Ukrainian spooks have released a report that alleges that Russia and the rebels it backs in eastern Ukraine are trying to build a “dirty bomb.” According to the report, they are using the spent nuclear material stored under a Soviet-era chemical factory near the frontline of the conflict between Kiev’s forces and the rebels to make the attempt.
Dirty bombs, unlike proper nuclear weapons, don’t actually use fissile nuclear material to add to the force of the explosion. Rather, they put radioactive material next to conventional explosives so that when the bomb goes off, it spews a large cloud of radioactive dust. So they’re less dangerous than real nukes, but still, obviously, deeply unsettling. The Times of London has more:
The report draws on hacked emails between rebels and intercepted radio communications, as well as a field agent’s findings. […]
Three of the messages are said to be between Alexander Zakharchenko, head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), and his ministers and generals. Conversations between rebel commanders are cited as evidence that the radioactive material has already been removed and is in the process of being weaponised. […]
Western intelligence officials said that they were unable to verify the evidence presented in the dossier. However, diplomatic sources said that the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) mission in Donetsk would investigate the claims.
For their part, the rebels are trying to assure the world that they aren’t doing anything with the waste, as the AP reports:
Andrei Purgin, a rebel leader in Donetsk, said Sunday, according to Russian news reports, that the rebel leadership would welcome monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to check the site’s condition.
Rebel military spokesman Eduard Basurin said that the storage has remained safely sealed, Interfax reported.
The rebel spokesman also said that there wasn’t any “critically dangerous nuclear waste” for the fighters to exploit even if they were so inclined.
Ukraine’s leaders must be worried that the great eye of Western outrage seems to have moved on since Putin’s dramatic seizure of Crimea: more than 150 Ukrainian servicemen have been killed since the Minsk “ceasefire” was announced, yet Western leaders keep gravely intoning that no alternative to that arrangement exists.
But even if Kiev’s intelligence is little more than overheated speculation designed to prick up Western ears, it does point to certain realities: the Times confirms that the facility “houses almost 12 tonnes of Soviet-era radioactive waste, mostly isotopes of caesium, cobalt and strontium, as well as radon gas.” And the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic is not exactly a law-and-order kind of place where it would be inconceivable that dangerous substances could fall into the hands of unscrupulous actors.
The ingredients are there, in other words, to take this nasty little semi-frozen conflict from bad to so much worse, in a hurry.