(Radiological) War by Other Means: A Dirty Bomb in Ukraine?
While traditionally categorized as a weapon of mass destruction, a dirty bomb is really a weapon of fear.
Fear is mightier than the sword, and few things stoke fear like a dirty bomb. So, it should have come as no surprise when Russia accused Ukraine of building a radiological dispersal device (RDD), possibly setting the stage for a false-flag attack. By manipulating widespread fear of radioactivity, such a device is a potent weapon of terror, and Russia has transformed it into an instrument of “war by other means.” To manage this, relevant chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) doctrine must also shift to emphasize public information and crisis recovery.
The Dirty Deed
It is no secret that Russia’s military strategy includes targeting Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, aiming to ensure this winter is taxing on the Ukrainian population. While such an effort is nothing new in warfare, the prevalence of nuclear power in Ukraine makes it unique—and dangerous. Heavy fighting has occurred near one of the country’s four operating nuclear power plants, with a missile reportedly landing close to another. This has raised the alarm among the international community; the effects of a nuclear meltdown could reach well beyond Ukraine’s borders, as was the case during the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Consequently, Russia has been forced to become creative in targeting nuclear facilities.
In late October 2022, Russia claimed Ukraine was building a dirty bomb. A tweet by Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs named Ukraine’s nuclear power plants and research reactors as the sources of the necessary radionuclides, stating Uranium-235 and Plutonium-239—the fissile isotopes of nuclear power—were the most likely ingredients. Although they make lousy ingredients for a dirty bomb when compared to Cobalt-60 and Strontium-90, which were also mentioned by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the fear was palpable on both sides. Ukraine and the West immediately counterclaimed that Russia was the true perpetrator, accusing them of contemplating a false-flag event that risked nuclear escalation. Meanwhile, Russian state media played up the potential consequences, and the surrounding countries braced for a radiological incident. Although it is inconclusive from open-source intelligence if Russia truly intended to stage a false-flag attack, the threatened employment of an RDD to incite fear and achieve strategic military objectives was dastardly creative.
A Frightfully Effective Weapon
Unlike a nuclear weapon, an RDD does not unleash the power of nuclear fusion or fission. Rather, it simply disperses radioactive material via a conventional explosive, thereby adding the complexity of contamination to an otherwise common problem. A potential attacker does not have to overcome the proliferation challenges of obtaining special nuclear material, much less mastering nuclear physics, to build such a device. Theoretically, all they need are radioactive sources and a bomb.
Rather than mass destruction, a dirty bomb primarily deals in fear. As the explosion spreads its contaminants, the once-concentrated radioactive material is dispersed over a comparatively wide space. This lowers the radioactivity within a given area, thereby lowering the dose rate for the exposed. Consequently, the resulting contamination is generally more of a long-term health risk than an immediate problem, with a few exceptions, such as particulates suspended in air. However, it is likely that an uneducated public would mischaracterize the risk, as just mentioning radioactivity can incite panic. This radiophobia persists across societies, making the dirty bomb a potent instrument of terror.
(Radiological) War by Other Means
Because it lacks the power and complexity of a nuclear weapon, conventional wisdom says a dirty bomb is a poor man’s weapon of mass destruction. Strategic powers like Russia, so the story goes, are only interested in high-yield nuclear devices, which are important for deterring their enemies. Even terrorists would prefer to possess an improvised nuclear device (IND), as the destructive power is many orders of magnitude higher. Such a scenario is the plot of Tom Clancy’s The Sum of All Fears, in which terrorists detonate an IND to attempt to draw the United States and Russia into a nuclear war.
However, such dogma fails to account for the geopolitical and military shifts that have pushed warfighting into the liminal space. As revisionist powers like Russia have questioned their ability to defeat the West in a conventional fight, they have watched Western armies struggle with counterinsurgency operations in the Global War on Terror. Noting the successes of nonstate actors in this conflict, they have adapted irregular strategies into their military doctrine, including the weaponization of fear. This phenomenon is described by David Kilcullen in The Dragons and the Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West, who argues, “The snakes have learned to fight like dragons, and the dragons now fight like snakes.” Therefore, as warfare has evolved into its fourth generation, it was only a matter of time before the threatened use of a dirty bomb was done in a strategic manner.
Of course, when it comes to radiological nightmares, Ukraine has history. Northern Ukraine was the site of the Chernobyl disaster, which resulted in approximately 30-50 prompt deaths (depending upon the source), hundreds of thousands of relocations, and lasting widespread contamination. This event has even been cited as a factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union, and it left an indelible mark on the population’s memory. So, when it comes to radioactivity, the fear in Ukraine is visceral.
Managing the Mess
The evolution of the radiological dispersal device into a strategic weapon requires CBRN professionals around the world to reconceptualize this threat, particularly in terms of crisis management. While traditionally categorized as a weapon of mass destruction, a dirty bomb is really a weapon of fear. As such, the potential impacts are overwhelmingly psychological, economic, and political, as opposed to destructive, making them ideal for irregular warfare. Institutional knowledge should be amended to reflect this, particularly in the realms of public information and incident recovery.
On the matter of public information, strong messaging and education should be a priority, both left and right of boom. CBRN responders and security officials should develop robust messaging plans to combat radiophobia, which can paralyze a society. This requires intimate working relationships with public information experts, which should be fostered well ahead of an incident to ensure effective crisis communication. As information warfare grows in prevalence, this action will become increasingly important for all facets of CBRN consequence management.
As for recovery, it should be given significant attention as soon as possible during an RDD incident, as it will be vital to limiting the long-term social and economic effects. Out of fear, the public will be wary of any attempted cleanup, and they will demand it be complete. However, as those in the industry understand, completeness is generally a relative and elusive goal, and it can be very expensive. Therefore, in conjunction with public communication, recovery should be an early consideration.
Fear is a weapon that can be employed strategically. Noting this, revisionist powers like Russia have adopted irregular strategies to fight the West. Since a radiological dispersal device plays upon mass radiophobia, it is ideal for this purpose. As such, it is not shocking that Russia claimed Ukraine was developing one, potentially in furtherance of their own false-flag event. To address this evolution of the dirty bomb into a weapon of “war by other means,” the CBRN community must prioritize public information and disaster recovery.
Robert T. Wagner is a Senior Weapons of Mass Destruction Subject Matter Expert at Octant Associates, where he supports the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. He holds a Master of Arts Degree in Security Studies from the Naval Postgraduate School and is a Nationally Registered Paramedic.
Image: A 3D rendering of a Russian nuclear warhead. Shutterstock.