Is Ukraine really developing a dirty bomb? Be careful of Russian claims
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Ukraine is apparently in the process of developing a so-called dirty bomb – a bomb containing radioactive elements – or, at least, that’s the narrative that Moscow has been peddling since October 23, 2022. The Russian Ministry of Defence posted these claims to Telegram and Twitter, along with illustrated documents meant to support these claims. But the images published in these documents are old and some of them were even taken in Russia.
If you only have a minute:
- Since October 23, Russia has been accusing Ukraine of developing a dirty bomb, a bomb that combines both conventional explosives and radioactive material.
- The Russian Ministry of Defence published these claims on Telegram on October 24, along with documents containing photos seeming to support their accusations. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs then shared the same accusations and documents on Twitter.
- However, the images included in the documents come from a variety of websites and don’t actually offer proof of a bomb being developed in Ukraine. Some of the images were even taken in Russia.
- For the time being, there is no indication that Ukraine is developing this kind of weapon. Ukraine and its allies say that these accusations are being used as a “pretext for escalation” of the war.
The fact-check, in detail:
Russia has been claiming since Sunday, October 23 that Ukraine is manufacturing a so-called “dirty bomb,” which is made up of conventional explosives as well as radioactive material. These bombs are especially dangerous because they disperse radioactive material during the explosion and contaminate the surrounding area.
"According to the information that we have, two Ukrainian organisations received a direct order to create a ‘dirty bomb’. The construction is in a final phase", wrote the Russian Ministry of Defence on its Telegram channel on Monday, October 24, 2022, without giving any more details about these organisations. To support these claims, they shared several illustrated documents.
The first is titled, in English, “Radiation hazardous facilities of Ukraine,” which apparently include "nuclear power plants", "industrial enterprises" and "scientific research institutes". The document was also shared on Twitter by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Another document of the same type, called “Ukraine’s capacities to build the ‘dirty bomb’”, lists potential sources of radioactive substances, including "storage pools for spent nuclear fuel at nuclear power plants", "radioactive waste storage sites” and “scientific research reactors”. The document also includes information about the "development of 'dirty bombs'". The Twitter post featuring this document was shared more than 800 times.
The third document illustrates so-called “Critical consequences of the provocation,” including “public panic and increase in flow of refugees.”
These documents were picked up by a bunch of different accounts on Twitter, including several French-speaking ones (examples here and here).
Research centres and Russian nuclear power plants
While these images aren’t explicitly cited as proof, they were published by official Russian accounts along with their allegations and, thus, seem to be used to support them.
However, we took a closer look at these images and, it turns out, many of them offer no proof at all – they are out-of-date and some weren’t even taken in Ukraine. To find out more about the images, we ran them through a reverse image search (check how to do this here) to find out where they came from.
The first document, which illustrates the danger posed by Ukrainian research organizations actually shows a Russian institute – the PIK neutron reactor, which is part of the Institute of Nuclear Physics in St Petersburg. We found this photo shared by the Russian news agency Tass, in an article from February 8, 2021.
The second document, which is meant to show Ukraine’s capacity to create a "dirty bomb", also uses images of Russian structures. The photo on the left shows the nuclear power plant in Beloyarsk, Russia. We found the photo in a number of articles, including this one from March 20, 2020, published by the Russian media outlet Newsae.
The photo on the right was published in January 2016 in an article on the website Wonderful Engineering, one of a number of images showing a concentrated chemicals plant in Novosibirsk. This factory is located in Russian Siberia and makes nuclear combustibles for nuclear reactors.
As for the image illustrating the "development of the ‘dirty bomb’”, it’s actually a photo of a radioactive waste site in Slovenia, taken way back in 2010. The government of Slovenia tweeted about it on October 25.
"Photo, used by the Russian Foreign Ministry in its Twitter post is an ARAO photo from 2010," the post said. "It was used for professional presentations for the general and interested public as an explanatory material. The photo shows smoke detectors that are subject to general use."
Images used as Russian propaganda during the war in Syria
The image on the left on the third document caught our attention right away. Eliot Higgins, the founder of the investigative website Bellingcat, also noticed it. He took a closer look and established that the photo was already used by Russia, way back in 2018 during the war in Syria. Back then, they used the image to support claims that members of the Syrian Civil Defense (known as the “White Helmets”) were staging images of war crimes.
"It is to be noted that this kind of information warfare technologies have already been used by the West in Syria when the White Helmets were filming propaganda footage about the employment of chemical weapons by the governmental forces there,” wrote the Russian Ministry of Defence on Telegram.
The same allegations were broadcast on Russian television in 2018.
However, the image came from a Syrian film set as we demonstrated in an article back in 2018.
These images, which have been presented as proof that Ukraine is currently working on a "dirty bomb”, actually show nothing of the kind. Thus, they are misleading. The two Russian ministries haven’t provided any proof of their allegations.
The United States, France and the United Kingdom, all allies of Ukraine, rejected these allegations, claiming they were a strategic manoeuvre by Moscow.
"No one will be duped by this attempt to use this allegation as a pretext for escalation,” they said in a statement on October 24.