Analysis | What’s a ‘Dirty Bomb’ and Why Is There Concern in Ukraine?


Ukraine has asked international monitors to inspect two nuclear facilities to ensure material hasn’t been diverted to build a so-called dirty bomb. The request followed Russian assertions that Kyiv’s government was laying the groundwork for the detonation of such a device, potentially contaminating land with radiation and causing mass panic. The US and its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have rejected the Kremlin’s claim. 

A dirty bomb is shorthand for what nuclear-security officials call a radiological dispersal device. They usually involve some kind of radioactive waste paired with regular explosives like dynamite, which can spread the contamination upon detonation. They are seen as instruments of terror, built to sow panic and economic damage. It doesn’t contain anywhere near the energy or destructive potential of nuclear weapons, which are fueled with highly enriched uranium and plutonium. Those produce atomic chain reactions that can level cities.

2. Where does the radiological material come from?

Radioactive isotopes like Cesium-137, commonly used in medical and industrial devices, fall outside of International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. It’s considered one of the most dangerous agents because of its powdery consistency, which can blow through the air and is soluble in water. Globally, the IAEA has estimated there may be more than 1 million missing sources containing Cesium-137 or other radioactive isotopes such as Cobalt-60 and Iridium-192. The US has spent billions of dollars over decades trying to secure nuclear material worldwide to reduce the probability terrorists could obtain the material for a device. While some radioactive sources have been used for criminal activities, most wind up in low-security scrap yards where they pose a threat to metal recyclers. 

3. What if a dirty bomb were detonated in Ukraine? 

The extent of the damage and risk to people would depend on the material used and location of the blast. Should a dirty bomb loaded with Cesium-137 detonate near a border, there would be a risk of cross-border contamination. Some policy makers in NATO countries have suggested that could trigger the alliance’s binding commitment to mutual defense if any single member is attacked. A similar debate has raged around the Russian occupation of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, where artillery and missile attacks have threatened to cause a nuclear accident. Tobias Ellwood, a Conservative member of the UK Parliament, said in August that a deliberate radiological release should prompt NATO to become involved. Organizations like the US Nuclear Emergency Support Team exist to respond to and investigate any use of a radiological dispersion device.

4. What is being done to prevent a dirty bomb detonation?

While the IAEA has sent inspectors to two sites in Ukraine, it’s unlikely that nuclear material under safeguards would be used in an attack. Spent uranium fuel from a reactor is particularly unsuited for a dirty bomb because the material’s extreme radioactivity would make it hard for a bombmaker to fashion an explosive device, while detonation wouldn’t spread contaminants very far. Instead, most international efforts have focused on prevention. The US convened a series of nuclear-security summits during the Obama presidency, where world leaders formed intelligence networks to share information and assess risks. Radiation monitoring equipment has been installed at border crossings around the world and given to security services. Top officials from the US, UK and France issued a rare joint statement on Oct. 23 warning Russia against any escalation.

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