Why Putin is talking about dirty bombs in Ukraine

Archbishop Jerome Lloyd OSJVPosted by

An empty threat or false flag operation? When it comes to radioactive weapons, the world must take it seriously

Why Putin is talking about dirty bombs in Ukraine
Digitally generated post apocalyptic scene depicting a desolate urban landscape with tall buildings in ruins and mostly cloudy sky
A dirty bomb can make swathes of land uninhabitable for years CREDIT: Bulgac /E+

Dwarfed by the Russian flag, and sitting hunched on a gold-encrusted chair, Vladimir Putin took a gamble. 

The United States, he said, was turning Ukraine into a “testing site for military biological experiments”. Furthermore, “we know about [Ukraine’s] plans to use a so-called ‘dirty bomb’ as a provocation”. 

A dirty bomb – a conventional explosive laced with radioactive material – is used to sow panic and psychological distress. They can also make swathes of land uninhabitable for years.

What game was Putin playing in making this claim two weeks ago? Did he have genuine intelligence or was it another of the Kremlin’s tricks? Might Russia itself be planning to detonate a dirty bomb in Ukraine? And if so, why?

Clear answers remain elusive, and some maintain that is precisely Putin’s intention; simply by causing anxiety to rise in Ukraine and the West he increases the chances of cracks emerging in the alliance against him. 

Others suspect a “false-flag operation” in which he raises the prospect of Ukraine working on a dirty bomb as cover for Russia doing the same thing itself.

Digital illustration of a massive tactical nuclear explosion over city
A digital illustration of a ‘dirty’ bomb explosion over a city CREDIT: ImageBank4u/Shutterstock

Regardless, ever since Putin’s comments on October 26, nuclear experts around the world have been dusting off intelligence files on dirty bombs as a precaution.

In Ukraine itself, more immediate actions are being taken. The country’s hospitals are preparing for a mass-casualty radiological disaster as a precaution, with citizens stocking up on iodine pills and bomb shelters being equipped with nuclear survival kits.

And as Russia claimed to be pulling troops out of Kherson yesterday, apparently leaving the Ukraine army with a free path back into the city, President Volodymyr Zelensky warned: “The enemy does not bring us gifts, does not make ‘gestures of goodwill’.”

Poor man’s nuke

Dirty bombs first became a widespread fear in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. A poor man’s “weapon of mass destruction”, they are significantly easier and cheaper to build than a full-blown nuclear bomb  – yet they can do immense psychological and financial damage.

They also occupy an untested field in terms of escalation and retaliation in warfare. Would the use of a dirty bomb by a state like Russia constitute a nuclear attack, for example? What would be an appropriate response? And might such questions divide Nato members?

Officially known as radiological dispersion devices, dirty bombs have been studied by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) since the 9/11 attacks of 2001. 

Spooked by fears that Al Qaeda might deploy one in a US city like Chicago, the GAO launched its Combating Nuclear Terrorism report in the early noughties and has updated it regularly ever since. The latest version was published in 2019.

“A large [dirty bomb] could cause about $30 billion in damage and 1,500 fatalities from the evacuation, and a considerably smaller [dirty bomb] could cause $24 billion in damage and 800 fatalities from the evacuation,” the report warns.

Destruction in terms of contamination could be immense.

Illustrator Embed

dirty bomb radius

The range of a dirty bomb depends on the amount of explosive used. Fine particles may travel on the wind, but to have a significant impact a huge amount of explosive would be required.

500lb bomb

Radioactive

range: 320ft

Evacuation range:

1,900ft

500lb bomb

Radioactive range: 320ft

Evacuation range: 1,900ft

500lb bomb

Radioactive range: 320ft

Evacuation range: 1,900ft

500lb bomb

Radioactive range: 320ft

Evacuation range: 1,900ft

If detonated in a city, entire districts could be sealed off depending on the force of the blast, the radioactive material in it and the direction and force of the prevailing wind.

Experts liken the damage such a blast could cause to areas surrounding the Chernobyl explosion zone.

The Federation of American Scientists has calculated that if a bomb containing 9g (0.3oz) of cobalt-60 and 5kg of TNT were to be exploded at the tip of Manhattan, New York, it would make the whole city uninhabitable for decades. 

Partly because of the efforts of the security services, no dirty bomb attacks have ever been recorded. However, two failed attempts were reported in the southern Russian province of Chechnya more than two decades ago – and one in Britain.

“It’s remarkable that one hasn’t been used,” said Scott Roecker, vice-president for the nuclear materials security programme at the Nuclear Threat Initiative. “A brand new cobalt-60 source was delivered to the Mosul hospital [in Syria] right before ISIS took over and they never touched it. It’s relatively easy to do, it’s surprising it hasn’t happened yet.”

The radioactive material needed for a dirty bomb is frighteningly easy to come by and, according to the GAO report, used for hundreds of processes including metal welding, cancer treatments and food sterilisation.

 Radiation warning sign on transport index label stick on the rust and decay radioactive material container
Nuclear experts around the world have been dusting off intelligence files on dirty bombs as a precautionary measure CREDIT: Satakorn Sukontakajonkul/Alamy Stock Photo

In the UK, a plot to make a dirty bomb out of tiny pieces of radioactive material found in smoke detectors was thwarted by the security services in 2004. If successful, it would have caused mass murder on a “colossal and unprecedented scale” in Britain and the US.

On a smaller scale, a simple accident in Brazil shows the huge damage tiny amounts of radioactive material can cause if they get into the wrong hands.

In 1987, two people in Goiânia came across an abandoned medical machine containing 1,400 curies of cesium-137. Unaware of what it was, they took it home to their families, leading to the hospitalisation of 20 people and the death of four more.

“The very high internal and external contamination was caused by the way they handled the cesium-137, including rubbing their skin with the material and eating with contaminated hands”, reported the US GAO.

“In addition, 112,000 people in the surrounding area were monitored for exposure to radiation, of which 249 were found to be internally or externally contaminated.

“The accident also contaminated 85 houses and required the demolition of homes and other buildings, generating 3,500 cubic metres of radioactive waste.”

Putin’s Psychops

With terrorists considered the most likely to deploy a dirty bomb, Putin’s accusation was, to say the least, odd. 

“It’s surreal to be talking about a state trying to construct a dirty bomb. It’s always been looked at through the lens of someone stealing a radioactive source, not a state building it,” said Mr Roecker.

Did Putin really believe his enemies would use one in their own territory? There are three possible explanations.

Scenario one is that we take Putin at face-value. He might have believed Ukraine was preparing to deploy a dirty bomb after being fed false information by his own intelligence services. From a paranoid Russian perspective, a dirty bomb could be used by Ukraine as a lever to get Nato to more directly intervene in the conflict.  Or to render land annexed by Russia as useless.

Western experts think this is the least likely rationale.

Most experts think a false flag operation is a more likely scenario. President Zelensky immediately dismissed Putin’s accusation as a “false-flag operation” – a tactic to disguise the actual source of responsibility and pin blame on another party.

Putin says West is playing 'dangerous, bloody and dirty game'

This would see Russia explode its own dirty bomb, to blame Ukraine, and demand it surrender or face nuclear retaliation.

Many Western experts believe this was the Kremlin’s true intention. In Russia’s eyes, such an attack might be seen as giving it the upper hand – perhaps bringing the war to a rapid end.

“The fear has been that the Russians themselves were planning to use a dirty bomb and a false flag operation. And I think that that is probably what was going on,” said Dr Ira Helfand, co-chair of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1985. 

Adding weight to the theory is the fact Putin has used the false-flag trick before. In 1999 he consolidated political his support in Russia by blaming Chechen “terrorists” for deadly Russian apartment bombings. There is no proof but good circumstantial evidence suggests the explosions were organised by Moscow secret police.

Yet, many analysts say Putin wouldn’t be as foolhardy to use a dirty bomb in Ukraine. A dirty bomb is not considered an effective weapon in any conventional sense and could attract devastating retaliation.

Breakout Box
At a glance

History of dirty bomb attempts

  • In 1987 Iraq tested a bomb filled with radioactive material, but the Iraqi military was dissatisfied with the small amounts of radioactivity produced.
  • In 1995 Chechen secessionists called a Russian television station and claimed that they could build a dirty bomb. As proof, they provided the location of a spot in a Moscow park where they had buried a small amount of radioactive cesium.
  • In 1998 the Russian-backed Chechen intelligence service defused a dirty bomb that had been placed near a railway line in Chechyna; it was believed that Chechen secessionists were responsible for planting it.
  • In 2002, Jose Padilla, an American who had extensive contact with al-Qaeda, was arrested in Chicago on suspicion that he was planning a dirty bomb attack.
  • In 2004 Dhiren Barot, a British national and al-Qaeda member, was arrested in London for plotting terrorist attacks in the United States and the United Kingdom that would have included the use of a dirty bomb. However, neither Padilla nor Barot had begun assembling the material necessary for a dirty bomb attack.
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Furthermore, the Kremlin would be putting its own troops at risk, while also rendering land it had seized inhabitable for the foreseeable future. 

The third explanation offered by experts is the dirty bomb accusation is another of Russia’s Psychops; a charade to cause panic and anxiety amongst Ukraine’s population and Western leaders.

Putin has warned of a nuclear escalation since the first week of his invasion. He started ratcheting up the idea that he may use nuclear weapons in late September, threatening to defend the illegally-annexed Ukrainian territory “by all means available”. 

But his aim, it is thought, has primarily been to deter Nato countries from becoming too involved in the war effort. 

The US-based Institute for the Study of War has taken this view throughout. It says Russia “likely sought to slow or suspend Western military aid to Ukraine and possibly weaken the Nato alliance in scare-mongering calls”.

Climb down or gearing up?

This week there have been signs that Putin is backing down on all things nukes. 

Russian diplomats have tried to dial back his threats, clarifying that a nuclear attack would only occur if the existence of the country was at stake.

On Tuesday, for the first time since the war began, the US and Russia agreed to hold talks on the single existing nuclear treaty between the two countries in the near future.

Why the change now? It could be that the UN taskforce – sent in to urgently assess his claims of a dirty bomb – called his bluff. Or it could be that he saw how quickly world leaders moved to dismiss his accusations and cast him as somewhat unhinged.

“It appears that [Russia’s] bluff has been called. They’ve stopped talking about it. And hopefully, this means [a dirty bomb attack] will not occur,” said Dr Helfand.

Rafael Mariano Grossi, the International Atomic Energy Agency director-general, said on Wednesday that Putin may have succeeded in increasing anxiety around a nuclear war. 

“These assertions were made as part of a narrative leading to the use of nuclear weapons,” Grossi said at the COP27 meeting in Sharm El-Sheikh. “We were all of a sudden considering this as a realistic possibility.”

Russia’s extensive nuclear facilities means it could easily build a dirty bomb, with very few people becoming aware of it.

“Russia certainly has the ability to prepare a dirty bomb without it being detected,” said Dr Helfand. 

“A lot of unlikely things have happened since February 24. So I wouldn’t rule it out,” added Mr Roecker.

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