By Conor Gallagher
The New York Times had quite the interesting piece buried in its science section on April 28. Titled “U.S. Wires Ukraine With Radiation Sensors to Detect Nuclear Blasts,” it claims sensors “can detect bursts of radiation from a nuclear weapon or a dirty bomb and can confirm the identity of the attacker.” More:
In part, the goal is to make sure that if Russia detonates a radioactive weapon on Ukrainian soil, its atomic signature and Moscow’s culpability could be verified.
Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine 14 months ago, experts have worried about whether President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia would use nuclear arms in combat for the first time since the American bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
First off, what would possibly be the Russian rationale for using nuclear weapons?
They’re winning in Ukraine, and the West is running out of ammo.
Second, about those “experts.” To expand on their worries, the Times links to an October piece titled “Russia’s Small Nuclear Arms: A Risky Option for Putin and Ukraine Alike.” In it, we get this:
The primary utility, many U.S. officials say, would be as part of a last-ditch effort by Mr. Putin to halt the Ukrainian counteroffensive, by threatening to make parts of Ukraine uninhabitable. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe some of the most sensitive discussions inside the administration.
So the experts are anonymous. Who is running this operation? The Nuclear Emergency Support Team (NEST), which is the Nation Nuclear Security Administration’s arm that deals with emergency response functions. The Times also notes the following:
Jeffrey T. Richelson, author of “Defusing Armageddon,” a 2009 book on the Nuclear Emergency Support Team, reported that it often teamed up with the Joint Special Operations Command, an elite military unit so secretive that the Pentagon for years refused to acknowledge its existence.
The Times’ April 28 piece gets more bonkers from there. There’s this:
Public knowledge of such defensive planning, nuclear experts say, can deter Moscow by letting it know that Washington can expose what is called a false-flag operation.
For instance, Moscow could falsely claim that Kyiv set off a nuclear blast on the battlefield to try to draw the West into deeper war assistance. But in theory, with the sensor network in place, Washington would be able to point to its own nuclear attribution analyses to reveal that Moscow was in fact the attacker.
So Russia would conduct a false-flag operation in order to risk accomplishing what Kiev would want to accomplish with its own false flag?
Again, what would Moscow have to gain? It’s steadily winning the war and depleting western stockpiles.
But for the inhabitants of the alternate universe where Russia is on its last legs it all makes perfect sense. Speaking to that audience, the Times again invokes “nuclear experts” and “western experts” who are presumably the same aforementioned anonymous officials, and they put an ominous spin on Ukraine’s coming counteroffensive:
Nuclear experts say such defensive precautions could face their greatest test in coming weeks as the Ukrainian army launches its spring offensive. China has leaned on Russia to discontinue its nuclear saber rattling and Mr. Putin has not recently invoked a nuclear threat. But Western experts worry that Russia’s battlefield failures are making Mr. Putin, if anything, more dependent on his nuclear arsenal, and they worry that fresh setbacks could increase his willingness to pull the nuclear trigger.
One of the many alarming aspects of all this is that these “experts” certainly must know that the idea “that Russia’s battlefield failures are making Mr. Putin, if anything, more dependent on his nuclear arsenal” is complete fantasy, yet they’re peddling it anyways. Why? That’s an ominous thought.
Russia was warning NATO back in October that Ukraine might detonate a “dirty bomb” and blame Moscow. Washington, Paris, and London dismissed it all as “transparently false.” Instead the West has continued to insist that Moscow might do so. The Basic Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence state that Russia would not use a nuclear weapon of any kind unless the country is attacked using weapons of mass destruction or faces a conventional attack so severe it threatens the country’s existence.
Could Kiev create a dirty bomb? The US GAO admits it’s not hard to find the materials and build a dirty bomb. Ukraine returned all its Soviet-era nuclear weapons to Russia in the 1990, but still has stockpiles of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium. Dirty bombs can also be made out of byproducts from nuclear power plants of which Ukraine has several. According to Russia, it would be no problem for Kiev to build such a weapon:
Russian Radiation, Chemical and Biological Defense Troops chief Igor Kirillov warned that Ukraine has the technological prowess and ample radioactive material reserves to build a dirty bomb. This includes some 1,500 tons’ worth of spent nuclear fuel from the country’s three operating nuclear power plants, and 22,000 spent fuel assemblies stored at the defunct Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant’s waste repositories, including Uranium-235 and Plutnoium-239 – the primary fissile isotopes used in nuclear weapons.
…Furthermore, the officer stressed, Kiev has the scientific know-how allowing it to easily build a dirty bomb, including the legendary Kharkov Institute of Physics and Technology involved in the creation of the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons, and the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for Nuclear Research, which operates the BBP-M research reactor.
The Times’ piece has virtually no information on what the deployed sensors actually do. Presumably they would detect radiation and then a forensics team would try to determine the origin of the weapon. Thing is, there are already institutions for that.
The European Radiological Data Exchange Platform, which monitors radiation levels, already covers Ukraine. According to its website, it “consists of data exchange mechanism and presentation website for radiological monitoring data which is collected and shared by 39 participating countries in almost REAL TIME.” But it is not a rapid alert system, and while the EU has one of those, it only covers member states.
The IAEA, on the other hand has its EMERCON system for radiological or nuclear emergencies and which does cover Ukraine. And the IAEA can help prepare for the investigation into a nuclear incident:
The IAEA supports States in developing technical capabilities by providing: Technical assistance, including, upon request, to prepare for the conduct of a nuclear forensics examination in the context of the investigation of a nuclear security event. Important considerations involve procedures to collect and preserve evidence and properly sequence non-destructive ahead of destructive analysis in the laboratory.
Additionally, the IAEA notes that there are international organizations that provide various forms of nuclear forensic support, including the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, INTERPOL, and the Nuclear Forensics International Technical Working Group. But the US apparently does not want to rely on these international institutions.
The US is apparently going with its own team. So should such a weapon be used in Ukraine, would the US Nuclear Emergency Support Team be able to determine who did it? It’s hard to tell – but probably not with any certainty.
The Times piece has few details on how the process works, saying only that it developed rapidly after 9/11, has some secrets, and “its outlines are publicly known.”
The Times then links back to two articles – one from 2004 and another from 2006. They’re fairly similar and both describe the process of identification this way:
The basic science relies on faint clues — tiny bits of radioactive fallout, often invisible to the eye, that under intense scrutiny can reveal distinctive signatures. Such wisps of evidence can help identify an exploded bomb’s type and characteristics, including its country of origin.
While tracking a missile from the blastoff point is not difficult, tracking unconventional devices, such as a dirty bomb that uses ordinary explosives to spew radioactivity, can be a major challenge. Both articles described “federal experts” participating in drills to establish the origin of a weapon. From the 2004 piece:
In a drill this year, dozens of federal experts in fallout analysis met at the Sandia laboratories in Albuquerque to study a simulated terrorist nuclear blast. Mr. Worlton said they were broken into teams and given radiological data from two old American nuclear tests, whose identities remained hidden, and were instructed to try to name them. Some teams succeeded, he said.
While hyping that apparent success, the 2004 piece noted that success was only partial. The Times also mentioned that there were numerous complexities involved that made attribution less of a sure thing, including “that knowing who made a bomb may say little about who detonated it.” And there’s this:
Experts agree that such detective work can prove difficult. For years, the International Atomic Energy Agency has struggled with limited success to identify the source of highly enriched uranium, a potential bomb fuel, found by the agency’s inspectors on Iranian nuclear gear.
According to the IAEA, forensic investigations are rarely slam dunk cases:
Nuclear forensic analysis and interpretation involve a deductive and iterative process, as depicted in Fig. 2. Implementing the analytical plan produces results that can be compared with information on existing or known materials, and such comparisons lead to interpretation, which puts the analytical results into context. The comparative process involving analytical results and known material information is iterative because each successive comparison may provide new information that can identify further analyses or comparisons that, in turn, may uncover additional signatures that will help to identify the material more precisely.
This comparative process may also be deductive because it can be used to progressively exclude particular processes, locations or other origins as possible sources of the material. For example, comparisons of analytical results from seized nuclear material with known production processes will identify likely production processes that could have made the seized material, as well as those processes that could not have made the seized material. Additional comparisons with other existing production processes or analytical measurements will serve to narrow the list of likely production processes responsible for the production of the seized material.
But American officials claimed in the Times articles from 2004 and 2006 that scientific advancements were being made in the US, which would make identification more accurate.
Have they advanced enough? And maybe the real question is, who would trust the US’ conclusion? Would it matter?
Dr. Jay C. Davis, a nuclear scientist who helped found the Pentagon’s part of the US effort to trace an explosion, told the Times back in 2004 that the identification effort would be crucial in ”dealing with the desire for instant gratification through vengeance.”