Blog Post - Nuclear Security Matters

Dirty bomb efforts and uranium seizure in Ukraine may be less than meets the eye

    Author:
  • Artur Saradzhyan
| Aug. 12, 2015

Ukraine-based journalist Maxim Tucker has just published two articles to claim that pro-Russian rebels in Eastern Ukraine are plotting to manufacture a dirty bomb with the help of Russian scientists, using radioactive waste from a storage facility at the Donetsk Chemical Factory.  The journalist has published two versions of the story, in The Times of London and Newsweek.  Meanwhile, in an apparently unrelated incident, Ukrainian authorities have arrested four men for attempting to smuggle what reports suggest was natural uranium.

There are four key elements to this story, with varying degrees of evidence for each.  First, Tucker reports that there is an old bunker storing radioactive materials in areas controlled by the Donetsk separatists. That is clearly correct, and has been reported on multiple occasions before.  Leaders of the Donbass separatists have confirmed its existence, report that OSCE monitors have visited the storage to measure radiation, and have offered to allow OSCE monitors to return.

Second, there is the claim that the bunker has been opened and material removed.  This seems more doubtful, given the separatists’ denial and willingness to have OSCE monitors check.

The third element is the idea that the separatists are working with Russian scientists to do something with the radioactive materials.  Tucker describes a Ukrainian “security dossier” which contains what are said to be documents from the separatists ordering certain people to escort Russian specialists to the bunker this past July.  Another part of the order reportedly directs the rebel Ministry of Emergency Situations to evacuate a “two-mile zone” around the site and help transport the materials away.  Given the strong Ukrainian incentives to release information unflattering to Russia, this seems somewhat suspect.  It’s also not specified what the purpose of the Russian specialists’ visit is: from the information provided, it could easily be to improve the safety or security of the waste site and remove particularly dangerous materials.

The fourth and most frightening element of the story is the claim that the rebels are using some of the materials stored at the Donetsk facility to build a radiological weapon. This seems highly unlikely, for several reasons.  First, the only source for this claim in the ostensible Ukrainian security dossier seems to be a single conversation, described as “vodka-soaked,” between an undercover Ukrainian agent and a rebel, in which the rebel claimed that the commander of this unit, Mikhail Tolstykh (nome de guerre: Givi) has boasted to his comrades-in-arms that the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR)  “would soon have an atomic weapon.” Tostykh is widely known as a big talker and a loose cannon, and both the rebel talking to the agent and Tolstykh have every reason to exaggerate the military power of the rebels. The entire story comes from the Ukrainian government, which has been accused of doctoring evidence to back their claims on Eastern Ukraine in the past. (Remarkably, the Ukrainian  defense minister has even claimed that Russia has already used tactical nuclear weapons in Luhansk.)  Finally, it’s difficult to see how detonation of a dirty bomb would give the rebels any significant advantage. They would have the same problems operating in the contaminated area as Ukrainian tropps would, so it seems unlikely they would use such a  weapon on the front lines.  It could be used to spread panic within Ukraine, but that would generate a lot of bad publicity for the rebels, who are already under fire over allegations of their involvement in the downing of the Malaysian airliner last year, reinforcing Kiev’s narrative that they are ‘terrorists.’  More information will be needed before any definite conclusions can be drawn about what is going on with the radioactive materials stored in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, on August 5, the Ukrainian Security Service announced that it had arrested four men it had caught “red-handed” attempting to smuggle nuclear material “most likely to be uranium-238.” Natural uranium, when mined, is more than 99 percent U-238.  U-238 cannot support the nuclear chain reaction needed for a nuclear bomb, and is not radioactive enough to be very useful for a dirty bomb.  Nor is it an especially precious commodity: the price of natural uranium oxide on international markets is currently in the range of $40 a pound.  These initial reports suggest this was another in a long string of small-time hustlers and smugglers attempting to make money from nuclear material they did not understand very well.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Saradzhyan, Artur.Dirty bomb efforts and uranium seizure in Ukraine may be less than meets the eye.” Nuclear Security Matters, August 12, 2015, https://nuclearsecuritymatters.belfercenter.org/publication/dirty-bomb-efforts-and-uranium-seizure-ukraine-may-be-less-meets-eye.

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