What Are ‘Dirty Bombs’ and Why Is Russia Talking About Them?
Earlier this month, a mysterious device exploded over the town of Beslan, killing over 250 people on Monday. The blast was one of the worst peacetime-use nuclear attacks since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. In the wake of this horrific event, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the perpetrators of the attacks would be “eliminated,” while the Russian interior ministry called the attack “barbaric and monstrous action.” In response, the United States and other Western nations condemned Russia’s actions.
We now know that the attack was carried out by a bomb. The device was made from a crude nuclear weapon and was detonated by remote control, which raises an important question about the “dirty bomb:” How big of a bomb is enough to make the headlines?
To answer this question, we have to go back a few years in the history of nuclear weapons. Back in the late 1960s, the United States detonated the first nuclear bomb. The uranium bomb, called an “Little Boy,” was much smaller than what we use today: It weighed about three cubic feet, had a diameter of about 30 centimeters (1.1 feet), and its explosion produced an initial fireball that was less than 10 meters long and 1.7 meters wide. The radioactive isotopes of uranium that spewed from the bomb gave off a pulse as they decayed into harmless radionuclides. The pulse made it impossible to use the bomb as a weapon, yet it also posed a problem for the military: It would have made the entire facility radioactive for a substantial period of time.
In response, the United States decided to use a more powerful uranium bomb. The resulting weapon, called a hydrogen bomb, was even larger, weighed almost four times as much, and used in about the same circumstances as the Little Boy. It needed to be detonated with a controlled detonation—in other words, a “remote kill” bomb. This bomb made it possible to use a bomb as a weapon without making the entire facility radioactive. Today, every country that has a nuclear arsenal would use a remote kill bomb in an emergency, such as if a terrorist used a dirty bomb.
Why Does Russia Need a Nuclear Weapon?
Back in the late 1960s, the United States also began building