Radiological warfare

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United States Navy Seabees donning NBC suits during a CBRN defense drill in 2008

Radiological warfare is any form of warfare involving deliberate radiation poisoning or contamination of an area with radiological sources.

Radiological weapons are normally classified as weapons of mass destruction (WMDs),[1] although radiological weapons can also be specific in whom they target, such as the radiation poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko by the Russian FSB, using radioactive polonium-210.[2]

Numerous countries have expressed an interest in radiological weapons programs, several have actively pursued them, and three have performed radiological weapons tests.[3]

Salted nuclear weapons[edit]

A salted bomb is a nuclear weapon that is equipped with a large quantity of radiologically inert salting material. The radiological warfare agents are produced through neutron capture by the salting materials of the neutron radiation emitted by the nuclear weapon. This avoids the problems of having to stockpile the highly radioactive material, as it is produced when the bomb explodes.[4] The result is a more intense fallout than from regular nuclear weapons and can render an area uninhabitable for a long period.

The cobalt bomb is an example of a radiological warfare weapon, where cobalt-59 is converted to cobalt-60 by neutron capture. Initially, gamma radiation of the nuclear fission products from an equivalent sized "clean" fission-fusion-fission bomb (assuming the amount of radioactive dust particles generated are equal) are much more intense than cobalt-60: 15,000 times more intense at 1 hour; 35 times more intense at 1 week; 5 times more intense at 1 month; and about equal at 6 months. Thereafter fission drops off rapidly so that cobalt-60 fallout is 8 times more intense than fission at 1 year and 150 times more intense at 5 years. The very long-lived isotopes produced by fission would overtake the cobalt-60 again after about 75 years.[5]

Other salted bomb variants that do not use cobalt have also been theorized.[6][7] For example, salting with sodium-23, that transmutes to sodium-24, which because of its 15-hour half-life results in intense radiation.[8][9]

Surface-burst nuclear weapons[edit]

An air burst is preferred if the effects of thermal radiation and blast wave is to be maximized for an area (i.e. area covered by direct line of sight and sufficient luminosity to cause burning, and formation of mach stem respectively). Both fission and fusion weapons will irradiate the detonation site with neutron radiation, causing neutron activation of the material there. Fission bombs will also contribute with the bomb-material residue. Air will not form isotopes useful for radiological warfare when neutron-activated. By detonating them at or near the surface instead, the ground will be vaporized, become radioactive, and when it cools down and condenses into particles cause significant fallout.[10]

Dirty bombs[edit]

A far lower-tech radiological weapon than those discussed above is a "dirty bomb" or radiological dispersal device, whose purpose is to disperse radioactive dust over an area. The release of radioactive material may involve no special "weapon" or side forces like a blast explosion and include no direct killing of people from its radiation source, but rather could make whole areas or structures unusable or unfavorable for the support of human life. The radioactive material may be dispersed slowly over a large area, and it can be difficult for the victims to initially know that such a radiological attack is being carried out, especially if detectors for radioactivity are not installed beforehand.[11]

Radiological warfare with dirty bombs could be used for nuclear terrorism, spreading or intensifying fear. In relation to these weapons, nation states can also spread rumor, disinformation and fear.[12][13][14]

In July 2023, both Ukraine and Russia blamed each other for preparing to bomb the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine, in order to use the nuclear reactors as dirty bombs.[15][16]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Kirby, R. (2020) Radiological Weapons: America's Cold War Experience.[17]


  1. ^ Safire, William (1998-04-19). "On Language; Weapons of Mass Destruction". The New York Times. Retrieved 2019-06-25.
  2. ^ Addley, Esther; Harding, Luke (2016-01-21). "Key findings: who killed Alexander Litvinenko, how and why". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2019-07-02.
  3. ^ Meyer, Samuel; Bidgood, Sarah; Potter, William C. (2020-10-01). "Death Dust: The Little-Known Story of U.S. and Soviet Pursuit of Radiological Weapons". International Security. 45 (2): 51–94. doi:10.1162/isec_a_00391. ISSN 0162-2889.
  4. ^ Glasstone, Samuel (1962). The Effects of Nuclear Weapons. U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. pp. 464–465. 9.111 Even if a radioisotope with suitable properties and which could be readily manufactured were selected as a radiological warfare agent, the problems of production, handling, and delivery of the weapon emitting intense gamma radiation would not be easily solved. In addition, stockpiling the radioactive material would present a difficulty. ... 9.112 Instead of preparing and stockpiling the contaminating agent in advance, with its attendant difficulties, the radioactive substances are produced by fission at the time of the explosion. Radiological warfare has thus become an automatic extension of the offensive use of nuclear weapons of high fission yield.
  5. ^ Sublette, Carey. "Nuclear Weapons Frequently Asked Questions (Section 1)". Retrieved 25 July 2014.
  6. ^ Glasstone, Samuel (1962). The Effects of Nuclear Weapons. U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. pp. 464–465. 9.110 ... To be effective, a radiological warfare agent should emit gamma radiations and it should have a half-life of a few weeks or months. Radioisotopes of long half-life give off their radiations too slowly to be effective unless large quantities are used, and those of short half-life decay too rapidly to provide an extended hazard.
  7. ^ Sublette, Carey (May 1, 1998). "Types of Nuclear Weapons – Cobalt Bombs and Other Salted Bombs". Nuclear Weapons Archive Frequently Asked Questions. Archived from the original on September 28, 2019. Retrieved October 23, 2021.
  8. ^ "Science: fy for Doomsday". Time. November 24, 1961. Archived from the original on March 14, 2016.
  9. ^ Clark, W. H. (1961). "Chemical and Thermonuclear Explosives". Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. 17 (9): 356–360. Bibcode:1961BuAtS..17i.356C. doi:10.1080/00963402.1961.11454268.
  10. ^ Glasstone, Samuel (1962). The Effects of Nuclear Weapons. U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. pp. 28–47, 109–116, 414, 465. (page 465) 9.112 ... The explosion of such devices at low altitudes can cause radioactive contamination over large areas that are beyond the range of physical damage. Consequently, they are, in effect, weapons of radiological warfare.
  11. ^ Lynn E. Davis; Tom LaTourette; David E. Mosher; Lois M. Davis; David R. Howell (2003). Individual Preparedness and Response to Chemical, Radiological, Nuclear, and Biological Terrorist Attacks (Report). RAND Corporation. pp. 30–31.
  12. ^ Earl P. Stevenson; E. Gordon Arneson; Eric G. Ball; Jacob L. Devers; Willis A. Gibbons; Fredrick Osborn; Arthur W. Page (30 June 1950). Report of the Secretary of Defense's Ad Hoc Committee on Chemical, Biological and Radiological Warfare (PDF) (Report). p. 18,22. (page 18:) With respect to its advantages, the Committee has learned ... that RW (radiological warfare), as a new weapon about which most people are poorly informed, is potentiaily valuable for harassment through rumor. (page 22:) Each of these modes of warfare has an unusually high anxiety-causing potential.
  13. ^ Lendon, Brad (2022-10-25). "What is a dirty bomb and why is Russia talking about it?". CNN.
  14. ^ Roth, Andrew (2022-10-27). "Vladimir Putin says 'dirty bomb' claims to Nato were made on his orders". The Guardian.
  15. ^ Sinclair, Harriet (2023-07-07). "Ukraine war - live updates: Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant could become 'dirty bomb', Ukraine warns". Yahoo! News.
  16. ^ Edwards, Christian (2023-07-05). "Ukraine warns Russia might attack the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. How worried should we be?". CNN.
  17. ^ Fall In, Fallout: When The Us Military (Almost) Brought Radiological Weapons To The Battlefield. Al Mauroni, September 22, 2020; Modern War Institute at West Point.

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