For the time being they are only part of the propaganda battle: Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has accused Ukraine of wanting to use “dirty bombs”. Kyiv plans to launch such an attack, only to blame it on Russian forces and discredit the Russian leadership.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and several Western governments have firmly denied this accusation. From Kiev’s point of view, it’s exactly the opposite, Zelenskyy pointed out: Apparently Moscow has such plans itself.

“Dirty bombs” are conventional weapons loaded with radioactive materials used in radiation therapy, food preservation, or industrial materials testing under controlled conditions.

“It’s not an atomic bomb,” emphasizes Wolfgang Richter, a former colonel in the Bundeswehr and a member of the security policy research group at the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP) in an interview with Deutsche Welle: “That means no nuclear chain reactions are triggered, which could then lead to enormous trigger explosive forces.”

Widespread deadly heat, pressure and suction waves, as well as extremely dangerous neutron radiation that can be carried over great distances by wind and rain. According to Richter, all of this applies to nuclear weapons, but not to dirty bombs.

The immediate danger of a dirty bomb hardly goes beyond that of the explosive charge itself, says the researcher. In the long term, however, the radiation is at least harmful to health, depending on the amount of radiation that a person absorbs, it can also be fatal.

Depending on the size of the explosion and the level of radioactivity, quite large areas could become uninhabitable for a certain period of time.

Dirty bombs are not new. So far, however, they have been traded primarily as a terrorist threat. In 2003, police officers in Tbilisi and Bangkok quickly seized two illegal shipments of radioactive cesium and strontium, which could have been used to build a dirty car bomb, for example.

Such an explosive device, Gebhard Geiger, a researcher at the SWP Security Policy Research Group, wrote at the time, would have required a large-scale evacuation in a densely populated area and a billion-dollar clean-up.

In September 2016, the US lawyer and journalist Steven Brill addressed the topic as part of his cover story “Are we any safer” on the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in the US political magazine “The Atlantic”. Accordingly, in the years 2013 and 2014 alone, radioactive material was reported as lost or stolen in 325 cases – undiscovered or covered-up losses are not included. Brill accuses politicians of not paying adequate attention to the danger.

An attack in central Washington D.C. with a dirty bomb of the kind terrorists would likely use could radioactively contaminate Brill’s research 40 blocks away and cost billions in decontamination costs.

However, according to Brill, according to expert estimates – even without evacuations – hardly more than 50 people would die as a result of the radiation: “a number of victims that could probably be offset by an anti-tobacco campaign in one or two Washington office buildings”. writes Brill. The greatest danger of such a terrorist attack could therefore be the panic it triggers. Politicians must therefore enlighten the population in order to take the fear out of the threat.

However, a dirty bomb of military design could be much larger. “You can imagine it like the release of radiation in the event of an accident at a nuclear power plant,” says SWP researcher Richter. “Chernobyl would be the example here.” In 1986, one of the reactors in the Chernobyl nuclear power plant was damaged. Since then, there has been a restricted zone with a radius of 30 kilometers around the scene of the accident.

However, for various reasons, the former Bundeswehr colonel considers it rather unlikely that Russia is planning such an attack itself. First of all, that would contradict the mobilization: “Russia is counting on the intensification of the war with conventional means.”

Secondly, there is a risk that the wind will blow the radioactive radiation in the direction of your own troops. Third, it would contaminate areas and parts of the population in the long term that the Kremlin attributes to Russia: “That’s why I think the use of such a bomb is not only irresponsible, but also quite absurd.”

Richter sees the danger of escalation above all in the speculation about the use of dirty bombs – on both sides: “Ukraine has also already spoken of a preventive strike against a possible nuclear use by Russia.”

Author: Jan D. Walter

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The original of this post “What are these weapons?” comes from Deutsche Welle.