The Kremlin uses the government’s military and political leadership to spread disinformation about the Ukrainian dirty bomb, but no one in the entire world believes it.
On October 23, the Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported, citing anonymous ‘trustworthy’ sources, that Ukraine was preparing to detonate a dirty bomb. No details were provided. On the same day, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu called the defence ministers of France, the United Kingdom, Turkey, and the United States to tell them this ‘news’. Later, Sergey Lavrov, Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Army Valery Gerasimov, and Russia’s representative to the United Nations Vasily Nebenzya made the same statements. No one believed the assertions: France, the United Kingdom, and the United States responded with a joint statement calling Russia’s claims a lie. The fake news was also denied by Ukrainian President Zelenskyy, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, and Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov.
According to credible sources in various countries, including Ukraine, the Kyiv regime is reportedly preparing a provocation in its territory involving the detonation of a so-called ‘dirty bomb’ or a low-yield nuclear weapon.
The purpose of the provocation is to accuse Russia of using weapons of mass destruction in the Ukrainian theatre of war, thus launching a powerful anti-Russian campaign in the world aimed at undermining confidence in Moscow.
It has become known from various sources that Kyiv has already started the practical implementation of this plan under the guidance of Western handlers. The management of the Skhidnyi Mining and Processing Plant, which is located in the town of Zhovti Vody, Dnipropetrovsk region, and the Kyiv Institute for Nuclear Research have been tasked with creating the very ‘dirty bomb’. It is already in the final stages of development.
At the same time, on the instructions of Volodymyr Zelenskyy, employees of the Office of the President of Ukraine from his close entourage are making tacit contacts with representatives of Great Britain regarding the possible transfer of nuclear weapon components to the Kyiv authorities.
The organisers of the provocation are calculating that if it succeeds, most countries will react extremely harshly to the ‘nuclear incident’ in Ukraine. As a result, Moscow will lose the support of many of its key partners, while the West will once again try to raise the issue of depriving Russia of its permanent UN Security Council member status and increase anti-Russian rhetoric.
Despite repeated denials, Russia continues to raise alarm about the potential for a dirty bomb. Despite the Western response, Russian Presidential Spokesman Dmitry Peskov has maintained that the threat is real, but only the Russians are capable of seeing it. The Russian Defense Ministry has issued an official statement claiming that Ukraine is planning a provocation involving the detonation of a dirty bomb, disguised as an ‘abnormal triggering of a Russian low-yield nuclear weapon’ using highly enriched uranium.
The United Nations Security Council held a meeting at Russia’s request. However, the organisation did not see any point in discussing Russian disinformation, with the representative of the United Kingdom calling it a ‘waste of time’. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will also be sending a commission to Ukraine to refute the Russian claims.
This is not the first time Russia has accused Ukraine of developing nuclear weapons or a dirty bomb. On March 1, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Ukraine’s development of nuclear weapons is a ‘real danger’. On March 3, Director of the Foreign Intelligence Service Sergei Naryshkin reported that the Russian military possessed information that Ukraine was developing this type of weapon. An anonymous source from the Russian news agency Interfax even alleged that Ukraine was preparing to create a dirty bomb at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant and ‘it was concealed by the increased radiation in the Chornobyl zone’. However, these claims eventually subsided. MediaSapiens analysed what a dirty bomb is, the plausibility of Ukraine creating a dirty bomb, and what Russia may be trying (without success) to achieve with these statements.
What is a dirty bomb?
The dirty bomb is a journalistic cliché that probably migrated to the media from Cold War James Bond movies, where a nefarious character would seek to create something ‘nuclear but dirty’. This concept, which once confused moviegoers, has now come to refer to radiological weapons, a type of weapon of mass destruction that utilises radioactive substances. Essentially, a dirty bomb is an explosive device that contains radioactive materials, which are dispersed upon detonation of a conventional explosive, contaminating the environment and causing fear among the population. It is important to know two things about a dirty bomb:
- This is not a nuclear weapon
- It has never been used.
More about the first point. Nuclear weapons are scary because their use has a number of devastating consequences. Firstly, a powerful shockwave that destroys the surrounding area near the explosion’s epicentre; light (and heat) radiation that causes fires, and burns unprotected living matter at a certain distance from the explosion; an electromagnetic pulse that turns off electronic devices at a considerable distance from the explosion, and radiation that causes radiation sickness and consists of two components: radiation emitted immediately during the explosion and that emitted for a prolonged period as radioactive particles contaminate the soil, water, and food.
The explosion of a hypothetical dirty bomb has only one effect: it pollutes the surrounding area and can cause radiation sickness. The force of the explosion itself depends on the amount of explosives it contains, but in terms of power, it is comparable to any conventional explosion, of which hundreds of thousands have occurred in Ukraine in recent months.
It is well-known that various nations have attempted to develop radiological weapons in the past. The Soviet Union had the most extensive program, conducting research from 1953 to 1958 before ultimately abandoning the project due to its lack of effectiveness. The results of these tests are classified, but it is believed that the development of a hydrogen bomb rendered the dirty bomb redundant. It is also worth mentioning that experiments on the development of radiological weapons were conducted on a ship called Kit (‘whale’ in Russian), which was anchored on Lake Ladoga. Even after the program was terminated, the ship remained there, with radioactive materials and equipment still on board. It wasn’t until as late as 1991, 35 years later, that the ship was finally removed. The area is now considered safe, but it is alarming to consider that tourists, fishermen, and locals were unknowingly exposed to hazardous materials during all those years.
Other nations have also pursued the development of radiological weapons, albeit on a smaller scale, and have ultimately reached the same conclusion: the dirty bomb is ineffective. Conventional weapons have been shown to have similarly devastating effects in terms of the number of victims and the scale of destruction as nuclear weapons used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as seen in the bombing of Tokyo and Dresden. Researchers now assert that the primary consequences of a dirty bomb are psychological and economic if the contamination area is significant. Therefore, the only potential use of such a weapon would be for terrorist organisations, as Al-Qaeda was suspected of attempting to create one, though there is no concrete evidence. Israel, a country frequently targeted by terrorist attacks, even conducted its own tests on a dirty bomb created specifically for defensive purposes. During the four-year testing period from 2010 to 2014, scientists determined that the explosion of such a device, even within a building, would not cause significant harm.
What can be used to create a dirty bomb?
The materials required to create a dirty bomb can come from various radioactive substances, not just those associated with weapons or nuclear energy.
For example, Cesium-137, a highly radioactive substance, is used in medicine, industry, and scientific research. It is worth noting that these materials do not have to be stolen, as often depicted in action movies. In 2016, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission estimated that one source of radioactive material is lost, stolen, or discarded each day in the United States and 70 per year in Europe. These materials can be crushed and used as a powder in an explosive device, potentially contaminating hundreds of square metres or even several kilometres depending on wind and weather conditions.
Even if a dirty bomb were to use fuel (fresh or used) from nuclear power plants, it would take a significant amount to cause catastrophic consequences. The explosion at the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant, for example, released 5-30% of the 180-190 tons of nuclear fuel contained in the fourth power unit’s reactor. To cause significant harm to the environment and people, terrorists would need to acquire tons of fuel, mostly in the form of crushed or liquid uranium and plutonium. Even an explosion of the halted Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Plant would not produce an effective dirty bomb.
’The radioactive material (at the shut-down ZNPP) is protected by concrete and stainless steel shells,’ explained Cheryl Rofer, a U.S. nuclear weapons expert. ‘Those pellets, about the size of the end of your thumb, might be spread around, but they would not reach the level of contamination by a powder. A similar result could be expected for the fuel in the cooling ponds, although it is more vulnerable than the fuel in the reactor. (...) The point of a ‘dirty bomb’ is to contaminate an area with radioactive material. People in the area will ingest some of that material and will need medical treatment, but few will ingest enough to produce radiation sickness.’ In the event of a dirty bomb explosion, individuals in the affected area must take immediate action to protect themselves. This includes changing clothes and thoroughly washing, closing windows and removing any dust that may have accumulated. If radioactive substances do not come into contact with water and food, the consequences of the explosion can be mitigated. Here are detailed recommendations on how to behave in case of a dirty bomb explosion.
Why all Russia’s statements about the creation of a dirty bomb in Ukraine are nonsense?
After Russia’s RIA Novosti published an article about the supposed ‘creation of a dirty bomb’, several Russian leaders made calls to their counterparts in the United States, Great Britain, France, Turkey, and the United Nations. The head of the radiation, chemical, and biological defence troops of the Russian army, Lieutenant General Igor Kirillov, made two statements in which he alleged that Ukraine is creating a dirty bomb at two specific enterprises, Skhidnyi Mining and Processing Plant in Zhovti Vody and the Institute for Nuclear Research of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, and that representatives from the UK are in contact with the Office of the President of Ukraine to provide Ukraine with nuclear weapons technology. These claims are unrelated and illogical, as it makes no sense for Ukraine to simultaneously create a dirty bomb and develop nuclear weapons technology.
It is important to note that Ukraine mines uranium but does not enrich it, and instead, purchases fuel for nuclear power plants from other countries (the country had previously acquired fuel from Russia, but refused to do so during the war). Enrichment is a necessary process for the production of nuclear fuel and for the creation of nuclear weapons, and the IAEA, according to the agreement signed by Ukraine (as well as most countries of the world), controls how this fuel is used, how much of it is used, and where it is stored to ensure that no country that does not have nuclear weapons is developing technologies that could allow the creation of such weapons.
Despite having the word ‘enrichment’ in its Ukrainian name, the mining and processing plant in Zhovti Vody does not enrich anything: it transforms uranium ore mined in Ukraine into uranium oxide concentrate - ‘yellowcake’, which is then used for further production of uranium isotopes 233 and 235 utilised in nuclear energy. Actually, this ‘enrichment’ takes place outside Ukraine. During the time of Yanukovych, Ukraine was even going to build its own enrichment plant (with the help of Russia) but terminated the agreement in 2015.
Natural uranium mined by Ukraine, and even its oxide concentrate, is not very radioactive: its half-life is 4.5 billion years (the uranium used in nuclear fuel has a period of 160 thousand years). Even if a bomb were to be filled with natural uranium powder which then got dispersed, it would not result in irradiation. The developer of Soviet nuclear weapons Igor Kurchatov worked with natural uranium for many years, washing his hands after working with it and not experiencing any health problems. Although natural uranium is still toxic: it can cause poisoning if eaten.
The Institute for Nuclear Research is a research institute that has been studying nuclear physics for many years, worked on removing the consequences of the Chornobyl accident, and is a transparent organisation that has nothing to do with military developments. To refute the allegations, the Minister of Defense of Ukraine Oleksiy Reznikov promptly invited the IAEA commission to inspect both the Institute for Nuclear Research and the Mining and Processing Plant, the commission will be coming.
Even more ridiculous are the explanations spread by Russian propaganda on why Ukraine would detonate a dirty bomb on its own territory and the map of consequences published by the Russian Ministry of Defense. Russia claims that Ukraine will detonate a dirty bomb to increase the number of refugees (a feat Russia has successfully achieved on its own), as well as to pass it off as an explosion of a Russian tactical nuclear charge to accuse it of using nuclear weapons. Then the international community will condemn this, become concerned, impose new sanctions, perhaps even exclude Russia from the UN Security Council, and increase the supply of weapons to Ukraine.
This plan is another fantastic fake. Fortunately, physics is a fairly accurate science, and it is possible to quickly find out the isotopic composition of the exploded substance, as well as to establish where exactly this substance was produced. Therefore, the origin of the residue from the bomb, which in the imaginary world of Russian propaganda can be detonated by Ukraine, would most likely be established. A good example of this is determining the origin of the polonium used to poison Alexander Litvinenko (it was Russia). Therefore, it is almost impossible to ‘imitate’ the composition of the substance in the Russian bomb with radioactive elements of another origin.
Amid the inconsistencies and lack of concrete details in the recent statements made by the Russian Ministry of Defense, they have presented a map of the supposed consequences of a dirty bomb explosion. The map puts the epicentre of the explosion in the Russian-occupied territory of Enerhodar, where the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant is located. This raises two key points: firstly, it is apparent that the scenario depicted is not that of a dirty bomb, but rather, an explosion of the ZNPP reactor itself. The power plant is under the control of the invaders and it is unclear how Ukraine could be planning an explosion there. It is possible that this is in reference to Russia’s constant allegations that Ukraine has been shelling the nuclear power plant, but if that were the case, it would not be considered a ‘bomb’. Ukraine denies having shelled the ZNPP and instead blames Russia for any potential incidents. An explosion of the reactor from the inside can only be orchestrated by Russia itself.
Secondly, the map that purports to depict the potential consequences of a dirty bomb explosion only lists countries deemed ‘hostile’ to Russia as being affected: Poland, Germany and Romania. Countries such as Belarus, Moldova and Hungary are mysteriously absent from the list of affected nations. This is a clear fabrication. It is impossible to predict the spread of a nuclear cloud and the resulting consequences, as it depends on the direction of the wind. The spread of radiation after the explosion at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant serves as a striking example of this unpredictability:
Ukraine, Belarus and Russia suffered the most back then. And, by the way, a similar map was already published by the Russian Ministry of Defense when it predicted the consequences of contamination after the explosion of the Zaporizhzhya NPP in August this year:
Map of the dirty bomb explosion
Map of the explosion at ZNPP
And again only countries ‘hostile’ to Russia were affected. Enemies get radioactive dust, friends get clean air. It seems that Russia may possess the capability to manipulate the wind’s direction.
What are these fakes for?
The report by the American Institute for the Study of War says that these statements are needed to slow down the supply of weapons to Ukraine. At the same time, experts believe that Russia is unlikely to detonate a dirty bomb itself: this is just another attempt to ‘probe’ the international community as to how it will respond to Russia’s growing nuclear arsenal.
‘Russia’s lies about Ukraine’s alleged plans to use a dirty bomb are as absurd as they are dangerous. First, Ukraine is a committed party to the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty: we do not have any ‘dirty bombs’ and do not plan to have them. Secondly, Russians often accuse others of what they are planning themselves,’ wrote Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.
According to Ukrainian MP Serhii Rakhmanin, one possible reason for this disinformation could be to sway those Russians who are uncertain about supporting the military aggression against Ukraine and to regain the support of those who had second thoughts due to the mobilisation in Russia.
The most obvious version is that the dissemination of false news by Russia, accusing Ukraine of creating a dirty bomb, can be seen as a retaliatory measure aimed at discrediting Ukraine’s efforts to have Russia recognized as a state sponsor of terrorism. This tactic is a recurring theme in Russian propaganda, which consistently attempts to portray Ukraine as a terrorist entity through fabricated stories of shelling its own civilians, missile attacks on its own nuclear power plants, and plans to destroy critical infrastructure such as dams and gas pipelines. The Russian propaganda machine has even gone as far as creating an acronym, ‘UG’ (Ukrainskoye Gosudarstvo, Ukrainian State) or ‘UGIL’ (Ukrainskoye Gosudarstvo Ivano-Frankovska i Lvova, Ukrainian State of Ivano-Frankivsk and Lviv), similar to the Islamic State or Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS/ISIL), to further disseminate this narrative through various media outlets and Telegram channels.
Along with Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe have already recognized Russia as a terrorist state or sponsor of terrorism.