Chernobyl horror as stolen radioactive material could be used in dirty bomb
Russia could use Chernobyl to 'blackmail' Europe says expert
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It is not known exactly when the materials — which included pieces of radioactive waste and samples of radioactive isotopes — were removed from the facility, although such is thought to have occurred during the chaos of the Russian advance. Anatolii Nosovskyi — director of the Institute for Safety Problems of Nuclear Power Plants (ISPNPP) in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv — raised the alarm, warning that the radioactive waste materials could be used to manufacture a crude weapon. While the material stolen did not contain plutonium or uranium — and therefore could not be used to produce a nuclear bomb — it could be used in tandem with conventional explosives to make a “dirty bomb” that would spread contamination over a localised area.
According to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, dirty bombs — or “radiological dispersal devices” — tend not to release enough radiation to either kill people or result in severe illness.
Instead, the worst effects actually derive from the bomb’s conventional explosive component, which could, for example, be made of dynamite.
However, depending on the scale of the device, such a bomb could conceivably distribute its radioactive material over a few blocks from the explosion site.
For comparison, a nuclear bomb is capable of distributing radioactive fallout over thousands of square miles.
The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission said: “As radioactive material spreads, it becomes less concentrated and less harmful.
“Immediate health effects from exposure to the low radiation levels expected from a radiological dispersal device would likely be minimal.”
However. they added, the explosion of a dirty bomb “could create fear and panic, contaminate property and require potentially costly clean-up.
“A dirty bomb is not a ‘weapon of mass destruction’ but a ‘weapon of mass disruption’, where contamination and anxiety are the major objectives.”
According to physicist and nuclear power expert Dr Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, the stolen radioactive isotopes were so-called calibration sources which are used to calibrate radiation detectors used as part of nuclear safety measures.
He told Live Science: “Calibration sources typically have very small quantities of radioactive materials. I suspect the stolen samples are also small quantities.”
In contrast, Dr Lyman explained, if the stolen materials were highly radioactive, they should have needed to be stored and transported with heavy shielding, as to protect the handlers from radiation injuries — making them considerably more difficult to loot.
He said: “I’m sceptical that there would be any strategic purpose for Russia to use these materials in a dirty bomb.”
Dr Lyman added: “It’s unlikely that such a bomb could cause death, destruction and terror anywhere near the scale of Russia’s bombardment of civilian areas with conventional weapons.
“Although the presence of radioactive contamination could add another element of fear to an already frightful situation.”
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This assessment was shared by Professor Bruno Merk, a nuclear engineer from the University of Liverpool.
He told New Scientist: “I don’t see that the risk is any higher than before the Russians invaded.
“There are so many radioactive sources around the world. If someone wants to get their hands on this there’s an easier way.
“These radioactive sources you can steal in every hospital. It would always have been possible for someone to sneak in and steal something.”
There are, however, potentially greater concerns surrounding radioactive material held in storage at the Chernobyl site.
Professor Nosovskyi has said that the ISPNPP has a separate laboratory facility at the nuclear power plant which was known to harbour more dangerous materials.
Specifically, he told Science, these included both “powerful sources of gamma and neutron radiation” as well as samples of intensely radioactive material leftover from the meltdown of Chernobyl’s reactor number four back in 1986.
The ISPNPP has lost contact with the lab — meaning, as Professor Nosovskyi noted, “the fate of these sources is unknown to us.”
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