Dirty bombs: What they are, how they are made and the dire risk which they represent

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Russia cranked the tension up a notch this week with defence minister Sergei Shoigu’s claim – without citing evidence – that Ukraine was planning to detonate a so-called “dirty bomb” within its own territory. Western leaders swiftly rejected his claim as baseless, with Defence Secretary Ben Wallace suggesting Putin’s henchman was using it as a “pretext for further escalation”. Tobias Ellwood, chairman of Parliament’s defence committee, was even more specific, suggesting Shoigu was laying the groundwork for Russia itself to explode such a device in order to justify stepping up its military campaign.

What is a dirty bomb?

A dirty bomb is a mixture of explosives, such as dynamite, and radioactive powder or pellets. When the explosives are ignited, the blast carries radioactive material into the surrounding area.

Is it the same as an atomic bomb?

No. The comparatively crude device is different from the explosives dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. These involved splitting the atom and a subsequent massive release of energy which results in the infamous mushroom cloud. By contrast, a dirty bomb cannot cause an atomic blast.

What are the main risks the detonation of such a device would pose?

The chief danger is from the explosion, which can cause serious injuries and property damage, just as a normal explosion can.

The radioactive materials themselves are unlikely to create sufficient radiation exposure to cause immediate serious illness, apart from those people very close to the blast site.

Nevertheless, clouds of radioactive dust and smoke could be dangerous to health if inhaled – and it is not possible to see, smell, feel, or taste radiation.

Mr Ellwood, the Tory MP for Bournemouth East, told Express.co.uk: “They’re more complicated than meets the eye but they are generally seen as what terrorists might resort to, or indeed a country without a full nuclear capability.

“You’re not going to need the expensive centrifuges, you’re not going need the kind of mechanisms to upgrade to create weapons-grade plutonium.

“In simple terms it’s for non-nuclear capability to provide major weapons of mass destruction.”

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Ukraine was not a nuclear power, but it does have an abundance of nuclear reactors and therefore a supply of depleted uranium and plutonium which could in theory be utilised, Mr Ellwood said.

He said: “This would be Russia’s false flag of being able to blame Ukraine for resorting to such unconventional warfare and that’s an excuse for Russia to then retaliate.

“So this is a very dangerous scenario that could unfold and it is very important that we’re able to intervene without events escalating out of control because this all hinges back to the fact that Putin is losing and hugely humiliated, and is resorting to desperate tactics in order to try and turn his war around.”

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It was likely the weapon would lack a sophisticated delivery system such as a missile, meaning it was basically impossible to use it for a targeted attack, Mr Ellwood pointed out.

He added: “That is why it is called a dirty bomb because you have no control over the damage.

“It is one of many scenarios, including blaming an accident at a nuclear power station for a nuclear plume of radioactivity.

“The risk is depending, on weather conditions this is a very difficult situation.”

Mr Ellwood said Shoigu’s introduction of the subject “raises a whole series of questions that the West needs to answer today, now, before we potentially face the scenario in real time”.

Asked to explain the consequences of a dirty bomb exploding in Ukraine, Mr Ellwood added: “They are quite significant.

“Forms of contamination could lead into the water supply and indeed other forms of infrastructure.

“Another consequence is that you’d have crossed the threshold of nuclear weapons once again being used on the battlefield, something which globally, we’ve been able to close down for more than 80 years, again prompting difficult questions for the West.

“It’s about firstly observing and measuring and using our intelligence agencies to monitor events as they unfold and having the fortitude to step in without hesitation to close it down before we move up the escalatory ladder.”



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