On Monday, the Russian military warned the world that Ukraine was in the final stages of creating and detonating a dirty bomb that would spread nuclear radiation across Europe.
According to Russia, Ukraine and the West would then claim the attack was Russia detonating a nuclear bomb and attack. The allegation is absurd because dirty bombs—an explosive attached to chemical or radioactive material—are theoretical. The explosion would cause more damage than any radioactive material. But Russia’s claims are made more ludicrous by the images it used to sell the theory: stills from a 2018 Syrian propaganda film, a 2014 training exercise about disposing radioactive material, and photos from 9/11.
Moscow published its message on Telegram and Twitter. It attached a slide presentation and linked back to a long explanation from Lt. Gen. Igor Kirillov, the Russian Ministry of Defense’s (MoD) Chief of the Radiation, Chemical and Biological Protection Forces of the RF Armed Forces. “According to the information we have, two organizations in Ukraine have specific instructions to create the so-called ‘dirty bomb,’” Kirillov said. “The works are at the final stage.”
The most ludicrous part of the Russia MoD’s dirty bomb presentation was the photos it used to make its points. In a slide about chemical weapons, the Russian MoD posted two images meant to represent chemical weapons attacks in Syria. The first, as Bellingcat’s Eliot Higgins pointed out on Twitter, is a production still from a movie about the chemical attacks in Syria. It even features someone using a clapperboard.
The movie, Revolution Man, was a Russian-funded propaganda movie meant to blame White Helmets—a volunteer humanitarian organization operating in Syria—for Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Russia previously used images from the movie in 2018 when trying to claim that the White Helmets were doing the chemical attacks.
“That's 2022 Russian propaganda using stills from a 2018 Syrian anti-White Helmets propaganda film, which Russian media in 2018 used as direct evidence of the White Helmets creating propaganda,” Higgins said on Twitter. The picture is still up on the movie’s Facebook page.
Higgins went over some more photos from the Russian presentation. One still from a slide purporting to explain Ukrain’s ability to build a dirty bomb seems to show radioactive material in the back of the bag with a drawing of a barrel diagram on top of it above the words “Creation of a Dirty Bomb.” The photo is from a 2014 training exercise involving nuclear material. Another photo purporting to show the civilian impact of a dirty bomb is just a picture from 9/11.
A dirty bomb is a theoretical weapon that no one has ever used. It’s been the plot in multiple movies and causes fear and panic in anyone who hears about it. The idea is that an explosive would be placed next to radioactive or chemical material. “When the charge is detonated, the container is destroyed, and the radioactive substance is sprayed by a shock wave, while creating radioactive contamination of the area over large areas,” Kirillov said.
Again, no dirty bomb has ever been detonated, and nobody is sure how it would actually work. But scientists who study this kind of thing have said that the explosion from a dirty bomb would do more damage than any radioactive material inside it.
“Let me emphasize this. The point of a ‘dirty bomb’ is to contaminate an area with radioactive material. People in the area will ingest some of that material and will need medical treatment, but few will ingest enough to produce radiation sickness,” Cheryl Rofer, a retired nuclear scientist, said on Twitter. “Dispersing material through an explosion is actually difficult. The most effective material for a ‘dirty bomb’ would be some types of hospital irradiation sources, which contain powder.”
Many of the radioactive elements that would make people very sick are heavy and hard to aerosolize, even when part of an explosion. The amount of wind in the detonation area would determine a lot of the scatter pattern and, even then, it would cause more fear than radiation poisoning.
According to Russia’s own presentation, the dirty bomb could contain enriched uranium oxide, uranium-238, uranium-235, or plutonium-239. Russia also gave specific locations where the material would come from. The International Atomic Energy Agency quickly put out a statement after the MoD published its report stating that it hadn’t seen anything weird in any of those locations.
“The IAEA inspected one of these locations one month ago and all our findings were consistent with Ukraine’s safeguards declarations,” IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said in the statement. “No undeclared nuclear activities or material were found there.” The IAEA has been in and out of Ukraine for the past year, inspecting places like Chernobyl, Ukraine’s power plants, and the contested power plant at Zaporizhzhia.
The Russian MoD’s claim that Ukraine is working on a dirty bomb is the worst kind of propaganda. It’s dumb, scary, and lazy. It uses assets from its past propaganda efforts to tell a story that scares everyone but has no basis in reality.