A gigantic explosion went off at a port in Beirut, Lebanon today. Footage of the explosion quickly spread on social media, and understandably so—the videos are horrifying. A smoking factory near the water crackles before exploding and vaporizing a nearby building.
The blast happened mere hours ago, and everyone is searching for an explanation, which we will surely get soon. But that hasn't stopped people—some with large followings—from wildly speculating that this was a nuclear blast or a terrorist attack. We're watching the birth of a new conspiracy theory unfold in real time.
The footage is staggering. There’s a blast wave and a mushroom cloud, which do happen in nuclear blasts. But the explosion in Beirut wasn’t atomic, according to experts who would surely know.
The explosion in Beirut can’t possibly be a nuke because, among other reasons, it’s too small. “It's not a nuke—not even a small one,” Jeffrey Lewis, Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Project at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, told Motherboard in an email. “You can see in the videos that there was an explosion or fire burning before the really big kaboom.”
It’s still far too early to tell what actually happened in Beirut. The Lebanese military told a freelance reporter on the ground in Beirut that it’s possible fireworks stored in the area caught fire and reached a nearby nitrate warehouse. The Director-General of the Lebanese Public Security told the BBC that the explosion was related to “high explosive material that was confiscated some time ago.”
Other Lebanese state sources have said the explosion was related to fireworks. Massive firework factory explosions aren’t uncommon. There were two last month, one in China and another in Turkey. The truth is we won’t know what actually happened for some time.
We can, however, be damn sure that it wasn’t a nuke. But that’s not stopping some from speculating wildly.
Palmer is a former ESPN reporter with more than 100,000 followers on Twitter. He deleted the tweet, but not before several thousand people had retweeted it. Several fringe websites are already reporting that what occurred in Beirut was a nuclear attack. One story claims, without sources or confirmation, that Israel nuked a Hezzbolah weapons site at the port. “Our evaluation is guesswork and we are waiting for word from our nuclear expert, Jeff Smith of the International Atomic Energy Agency,” the site said.
Running such speculation is highly irresponsible. This is how conspiracy theories are born and spread. In speaking with Open Source Intelligence and nuclear experts this afternoon, everyone urged caution. The real experts are pouring over the data, constantly reminding me they aren’t sure and that they’re only sharing their best guesses based on the available information.
A mushroom cloud is only an indicator of an explosion, not a definitive sign that a nuclear blast occurred. “Contrary to a common misconception, the shape of the mushroom cloud does not depend on the nuclear or thermonuclear component…a massive detonation of chemical explosives would produce the same effect,” David Dearborn, a physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory told Scientific American in 1999.
When an oil refinery exploded in Texas in 2008, it produced a mushroom cloud. So did a fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas in 2013. Last year, an explosion in Philadelphia produced a huge mushroom cloud. “Mushroom clouds form in all explosions—they just stick around a lot longer for big ones,” Alex Wellerstein, a nuclear historian at the Stevens Institute, said on Twitter. “You can tell from the color of the explosion (deep red/orange) that it is not hot enough to be nuclear (which always starts white/yellow, even small nukes).”
Evidence to the contrary likely won’t convince people who want to believe that what happened in Beirut was a nuclear explosion or some sort of attack. The timing is too perfect. The anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima is two days away, Lebanon is dealing with several domestic crises, and the footage of the Beirut explosion is captivating and horrible. It’s the perfect recipe for a conspiracy theory. The NYPD counterterrorism unit, for really no clear reason, tweeted that it's "monitoring the incident," I guess like we all are.
“These people don't want to be convinced. Those of us who study nuclear weapons can explain over and over again until we are blue in the face that this looks nothing like a nuclear explosion,” Lewis said. “People are seizing on the ‘mushroom cloud’ which you see in all kinds of explosions. There are none of the phenomena we would expect to see and the coloration is all wrong. Also, a nuclear explosion would result in radiation detections. It's like people are screaming ‘OMG it's Lamborghini’ and pointing at a dump truck. I don't know what to say other than ‘No, it isn't.’”