Nuclear Rumors from Ukraine

 

This is a brief compilation of a couple of different rumors I’ve heard out of the Ukraine war and what they mean. Now I don’t know much but I know a little bit about nukes and how they work and some of these things are flat out implausible. What I’m looking to give here is a quick reality check to see if any given statement is worth worrying about further. To be clear I’m talking about science; whether or not Putin is willing to deploy tactical nuclear weapons is beyond the scope of this post. Let’s get down to it.

Increasing Radiation levels at Chernobyl

The Claim: In the first day or two of the war the Russians attacked and took Chernobyl. The fight kicked up a lot of dust. The Ukrainian government’s automated radiation monitoring says the background radiation there jumped from 3,000 nSv/hour to 65,500 nSv/hour. Claim found in this video, though I’ve heard it elsewhere too.

Analysis: At first glance this is plausible. I’ve got no idea how their radiation detector is set up, but stirring up the dust of Chernobyl will almost certainly bring some more radioactive stuff to the surface. Increased evidence of the mess that’s there will read as increased radiation even if you’re not producing any more mess. I’m told that Ukraine monitors Chernobyl radiation and posts it online here. The page is blank in the English language version of the site. Perhaps the Ukrainian language version is more specific. If any of y’all speak Ukrainian or can find an English language mirror of the raw numbers I’d be interested in seeing them.

The next question is how big of a difference that radiation increase makes. Here we’re talking about the health and safety effects of radiation and I’m well out of my depth. I’ll throw a quick mention to the @OmegaPaladin who probably knows more.

A sievert (sV) is the SI unit for radiation exposure. For high dose exposures I get this line off of Wikipedia:

 that the incidence of cancers due to ionizing radiation can be modeled as increasing linearly with effective radiation dose at a rate of 5.5% per sievert.[1]

I read that as “If a Russian soldier stands around Chernobyl long enough to get one sV dose he’s 5.5% more likely to develop cancer over his life.” Not exactly the same thing as what they said, but close enough for our purposes. To get a 1 sV dose at the rates of 3,000 nSv/hour you’d have to stand there for… 38 years, or 22 months at the 65,500 nSv/hour figure.

To get any more complex than that you get into large and complicated questions of how exactly the radiation is delivered and what happens to someone at very low doses over a long period of time (an active argument in the medical community.) Taking a simplified chart from another source I’m told that 100 mSv is the lowest annual dose which has a statistically significant link to cancer. You’d get that in 61 days at the new, higher rate of radiation in the kicked-up dust of Chernobyl.

Bottom Line: I’d feel comfortable marching through the area but I wouldn’t want to garrison it for any length of time. This also depends a great deal on the numbers involved; I’d like more than two data points to make that determination.

Explosion Worries at the Zapro-whatsit Plant

The Claim: The Russians were firing on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. If it blows up it’ll be 10 times larger than Chernobyl. Taking the report from here and the specific claim from this tweet.

Analysis: There are two levels to this. The first is a claim that doesn’t get made but which you’re led to believe if you’re not careful, that if it blew up it’d blow up like an atom bomb. That simply can’t happen. The second level is that this attack could have resulted in a big, radiation spewing mess detectable on the other side of the globe. To deal with this let me give you a simplified overview of how atomic power works. I’ll try to be brief.

To get significant amounts of energy (read: explosions or electricity) out of atomic reactions you need to produce a chain reaction. A chain reaction is any reaction that happens where the reaction produces the conditions necessary to make more reactions. Think drunks in a bar fight; a missed swing inevitably hits an uninvolved drunk, converting him into an angry drunk. Now you’ve got one more bar fighter who can miss with his punches and spread the fight further. To get a nuclear chain reaction you split an atom by shooting a neutron at it. That split atom has to shoot off neutrons which can themselves split other atoms, and if you let that go on too long…

That only works with certain atoms, and not just individual elements but specific isotopes. Uranium 235 (92 protons, 143 neutrons) will work. Uranium 238 (92 protons, 136 neutrons) won’t. Take a bunch of pure uranium in its natural mix (about 99.3 % U238, 0.7% U235.) If you split a U235 atom in there then chances are the neutrons will hit U238 atoms. Those atoms won’t split and it’ll spoil your chain reaction. (There are some really fascinating things that happen but I’m trying to go quick here.)

To get a chain reaction you need a great deal more U235 percentage than nature allots. You need to enrich your Uranium. Without going into detail, you need to get it to at least 3% enrichment for a powerplant, and much higher than that for a nuclear bomb. (The NRC told me 20%, that link says 80%, the 80% seems more likely to me.) Either way, you need a lot more highly enriched uranium to get an atom bomb out than a power plant reaction. Why? Because you want your power plant to make a lot of heat (to boil water and turn turbines), but not do it so quickly that things blow up.

Okay, back to Ukraine and the war. Let’s say that the Russians indiscriminately bombed the reactor and by some magical chance all the uranium on the site got blasted into a perfect sphere. It still wouldn’t blow up. Though enriched there still isn’t enough U235 percentage to sustain the kind of reaction that leveled Hiroshima. That should put paid to the implied claim of a nuclear explosion. But if you did have that magical chance happen the mass of uranium would get really hot, there’d be no control rods to slow the reaction and you’d have a meltdown. Like Chernobyl.

Ten times worse though? Perhaps. Take the Chernobyl disaster and lob artillery strikes into it; you’d get material blasted into the atmosphere and probably a wider spread of radiation. On the other hand, I’ve had to imagine some pretty unlikely things to happen to get that far. Let’s take a step back and consider reactor design.

You know what you get from nuclear reactions? Radiation. You know what people don’t like to get? Radiation. As a rule, when you’re building a reactor you pour thick concrete walls between you and the radiation so as little of it hits you as you can get away with. The actual reactor core is better protected from bombardment than most bunkers. Even if the Russians came blundering in with a Homer Simpson-like casualness with where they’re landing their artillery strikes they’re unlikely to spread the nuclear pile around very much. Now, you can still do a great deal of damage. You can render the plant inoperable, you can probably make a local radiological spill, but you’re unlikely to make a disaster that’s ten times worse than Chernobyl.

From accounts everyone involved treated the situation with an appropriate gravity. The workers shut the plant down during the attack, the Russians didn’t direct strikes at the reactor building, and the building that caught fire was apparently a museum on the edge of the plant. The plant was subsequently surrendered without meltdown and the whole world can breathe a sigh of relief.

Bottom Line: The most fear-mongering claim of a nuclear explosion is impossible. The actual chances of a nuclear disaster on the scale of Chernobyl were minimal, and everyone involved with the fighting acted to avoid even that small chance.

The Ukrainian Dirty Bomb Program

The Claim: (taken from Meduza.io)

Russia’s news agencies promote allegations of a Ukrainian “dirty bomb” program: At roughly 8 a.m. [March 5th], Moscow time, Russia’s three main news agencies — RIA Novosti, Interfax, and TASS — all almost simultaneously reported, all citing what appears to be the same anonymous source, that Ukraine was allegedly developing nuclear weapons before Russia’s invasion. In their stories, RIA and Interfax published identical quotes from their source: “It’s worth noting that they were using the Chernobyl nuclear power plant zone as a site to develop nuclear weapons. It was there, judging by the available information, that they were working on manufacturing a ‘dirty bomb’ and plutonium separation. The Chernobyl zone’s increased background radiation concealed that this work was underway.” (Meduza was unable to verify these claims.)

Analysis: Start with a definition issue. “Dirty bomb” implies a specific type of weapon; you use a normal explosive and a jacket of highly radioactive stuff surrounding it. The explosive spreads the radioactive stuff over a wide area rendering it unusable for people. There’s no nuclear reaction involved; you’re just taking a compact problem and spreading it around.

Dirty bombs are difficult-but-plausible for terrorist groups to manufacture because it’s hard to acquire really radioactive stuff. For Ukraine — a government in possession of nuclear reactors — you have that stuff. The spent fuel from your reactors count. It’s so easy for Ukraine to turn a regular bomb into a dirty bomb that this isn’t the kind of threat you can dispel by invading. A Ukraine that was willing to make and use dirty bombs has plenty of time to do so in the face of invasion. They still can build one from one of their plants running in the still uncontested portions of Ukraine. It’s like asking if a baseball player has a weapon; sure — he was carrying a baseball bat.

According to the claim they’re doing more than making dirty bombs; they’re trying to build nuclear weapons of their own, meaning bombs that rely on a nuclear reaction as opposed to dirty bombs. To make a plutonium bomb you extract plutonium from your nuclear reactor’s spent fuel rods. From there need to shape it into a hollow sphere and implode it by means of carefully timed explosives. It’s harder than it sounds and it sounds plenty hard to me.

If you’re asking where the plutonium comes from it’s because you neglected to click my really fascinating stuff link in the previous section. If you hit U238 with a thermal neutron it’ll decay over a couple of days into Plutonium 239, which is the stuff that bombs are made of. But having the material is only the first step; Plutonium is difficult to extract and then to build a functioning bomb out of. To quote from the link:

Plutonium may be easier to get, but it’s harder to use. The weapon design is more demanding and, compared to a uranium gun bomb, without testing it’s difficult to be sure the bomb will go boom. While it used to be said that every country which had tried to build a nuclear weapon had succeeded on the first try, this is no longer the case: the North Korean 2006 nuclear test, believed to be a plutonium implosion device, appears to have had a fizzle yield of 0.48 kilotons. Basing one’s strategy on nuclear deterrence with plutonium weapons which have never been tested is risky in the extreme, although demonstrating the infrastructure may create sufficient ambiguity that adversaries are disinclined to roll the dice.

From a geopolitics perspective, it’s easy to imagine that pre-war Ukraine was feeling buyer’s remorse from the Budapest memorandum and looking to secretly develop its own nuclear weapons. They have the materials to do so on hand. The step from plutonium to Nagasaki, however, is a long one. They haven’t detonated any test bombs which probably means that they don’t have any nuclear bombs to test. On the other hand, a successful nuclear test not only shows the world that you have a program but also that you have the bombs which makes it much harder to shut down. Should such a program have existed I could imagine Putin having known of it and invaded to shut it down before it got far enough to threaten him. He should have had the decency to send Colin Powell to prove it to the UN first.

Bottom line: If Russia is worried about a Ukrainian dirty bomb that’s not the kind of threat they can defuse by invading. If they’re worried about a Ukrainian nuclear weapon program it’s at least plausible that such a program might exist. I’m waiting for them to submit proof before I believe it.

One More Note Before I Go

Remember I’m just some jerk on the internet. I don’t know much about these things, but I know enough to tell the difference between earplugs and rubber bullets. If I’ve missed any rumors you’d like checked out let me know. If I’ve made any glaring mistakes in my science (as opposed to the glaring oversimplifications) then let me know and I’ll correct them. And remember: rumors sprout like mushrooms in wartime. Don’t believe everything you read.

Published in Foreign Policy
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  1. Chowderhead Coolidge
    Chowderhead
    @Podunk

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher: Remember I’m just some jerk on the internet. I don’t know much about these things, but I know enough to tell the difference between ear plugs and rubber bullets.

    From one schmuck on the internet to another I am truly impressed. The one very important scenario you failed to mention is if the Russians took out the plant water system responsible for cooling the rods. Is this system protected with multiple backups and hardened?  

    • #1
  2. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor
    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher
    @HankRhody

    Chowderhead (View Comment):

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher: Remember I’m just some jerk on the internet. I don’t know much about these things, but I know enough to tell the difference between ear plugs and rubber bullets.

    From one schmuck on the internet to another I am truly impressed. The one very important scenario you failed to mention is if the Russians took out the plant water system responsible for cooling the rods. Is this system protected with multiple backups and hardened?

    Good question; I don’t actually know. This site seems to tell me there are multiple backups, but I don’t know how hardened it would be, especially in the face of an artillery barrage. 

    • #2
  3. ctlaw Coolidge
    ctlaw
    @ctlaw

    Chernobyl had graphite-moderated reactors. The other plants have pressurized water reactors. IIRC, burning graphite distributed fallout.

    • #3
  4. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    I don’t believe we ever did it, but I see no reason why you couldn’t build a gun-style plutonium bomb.  Of course, I might not see the reason because I know even less than you.

    • #4
  5. DonG (Keep on Truckin) Coolidge
    DonG (Keep on Truckin)
    @DonG

    I am curious about how the nuclear waste is stored.  All that used fuel rods have to be stored and that storage is probably vulnerable to explosives.   This is a dirty bomb situation. 

    • #5
  6. Amy Schley, Longcat Shrinker Moderator
    Amy Schley, Longcat Shrinker
    @AmySchley

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher: As a rule, when you’re building a reactor you pour thick concrete walls between you and the radiation so as little of it hits you as you can get away with. The actual reactor core is better protected from bombardment than most bunkers.

    The resistance of a nuclear reactor’s concrete shell isn’t just a matter of how much concrete there is. My concern is that the shell’s design, being meant to hold the radiation in and support itself, might not be able to withstand targeted bombardment. 

    • #6
  7. No Caesar Thatcher
    No Caesar
    @NoCaesar

    The recent “leaked” report by an “FSB analyst” suggests that among other things the KGB successor is currently planting the evidence of a Ukrainian nuclear program, dirty bomb or otherwise.  That would provide Putin with the grounds for his action, including tactical nukes.  The Western reports assign a lot of caveats to the accuracy of the report’s claimed provenance.   However, if the FSB is in the crosshairs for being blamed for Russia’s failures with the invasion, it’s no surprise if they start to protect themselves.  

    I see the conclusions of the report as reasonably credible, but they all comport with what I want to believe, so I am suspicious as to their accuracy/truthfulness.  Nevertheless, it is consistent with reports going back to the run up to the invasion that Putin claims/believes that Ukraine has restarted their nuclear program.  (I would if I were them.)   So it seems to me probable that either:

    a), the Ukrainians were doing nuclear research that Putin is going to attempt to make a big deal and justification for his actions, or

    b), the Ukrainians were not doing military nuclear research and Putin is now attempting to plant evidence that they were ex-post facto.

    Either way, we are being prepared for the use of tactical nukes by the Bear.

     

    • #7
  8. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    I don’t believe we ever did it, but I see no reason why you couldn’t build a gun-style plutonium bomb. Of course, I might not see the reason because I know even less than you.

    We intended to do it. Originally, it wasn’t Fat Man (the plutonium bomb, big and round) and Little Boy (Hiroshima’s executioner), but Fat Man and the Thin Man (a plutonium gun, about seventeen feet long). The problem is plutonium is so hot to trot that it’s extremely difficult to keep it from a premature partial explosion, hence the abnormal length of the bomb, which could only have fitted in a British Lancaster bomber. “Premature” means a fizzle. There was no way to fire the two pieces together fast enough. This was a huge pain in Los Alamos’ collective behind, and forced them to use the more complicated implosion technique. 

    It’s often thought that Fat Man was in honor of Winston Churchill, but it was actually nicknamed, as Thin Man was, for characters in Dashiell Hammett detective stories. So both bombs, in effect, were named by an American Communist.  

    • #8
  9. ctlaw Coolidge
    ctlaw
    @ctlaw

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    I don’t believe we ever did it, but I see no reason why you couldn’t build a gun-style plutonium bomb. Of course, I might not see the reason because I know even less than you.

    The issue is that to get the plutonium, you’d build a reprocessing plant.

    But that would be monitored by the IAEA unless you were Iran or NK.

    Ignoring the IAEA issue, in the time it took you to build the plant, you could develop the necessary hardware for an implosion device.

    But the plutonium “dirty nuke” issue is nonsense. You would want to use other things with much shorter half lives than plutonium. Less material is required to make Moscow uninhabitable. And you only  need to make Moscow uninhabitable for a decade at most.

    • #9
  10. OmegaPaladin Moderator
    OmegaPaladin
    @OmegaPaladin

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher:

    This is a brief compilation of a couple of different rumors I’ve heard out of the Ukraine war and what they mean. Now I don’t know much but I know a little bit about nukes and how they work and some of these things are flat out implausible. What I’m looking to give here is a quick reality check to see if any given statement is worth worrying about further. To be clear I’m talking about science; whether or not Putin is willing to deploy tactical nuclear weapons is beyond the scope of this post. Let’s get down to it.

    Increasing Radiation levels at Chernobyl

    The Claim: In the first day or two of the war the Russians attacked and took Chernobyl. The fight kicked up a lot of dust. The Ukrainian government’s automated radiation monitoring says the background radiation there jumped from 3,000 nSv/hour to 65,500 nSv/hour. Claim found in this video, though I’ve heard it elsewhere too.

    Analysis: At first glance this is plausible. I’ve got no idea how their radiation detector is set up, but stirring up the dust of Chernobyl will almost certainly bring some more radioactive stuff to the surface. Increased evidence of the mess that’s there will read as increased radiation even if you’re not producing any more mess. I’m told that Ukraine monitors Chernobyl radiation and posts it online here. The page is blank in the English language version of the site. Perhaps the Ukrainian language version is more specific. If any of y’all speak Ukrainian or can find an English language mirror of the raw numbers I’d be interested in seeing them.

    The next question is how big of a difference that radiation increase makes. Here we’re talking about the health and safety effects of radiation and I’m well out of my depth. I’ll throw a quick mention to the @OmegaPaladin who probably knows more.

    A sievert (sV) is the SI unit for radiation exposure. For high dose exposures I get this line off of Wikipedia:

    that the incidence of cancers due to ionizing radiation can be modeled as increasing linearly with effective radiation dose at a rate of 5.5% per sievert.[1]

    I read that as “If a Russian soldier stands around Chernobyl long enough to get one sV dose he’s 5.5% more likely to develop cancer over his life.” Not exactly the same thing as what they said, but close enough for our purposes. To get a 1 sV dose at the rates of 3,000 nSv/hour you’d have to stand there for… 38 years, or 22 months at the 65,500 nSv/hour figure.

    To get any more complex than that you get into large and complicated questions of how exactly the radiation is delivered and what happens to someone at very low doses over a long period of time (an active argument in the medical community.) Taking a simplified chart from another source I’m told that 100 mSv is the lowest annual dose which has a statistically significant link to cancer. You’d get that in 61 days at the new, higher rate of radiation in the kicked-up dust of Chernobyl.

    Bottom Line: I’d feel comfortable marching through the area but I wouldn’t want to garrison it for any length of time. This also depends a great deal on the numbers involved; I’d like more than two data points to make that determination.

    First off, short term effects can start as low as 250 mSv.  Below about 100 mSv, we are using the linear no-threshold model of radiation effects, which is used to err on the safe side.  It is not justified by data, and fails to account for cell repair systems and the immune system.

    This is even more complicated than it seems.   There’s radiation and radioactive contamination.  Think of radiation like standing near a fire and heat warms or burns you.   Radioactive contamination is like embers landing on your clothes and setting you on fire.   This is why getting an X-ray does not make you radioactive, or food irradiation does not make the food radioactive.   Ambient radiation is much, much less dangerous than radioactive contamination, because not all radiation is created equal.

    You see, those measurements of Sieverts per hour do not mention the quality factor, which depends on the type of radiation and the location that received the dose.   Nuclear radiation normally comes in alpha, beta, and gamma.  Gamma is the most common ambient radiation measured and is by the most penetrating, but it is actually the least damaging.  Alpha particles have a really short range and are easily stopped (paper or the dead layer of your skin), but getting them inside of your body is extremely dangerous.  (Generally, 20x as dangerous as gamma or beta) Polonium-210, Putin’s favorite isotope, is an alpha emitter, as is Radon, which causes the vast majority of background radiation dose in the US.  This is one of the reasons nuclear workers wear masks and coveralls – you really want to keep that out of your body.   

    Beta emitters are a bit less internally dangerous than alpha, but getting them on your clothing can give you nasty burns.  They also have a somewhat longer range.  A fair amount of the radiation from nuclear waste, nuclear accidents, or nuclear fallout is beta emitters Cesium-137 (also a gamma emitter) and Strontium-90.   These are often in forms that are water soluble, so they can be a problem for farmers.

    Stirring up radioactive dust is a big deal, and it means people in the downwind area could risk contamination.  Garrisoning that area will have severe risks, and even crossing the area would require N95 masks and good hygiene.

    Explosion Worries at the Zapro-whatsit Plant

    The Claim: The Russians were firing on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. If it blows up it’ll be 10 times larger than Chernobyl. Taking the report from here and the specific claim from this tweet.

    Analysis: There are two levels to this. The first is a claim that doesn’t get made but which you’re led to believe if you’re not careful, that if it blew up it’d blow up like an atom bomb. That simply can’t happen. The second level is that this attack could have resulted in a big, radiation spewing mess detectable on the other side of the globe. To deal with this let me give you a simplified overview of how atomic power works. I’ll try to be brief.

    To get significant amounts of energy (read: explosions or electricity) out of atomic reactions you need to produce a chain reaction. A chain reaction is any reaction that happens where the reaction produces the conditions necessary to make more reactions. Think drunks in a bar fight; a missed swing inevitably hits an uninvolved drunk, converting him into an angry drunk. Now you’ve got one more bar fighter who can miss with his punches and spread the fight further. To get a nuclear chain reaction you split an atom by shooting a neutron at it. That split atom has to shoot off neutrons which can themselves split other atoms, and if you let that go on too long…

    That only works with certain atoms, and not just individual elements but specific isotopes. Uranium 235 (92 protons, 143 neutrons) will work. Uranium 238 (92 protons, 136 neutrons) won’t. Take a bunch of pure uranium in its natural mix (about 99.3 % U238, 0.7% U235.) If you split a U235 atom in there then chances are the neutrons will hit U238 atoms. Those atoms won’t split and it’ll spoil your chain reaction. (There are some really fascinating things that happen but I’m trying to go quick here.)

    To get a chain reaction you need a great deal more U235 percentage than nature allots. You need to enrich your Uranium. Without going into detail, you need to get it to at least 3% enrichment for a powerplant, and much higher than that for a nuclear bomb. (The NRC told me 20%, that link says 80%, the 80% seems more likely to me.) Either way, you need a lot more highly enriched uranium to get an atom bomb out than a power plant reaction. Why? Because you want your power plant to make a lot of heat (to boil water and turn turbines), but not do it so quickly that things blow up.

    Okay, back to Ukraine and the war. Let’s say that the Russians indiscriminately bombed the reactor and by some magical chance all the uranium on the site got blasted into a perfect sphere. It still wouldn’t blow up. Though enriched there still isn’t enough U235 percentage to sustain the kind of reaction that leveled Hiroshima. That should put paid to the implied claim of a nuclear explosion. But if you did have that magical chance happen the mass of uranium would get really hot, there’d be no control rods to slow the reaction and you’d have a meltdown. Like Chernobyl.

    Ten times worse though? Perhaps. Take the Chernobyl disaster and lob artillery strikes into it; you’d get material blasted into the atmosphere and probably a wider spread of radiation. On the other hand, I’ve had to imagine some pretty unlikely things to happen to get that far. Let’s take a step back and consider reactor design.

    You know what you get from nuclear reactions? Radiation. You know what people don’t like to get? Radiation. As a rule, when you’re building a reactor you pour thick concrete walls between you and the radiation so as little of it hits you as you can get away with. The actual reactor core is better protected from bombardment than most bunkers. Even if the Russians came blundering in with a Homer Simpson-like casualness with where they’re landing their artillery strikes they’re unlikely to spread the nuclear pile around very much. Now, you can still do a great deal of damage. You can render the plant inoperable, you can probably make a local radiological spill, but you’re unlikely to make a disaster that’s ten times worse than Chernobyl.

    From accounts everyone involved treated the situation with an appropriate gravity. The workers shut the plant down during the attack, the Russians didn’t direct strikes at the reactor building, and the building that caught fire was apparently a museum on the edge of the plant. The plant was subsequently surrendered without meltdown and the whole world can breathe a sigh of relief.

    Bottom Line: The most fear-mongering claim of a nuclear explosion is impossible. The actual chances of a nuclear disaster on the scale of Chernobyl were minimal, and everyone involved with the fighting acted to avoid even that small chance.

    One important note – Chernobyl was a Russian RBMK reactor.  It’s containment structure was closer to a tin shack than a concrete bunker. Zaporizhia is a VVER plant, which is similar to the water-moderated reactors in submarine and aircraft carriers (as well as US nuclear power plants.  It’s pretty hard to damage without deliberate military strikes.  Now, the real issue would be any on-site waste storage.  I’m not sure on their standards for storage, and it could be a softer target..

    The Ukrainian Dirty Bomb Program

    The Claim: (taken from Meduza.io)

    Russia’s news agencies promote allegations of a Ukrainian “dirty bomb” program: At roughly 8 a.m. [March 5th], Moscow time, Russia’s three main news agencies — RIA Novosti, Interfax, and TASS — all almost simultaneously reported, all citing what appears to be the same anonymous source, that Ukraine was allegedly developing nuclear weapons before Russia’s invasion. In their stories, RIA and Interfax published identical quotes from their source: “It’s worth noting that they were using the Chernobyl nuclear power plant zone as a site to develop nuclear weapons. It was there, judging by the available information, that they were working on manufacturing a ‘dirty bomb’ and plutonium separation. The Chernobyl zone’s increased background radiation concealed that this work was underway.” (Meduza was unable to verify these claims.)

    Analysis: Start with a definition issue. “Dirty bomb” implies a specific type of weapon; you use a normal explosive and a jacket of highly radioactive stuff surrounding it. The explosive spreads the radioactive stuff over a wide area rendering it unusable for people. There’s no nuclear reaction involved; you’re just taking a compact problem and spreading it around.

    Dirty bombs are difficult-but-plausible for terrorist groups to manufacture because it’s hard to acquire really radioactive stuff. For Ukraine — a government in possession of nuclear reactors — you have that stuff. The spent fuel from your reactors count. It’s so easy for Ukraine to turn a regular bomb into a dirty bomb that this isn’t the kind of threat you can dispel by invading. A Ukraine that was willing to make and use dirty bombs has plenty of time to do so in the face of invasion. They still can build one from one of their plants running in the still uncontested portions of Ukraine. It’s like asking if a baseball player has a weapon; sure — he was carrying a baseball bat.

    According to the claim they’re doing more than making dirty bombs; they’re trying to build nuclear weapons of their own, meaning bombs that rely on a nuclear reaction as opposed to dirty bombs. To make a plutonium bomb you extract plutonium from your nuclear reactor’s spent fuel rods. From there need to shape it into a hollow sphere and implode it by means of carefully timed explosives. It’s harder than it sounds and it sounds plenty hard to me.

    If you’re asking where the plutonium comes from it’s because you neglected to click my really fascinating stuff link in the previous section. If you hit U238 with a thermal neutron it’ll decay over a couple of days into Plutonium 239, which is the stuff that bombs are made of. But having the material is only the first step; Plutonium is difficult to extract and then to build a functioning bomb out of. To quote from the link:

    Plutonium may be easier to get, but it’s harder to use. The weapon design is more demanding and, compared to a uranium gun bomb, without testing it’s difficult to be sure the bomb will go boom. While it used to be said that every country which had tried to build a nuclear weapon had succeeded on the first try, this is no longer the case: the North Korean 2006 nuclear test, believed to be a plutonium implosion device, appears to have had a fizzle yield of 0.48 kilotons. Basing one’s strategy on nuclear deterrence with plutonium weapons which have never been tested is risky in the extreme, although demonstrating the infrastructure may create sufficient ambiguity that adversaries are disinclined to roll the dice.

    From a geopolitics perspective, it’s easy to imagine that pre-war Ukraine was feeling buyer’s remorse from the Budapest memorandum and looking to secretly develop its own nuclear weapons. They have the materials to do so on hand. The step from plutonium to Nagasaki, however, is a long one. They haven’t detonated any test bombs which probably means that they don’t have any nuclear bombs to test. On the other hand, a successful nuclear test not only shows the world that you have a program but also that you have the bombs which makes it much harder to shut down. Should such a program have existed I could imagine Putin having known of it and invaded to shut it down before it got far enough to threaten him. He should have had the decency to send Colin Powell to prove it to the UN first.

    Bottom line: If Russia is worried about a Ukrainian dirty bomb that’s not the kind of threat they can defuse by invading. If they’re worried about a Ukrainian nuclear weapon program it’s at least plausible that such a program might exist. I’m waiting for them to submit proof before I believe it.

    Quite frankly, a dirty bomb does not even require a nuclear reactor.  A radiation therapy or nuclear medicine unit at a hospital could make for a very effective dirty bomb.  You don’t even need explosives – a crop duster or compressed air system would also work.  Plutonium is actually not good for a dirty bomb – it is not that radioactive per pound.

    More to the point, dirty bombs are area denial weapons and easily detected.  They spread panic, but are not really effective against anyone but unprepared civilians.  It is easier and cheaper to hire a journalist to achieve the same effect.

    If I were Zelensky, planning on developing a nuclear deterrent, I would turn to Israel for advice and possibly even access to weapons.  Developing nuclear weapons is really, really hard.

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    I don’t believe we ever did it, but I see no reason why you couldn’t build a gun-style plutonium bomb. Of course, I might not see the reason because I know even less than you.

    We intended to do it. Originally, it wasn’t Fat Man (the plutonium bomb, big and round) and Little Boy (Hiroshima’s executioner), but Fat Man and the Thin Man (a plutonium gun, about seventeen feet long). The problem is plutonium is so hot to trot that it’s extremely difficult to keep it from a premature partial explosion, hence the abnormal length of the bomb, which could only have fitted in a British Lancaster bomber. “Premature” means a fizzle. There was no way to fire the two pieces together fast enough. This was a huge pain in Los Alamos’ collective behind, and forced them to use the more complicated implosion technique.

    It’s often thought that Fat Man was in honor of Winston Churchill, but it was actually nicknamed, as Thin Man was, for characters in Dashiell Hammett detective stories. So both bombs, in effect, were named by an American Communist.

    Not quite.  Thin Man was a uranium gun bomb.  We did not test it, because uranium gun bombs are very reliable in detonating.  (To the point that they are not as safe against accidental detonation)  The problem is that uranium enrichment is very, very hard.  You are separating two materials with identical chemical properties that are only 1% different in mass, and trying to concentrate something found at less than one percent of uranium.

    Plutonium atoms have a chance  to naturally split, without something to initiate it.  This means it is much, much harder to get a true nuclear detonation.  You just make a lot of neutrons, a small explosion, and people very close by die horrible deaths.  

    • #10
  11. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    OmegaPaladin (View Comment):

    Not quite. Thin Man was a uranium gun bomb. We did not test it, because uranium gun bombs are very reliable in detonating. (To the point that they are not as safe against accidental detonation) The problem is that uranium enrichment is very, very hard. You are separating two materials with identical chemical properties that are only 1% different in mass, and trying to concentrate something found at less than one percent of uranium.

    Plutonium atoms have a chance to naturally split, without something to initiate it. This means it is much, much harder to get a true nuclear detonation. You just make a lot of neutrons, a small explosion, and people very close by die horrible deaths.

    Hmm…check the article you linked. It says specifically that Thin Man was a plutonium gun that couldn’t have worked. Little Boy is a uranium gun, which as you say didn’t need to be tested.

    Einstein sent his letter to FDR in 1939. By 1941, only research had occurred, no plans for production. It took a British report in 1941, proposing a method of getting to a bomb, that got the US moving. That British proto-design is essentially Little Boy. Plutonium wasn’t in the picture yet. If a simple, gun assembly plutonium bomb were possible, we could probably have lopped 6-12 months off our development schedule, and much of what we did at Los Alamos would have been unnecessary.

    • #11
  12. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor
    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher
    @HankRhody

    DonG (CAGW is a Hoax) (View Comment):

    I am curious about how the nuclear waste is stored. All that used fuel rods have to be stored and that storage is probably vulnerable to explosives. This is a dirty bomb situation.

    When I go to the plant website it times out on me. Checking the wayback machine here’s the plant layout.  If you want to play for yourself here’s the satellite view of the plant on Google Maps. It looks like they’re storing spent fuel rods in the pools to the west of the reactors. I don’t know what’d happen if you lobbed artillery at those ponds but my guess is not much. Judging by the XKCD guy’s analysis of swimming in a spent fuel pool you won’t get too much of a disaster by splashing the water around. You’d need an explosive big enough to blow the waste material out of the water. 

    Right next to the pools there’s a small rectangular building for “Storage of solid radio equipment. Waste”, which I assume doesn’t mean transistor radios. I can imagine a shell hitting that and creating a large radioactive mess, but the stuff you’re storing in that building is necessarily going to be less radioactive than the stuff they store in the ponds. 

    • #12
  13. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor
    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher
    @HankRhody

    Amy Schley, Longcat Shrinker (View Comment):

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher: As a rule, when you’re building a reactor you pour thick concrete walls between you and the radiation so as little of it hits you as you can get away with. The actual reactor core is better protected from bombardment than most bunkers.

    The resistance of a nuclear reactor’s concrete shell isn’t just a matter of how much concrete there is. My concern is that the shell’s design, being meant to hold the radiation in and support itself, might not be able to withstand targeted bombardment.

    Seeing as I’m already noodling around the google maps view here’s as close as I can get to one of the reactors. But even though it’s got all the grace and delicacy you’d expect from Soviet architecture you’re right, it doesn’t mean that it’s designed to keep out artillery fire. 

    I’m now trying to sculpt a battle where artillery fire on the plant becomes necessary for the attacker. Again glancing at the map it’s in a corner of the river. There’s no objective beyond the plant; it’s the plant itself you’d have to take. which means that if you’re bombarding it it’s because the defenders are putting up a rugged, die-hard defense of the facility, inside the reactor building itself. At that point you’re talking about a suicide-bomber level commitment because if that reactor vessel cracks who do you think gets cooked first?

    I think I’d argue for an extension of the laws of war, that much like ambulances belligerents neither arm nuclear power plants nor attack them directly. If the enemy gets up to the gates of your plant you surrender it peacefully. Much like what happened in this case. Because nobody wants the mess. 

    • #13
  14. OmegaPaladin Moderator
    OmegaPaladin
    @OmegaPaladin

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher (View Comment):

    Amy Schley, Longcat Shrinker (View Comment):

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher: As a rule, when you’re building a reactor you pour thick concrete walls between you and the radiation so as little of it hits you as you can get away with. The actual reactor core is better protected from bombardment than most bunkers.

    The resistance of a nuclear reactor’s concrete shell isn’t just a matter of how much concrete there is. My concern is that the shell’s design, being meant to hold the radiation in and support itself, might not be able to withstand targeted bombardment.

    Seeing as I’m already noodling around the google maps view here’s as close as I can get to one of the reactors. But even though it’s got all the grace and delicacy you’d expect from Soviet architecture you’re right, it doesn’t mean that it’s designed to keep out artillery fire.

    I’m now trying to sculpt a battle where artillery fire on the plant becomes necessary for the attacker. Again glancing at the map it’s in a corner of the river. There’s no objective beyond the plant; it’s the plant itself you’d have to take. which means that if you’re bombarding it it’s because the defenders are putting up a rugged, die-hard defense of the facility, inside the reactor building itself. At that point you’re talking about a suicide-bomber level commitment because if that reactor vessel cracks who do you think gets cooked first?

    I think I’d argue for an extension of the laws of war, that much like ambulances belligerents neither arm nuclear power plants nor attack them directly. If the enemy gets up to the gates of your plant you surrender it peacefully. Much like what happened in this case. Because nobody wants the mess.

    If you think that is bad, try a chemical plant, an oil refinery, or hydroelectric dam.  Attacks on these sites could cause pretty stunning devastation, far beyond even a full-scale meltdown.

    • #14
  15. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor
    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher
    @HankRhody

    ctlaw (View Comment):

    The issue is that to get the plutonium, you’d build a reprocessing plant.

    But that would be monitored by the IAEA unless you were Iran or NK.

    Ignoring the IAEA issue, in the time it took you to build the plant, you could develop the necessary hardware for an implosion device.

    Ah, right, a point I neglected to mention; the isotope mix of plutonium. From John Walker’s site:

    As U-238 is irradiated by neutrons in a reactor, Pu-239 is produced by the process described above, but that isn’t the end of the story. In a neutron-rich environment, Pu-239 can capture an additional neutron and be transformed into the Pu-240 isotope. Pu-240 is chemically identical to Pu-239, but has a shorter half-life of 6,563 years and, more importantly, undergoes spontaneous fission at a rate 41,500 times greater than that of Pu-239. All of these spontaneous fissions release neutrons, which can provoke predetonation (or a fizzle), in which the nuclear weapon blows itself apart before the intended explosion occurs. This neutron background from Pu-240 rules out the simple gun assembly weapon design possible with U-235, and requires a much more complicated and difficult to perfect implosion design. The higher the degree of contamination of the plutonium with Pu-240, the more sophisticated the weapon design must be to avoid a fizzle.

    In order to minimise the amount of Pu-240, fuel rods in a plutonium production reactor should be irradiated for a relatively short period: long enough to transmute around 1% of the U-238 into Pu-239, but not so long that too much Pu-239 is converted into Pu-240. Plutonium with less than 7% of Pu-240 is considered “weapons grade”. In a power reactor, fuel elements are left in the reactor much longer, and plutonium extracted from their fuel rods may have 18% or more Pu-240—this is called “reactor grade ” plutonium. This doesn’t mean you can’t make a bomb from reactor grade plutonium: in 1962, the U.S. conducted a nuclear test of a bomb using plutonium with a high Pu-240 fraction, although to this day the precise isotopic composition of the plutonium has not been disclosed.

    [Note that to be polite to Ricochet’s text editor I’m pasting as text which strips all the links out of the original.]

    I could have cut that down a bit except that it’s also relevant to the plutonium gun conversation. In light of that then Putin’s story has to be

    1. Ukraine was sneaking spent fuel rods out of their plants under the nose of the IAEA
    2. Shipping it across country to Chernobyl
    3. Extracting and processing the plutonium there
    4. Building an already technically complex bomb using substandard materials

    He’s going to have to fake up some pretty good evidence.

    • #15
  16. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor
    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher
    @HankRhody

    ctlaw (View Comment):
    Ignoring the IAEA issue,

    Here’s what I’m wondering. Considering the level of honesty and integrity we saw out of the CDC and the WHO over the course of the last two years exactly how far can we trust the NRC or the IAEA?

    • #16
  17. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor
    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher
    @HankRhody

    OmegaPaladin (View Comment):
    Stirring up radioactive dust is a big deal, and it means people in the downwind area could risk contamination.  Garrisoning that area will have severe risks, and even crossing the area would require N95 masks and good hygiene.

    Thanks for chiming in. You’re right about this, and this is something I hadn’t been considering. Breathing the dust in is a great deal more serious. But again, all I’ve got is the rumor to go off of, and two data points. It could be a radioactive dust bowl down there or it could be nothing but a twitter yob shooting his mouth off. 

    • #17
  18. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor
    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher
    @HankRhody

    OmegaPaladin (View Comment):

    Quite frankly, a dirty bomb does not even require a nuclear reactor.  A radiation therapy or nuclear medicine unit at a hospital could make for a very effective dirty bomb.  You don’t even need explosives – a crop duster or compressed air system would also work.  Plutonium is actually not good for a dirty bomb – it is not that radioactive per pound.

    More to the point, dirty bombs are area denial weapons and easily detected.  They spread panic, but are not really effective against anyone but unprepared civilians.  It is easier and cheaper to hire a journalist to achieve the same effect.

    Much like when I order a martini the question is how dirty do you want it.

    As far as area denial goes I don’t know. It’s not just a question of how much radiation you can spread to what area, it’s a question of how hard people panic and for how long. Even with two years of ‘rona panic I don’t feel confident in making any kind of prediction.

    [EDIT: I’m thinking in terms of a terror weapon against civilian areas. As a tool of war against opposing militaries I think you’re entirely right.]

    • #18
  19. OmegaPaladin Moderator
    OmegaPaladin
    @OmegaPaladin

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    OmegaPaladin (View Comment):

    Not quite. Thin Man was a uranium gun bomb. We did not test it, because uranium gun bombs are very reliable in detonating. (To the point that they are not as safe against accidental detonation) The problem is that uranium enrichment is very, very hard. You are separating two materials with identical chemical properties that are only 1% different in mass, and trying to concentrate something found at less than one percent of uranium.

    Plutonium atoms have a chance to naturally split, without something to initiate it. This means it is much, much harder to get a true nuclear detonation. You just make a lot of neutrons, a small explosion, and people very close by die horrible deaths.

    Hmm…check the article you linked. It says specifically that Thin Man was a plutonium gun that couldn’t have worked. Little Boy is a uranium gun, which as you say didn’t need to be tested.

    Einstein sent his letter to FDR in 1939. By 1941, only research had occurred, no plans for production. It took a British report in 1941, proposing a method of getting to a bomb, that got the US moving. That British proto-design is essentially Little Boy. Plutonium wasn’t in the picture yet. If a simple, gun assembly plutonium bomb were possible, we could probably have lopped 6-12 months off our development schedule, and much of what we did at Los Alamos would have been unnecessary.

    I remember reading Thin Man being used as the initial term for what was later called Little Boy.  I’m guessing the source I used (books I read previously) neglected to discuss the plutonium gun design for Thin Man thanks to the spontaneous fission issue taking it out of consideration. 

    • #19
  20. Hank from the Internet Contributor
    Hank from the Internet
    @HankRhody

    Hank from the Internet (View Comment):

    OmegaPaladin (View Comment):
    Stirring up radioactive dust is a big deal, and it means people in the downwind area could risk contamination. Garrisoning that area will have severe risks, and even crossing the area would require N95 masks and good hygiene.

    Thanks for chiming in. You’re right about this, and this is something I hadn’t been considering. Breathing the dust in is a great deal more serious. But again, all I’ve got is the rumor to go off of, and two data points. It could be a radioactive dust bowl down there or it could be nothing but a twitter yob shooting his mouth off.

    Update on this, seven busloads of Russians soldiers have apparently rolled into a Belarus hospital for radiation sickness. They were digging trenches in the Red Forest in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Again I won’t actually know this until I’ve seen more evidence than I’ve gotten, but I’m chalking this up as ‘you were right’.

    Another rumor I’ve heard is that a research reactor in Kharkiv was shelled, but having no more knowledge than that I’ve got nothing more to say.

    • #20
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