Radiological warfare

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

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

Numerous countries have expressed an interest in radiological weapons programs, several have actively pursued them, and three have performed radiological weapons tests.[2]


In the 1964 edition of the DOD/AEC book The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, a section titled Radiological Warfare details some of the most common WMDs.[3] The fission products from a conventional nuclear explosive weapon are as much a radiological weapon as weapons solely designed for the purpose of mass radiological warfare. The standard high-fission thermonuclear weapon is automatically a weapon of radiological warfare, as dirty as a cobalt bomb.

Initially, gamma radiation from the nuclear fission products of an equivalent size fission-fusion-fission bomb are much more intense than Co-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 Co-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 60Co again after about 75 years.[4] Other salted bomb variants that don't use cobalt have also been theorized.

A far lower-tech radiological weapon than those discussed above is a "dirty bomb" / radiological dispersal device, which refers to a conventional explosive bomb with a radiological side effect due to strapping radiation sources to it, is a very inefficient way to spread radiation, and all such "weapons" have problems that render them likely impractical for military uses.

Rather, radiological warfare with dirty bombs would be of vastly more use to terrorists spreading or intensifying fear. The release of radioactive material may involve no special "weapon" 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 elevated radiation levels in the targeted areas would make these areas dangerous to humans. An area, once contaminated with radiation, is often expensive to clean up. Decontamination of the built environment would take time.

Like land mines, radiological weapons can be used as an area denial weapons method.

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Kirby, R. (2020) Radiological Weapons: America's Cold War Experience.[5]


  1. ^ 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.
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ Samuel Glasstone, The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, 1962, Revised 1964, U.S. Dept of Defense and U.S. Dept of Energy, pp.464–5. This section was removed from later editions, but, according to Glasstone in 1978, not because it was inaccurate or because the weapons had changed.
  4. ^ Sublette, Carey. "Nuclear Weapons Frequently Asked Questions (Section 1)". Retrieved 25 July 2014.
  5. ^ 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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