US and Ukrainian alarm over a flurry of Russian claims that Kyiv plans to deploy a so-called dirty bomb has deepened fears that President Vladimir Putin could try to escalate the conflict in an attempt to change the course of the war. war.
Ukraine and its allies vehemently reject the Russian accusations, countering that in fact the Kremlin may be planning a “false flag” operation, blaming Kyiv for its own actions.
As tensions over the nine-month war escalate, NBC News examines what a dirty bomb really is, the damage it can cause and whether it can provide any military advantage.
What is a dirty bomb?
A dirty bomb, also known as a “radiological dispersal device”, is defined as a conventional weapon that has been supplemented with radioactive material. Traditionally, security experts have warned against the use of dirty bombs by terrorist groups instead of the military.
The delivery method could be a missile, an airplane filled with radioactive material or a strategically placed improvised explosive device, according to the Washington-based Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.
It’s a basic, rudimentary device that’s fairly easy to make with explosives and radioactive materials, said nuclear expert Tom Plant, senior associate research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a defense and security think tank in London.
A variety of radioactive materials could be used, he said, including materials used in nuclear medicine and for industrial purposes. When deployed, the material does nothing to make the explosion worse, he said — it’s there only to create contamination and, most likely, panic.
What damage can it cause?
How devastating a dirty bomb can be depends on the type and size of conventional explosives, as well as the potency and amount of radioactive material that has been added.
The main danger comes from the explosion, not radiation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s radiological dispersal device guidelines.
“Only people very close to the site of the explosion would be exposed to enough radiation to cause immediate serious illness,” the guidelines said. “Yet radioactive dust and smoke can travel further and could be hazardous to health if people breathe in the dust, eat contaminated food or drink contaminated water.”
Pavel Podvig, senior researcher at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, said on Twitter that an area of ”dirty bomb” contamination is unlikely to be more than a few hundred meters in diameter.
“To create serious contamination over a large area, you would have to blow up a nuclear reactor, like Chernobyl,” Podvig said.
Plant said the psychological damage caused by the deployment of a dirty bomb in Ukraine would likely be extensive.
“The fact that it’s dirty – in the sense that the contamination is spreading – is the kind of thing people are afraid of,” he said.
It could also overwhelm hospitals as people rush to get assessed for radioactive poisoning even if they’re not sick, and it could cause widespread disruption as authorities undertake a potentially widespread cleanup, Plant said.
Why are we talking about a dirty bomb now?
The Kremlin says Ukraine plans to use a dirty bomb as a provocation to blame Russia for the resulting radioactive contamination, as defense chief Sergei Shoigu says Ukraine is moving towards “a new uncontrolled escalation”.
The United States and Kyiv’s other Western allies have unanimously dismissed the claims, calling them “false transparencies,” saying they could be a way for Russia to lay the groundwork for an escalation of its own as his army struggles to advance on the battlefield. The State Department said Monday, however, that it still had no indication that Russia was preparing to use nuclear weapons or a dirty bomb.
Russia doubled down on its claims on Tuesday, and was expected to press the issue at the UN Security Council.
Who has the skills?
The Russian Defense Ministry said on Monday that Kyiv had the “scientific, technical and industrial potential” to create a dirty bomb.
He said companies in the nuclear industry in Ukraine had stockpiles of radioactive substances and two organizations had already received “specific instructions” to create the weapon. The department provided no evidence, and NBC News could not verify the claims.
Kyiv strongly denied that it was working to create or deploy a dirty bomb, and it called on international observers to confirm this.
Plant said both countries have the ability to create a “dirty bomb”, as does any country in possession of explosive and radioactive materials.
But a real nuclear weapon would be a much bigger technical challenge, one that “the Ukrainians have never investigated and don’t have the ability to do,” Plant said, adding that “the Russians obviously already have a lot of nuclear weapons”.
Russia has nearly 6,000 nuclear warheads, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Ukraine, long part of the Soviet Union and before that of the Russian Empire, agreed to give up its nuclear arsenal after its independence in exchange for security guarantees from Moscow and the West.
Would that give either side an advantage?
A dirty bomb attack has never been recorded, and if deployed in Ukraine it would likely strike terror into those immediately affected. From a military standpoint, however, either side is unlikely to have a significant advantage, experts said.
“If someone, for whatever reason, uses a ‘dirty bomb’, it won’t change anything militarily, politically or otherwise,” Podvig, of the UN Institute for Disarmament, said in another Tweeter.
Plant said that given its relatively limited destructive power, the contamination a dirty bomb could cause would not be likely to deprive the enemy of much territory or make it difficult to move through a given area.
“It just wouldn’t have the same area denial potential as, say, chemical weapons or a nuclear weapon or something like that,” he said.
“It’s completely the kind of thing that would just scare civilians.”