Could nuclear material stolen from Chernobyl be used in a dirty bomb?
Scientists at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant say that radioactive material was stolen by looters during the Russian invasion of Ukraine
29 March 2022
Radioactive material has been stolen from a laboratory near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant during the chaos caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but the danger of a so-called dirty bomb being made from the material is minimal. Meanwhile, staff at Chernobyl have been working unpaid for nearly two months and lack food and medicine.
A scientist working for Ukraine’s Institute for Safety Problems of Nuclear Power Plants (ISPNPP), who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, confirmed to New Scientist that radioactive material was probably stolen from a radiation monitoring laboratory in the mostly abandoned city of Chernobyl.
The site was looted in the wake of the Russian invasion on 24 February that pushed ISPNPP staff away from their laboratories and the power plant. Thieves took samples of radioactive isotopes normally used to calibrate instruments as well as samples of radioactive waste from the wreckage of the 1986 disaster.
The loss of radioactive material was first reported by Science. The anonymous source speaking to New Scientist has confirmed these reports, saying they are “accurate based on the information available”. Science says that communication with another lab that houses powerful sources of gamma and neutron radiation has also been cut off, so it is possible that material has gone missing from there too.
Bruno Merk at the University of Liverpool, UK, says there is no cause for concern over the stolen material, as it wasn’t the right type to create a nuclear weapon. Typically, plutonium or uranium are needed for such a weapon, but this material would contain neither. Merk says that the probably small amounts of material would be of very limited use in the construction of a dirty bomb – essentially radioactive material combined with conventional explosives to contaminate an area.
Anything likely to be found in the laboratories and offices around Chernobyl would be no more dangerous than materials used in medical equipment or on building sites, says Merk.
“There are so many radioactive sources around the world. If someone wants to get their hands on this there’s an easier way,” he says. “These radioactive sources you can steal in every hospital. It would always have been possible for someone to sneak in and steal something. I don’t see that the risk is any higher than before the Russians invaded.”
“Mainly they will be calibration sources, material you use to calibrate detection equipment,” he says. “If they have plutonium laying around in offices, then they have massively broken [global] contamination laws. There are clear rules from the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] for this and that doesn’t seem likely.”
The anonymous scientist says that Chernobyl workers mostly lived in the city of Slavutych prior to the invasion, which was hastily constructed to house those displaced by the 1986 disaster. But those who didn’t flee the advancing Russian troops now have no food or medicine.
“There is a very thin line of humanitarian help available,” the scientist says. “Fortunately, some supply from the nearest villages is organised by the town management. The staff of my institute has received no salary for almost two months because the authority is located in Ivankiv. Normally we spend the day finding some food and night for work. I have a lot to do with the minimum information I have.”
The State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine and ISPNPP didn’t respond to requests for comment.
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