:
The event is expected to have a small biological impact on the local populations and that the main concern is the explosion itself, which may cause serious injuries and property damage. The radioactive materials used in a dirty bomb would likely not produce enough radiation exposure to cause immediate serious illness or a future increase in cancer rates.
The study found that more people would die from the local effects of the explosion than from radiation. This suggests that the idea of dirty bombs as weapons of mass destruction is overblown.
So it seems that such a bomb is not an effective military weapon. But like the attacks on Ukraine's energy infrastructure, the use of such weapons could result in severe displacement of the civilian population. Many people will have to leave their homes and businesses for an indefinite period.
A threatening warning
The West sees Russia's accusations as a preemptive attempt to shift the blame to Ukraine in the event of incidents that would cause large radiation leaks that could result from a dispersal facility. This raised the suspicion that Russia itself is planning several attacks on the two facilities mentioned.
The Institute of Nuclear Physics in Kyiv was established in 1944 to unify atomic research in Ukraine. It houses various nuclear research facilities, including the VVR-M research reactor built in 1960 and containing fissile materials. The Mizrachi Mineral Enrichment Plant is engaged in the production of nuclear fuel.
If the Russian military were to target these facilities, it would risk releasing radioactive materials into the general environment – although the impact may not be on the same scale as using a nuclear bomb. The Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Mariano Grossi, announced on October 24 that the IAEA conducts regular visits to these sites to ensure that all nuclear safeguards are maintained. Grossi added that at the request of the Ukrainian government, it will conduct another visit in the near future to make sure that the conditions at both sites are maintained.
Shoigu's claims must be balanced against the doubt that the Ukrainian government or the Ukrainian army would want to endanger their own people, and Russia is not expected to gain much support for these accusations in the UN. But the main concern is that this is an indication that Russia - which has suffered multiple failures on the battlefield in recent months - may be planning some unconventional escalation method and is trying to shift the blame for all death and destruction to Ukraine in advance.
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