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What is a dirty bomb and could one be used in Ukraine?



Russia is accusing Ukraine of preparing a dirty bomb, as tensions continue to worsen between the two countries

Russia insists Ukraine is seeking to use a weapon of mass destruction.

The Kremlin has doubled down on claims a ‘dirty bomb’ is being prepared as the war in Ukraine ticks into its eighth month.

Russian state-media said the West is “wrong” to ignore the warnings coming from Moscow.

“This attitude, far from being serious, is unacceptable given the seriousness of the danger that we are talking about,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

These weapons combine conventional explosives with radioactive material.

The radioactive material increases the destructive power of the bomb and also creates long-lasting radiological contamination.

“Once again, we are emphasising the grave danger that stems from the implementation of the plans the Ukrainians have,” Mr Peskov said.

When a dirty bomb detonates, the explosion scatters the radioactive material over a wide area.

The damage depends on the type of explosive used, the strength of the explosion, and the amount and type of radioactive material dispersed.

While it is not considered a nuclear weapon, it can cause death and injuries from the initial explosion and from the exposure to radiation.

In fact, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believes it is an “improvised nuclear device or nuclear weapon”.

Russia has requested a meeting with the United Nations Security Council to discuss Kyiv’s alleged plans.

Russian state-media said its fellow security council members (the U.S., Britain, China and France), and the UN’s Secretary-General Antonio Guterres have been briefed on the matter.

However, the West has described Moscow’s claims as “false”.

“Let me just say Russia would be making an incredibly serious mistake were it to use a tactical nuclear weapon.”


U.S. President Joe Biden—who anticipated Russia’s invasion of Ukraine based on U.S. intelligence—said the use of tactical weapons would be a serious mistake.

“I cannot guarantee you that it is a false flag operation yet,” he said.

What is the threat?

Russia, and indeed the U.S. have a history of using unconventional weapons against its enemies, in both real and perceived terms.

In recent years, there have been several reports of soldiers using chemical weapons in Syria.

Professor John Bryson from the University of Birmingham said Russia’s President is getting desperate.

“Putin has created a major problem for the Kremlin, and this is a problem of his own making.”

“Statehood is based not just on a territory that is recognised under international law but is also founded on a set of institutions that are respected by citizens and other states,” he said.

The U.S. Defense Department said it has “sophisticated technical means” of detecting nuclear or radiological detonations of any kind.

Meanwhile, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow’s allegations are “not empty words”.

He has also doubled down on claims about these radioactive weapons being used. He said they “have been verified”.

But Professor Bryson said this rhetoric could be indicative of Russia planning to use these weapons itself.

“Putin has very few options left. He continues to try to find some positive outcome to his special military operation.”


“The deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine would only cement Russia’s failure on three fronts—within Russia, international governmental and corporate relations and within Ukraine,” Professor Bryson said.

Dirty bombs are yet to be used in combat. However, a group of Islamic State militants gathered the ingredients to launch one of these weapons in the city of Mosul, Iraq in 2017.

UK monitoring showed Islamic State was suspected of using chemical weapons on at least 52 occasions since 2014 in and around the Mosul area.

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmitry Kuleba said reports about a dirty bomb are part of a broader disinformation campaign by Moscow.

“Unlike Russia, Ukraine has always been and remains transparent. We have nothing to hide,” Mr Kuleba said.  

But Professor Bryson believes Moscow may have its own rationale for using such weapons.

“Putin has argued that the United States created a nuclear precedent by bombing Japan.”

But Professor Bryson maintains this is still “no precedent for deploying nuclear weapons”.

Costa is a news producer at ticker NEWS. He has previously worked as a regional journalist at the Southern Highlands Express newspaper. He also has several years' experience in the fire and emergency services sector, where he has worked with researchers, policymakers and local communities. He has also worked at the Seven Network during their Olympic Games coverage and in the ABC Melbourne newsroom. He also holds a Bachelor of Arts (Professional), with expertise in journalism, politics and international relations. His other interests include colonial legacies in the Pacific, counter-terrorism, aviation and travel.

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