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How the USA and Soviet Union planned to use nuclear radiation as a weapon.

 This was initially seen as a great idea –  you could kill all the people while leaving the omfrastructure intact for your own use.
Death Dust: The Little-Known Story of U.S. and Soviet Pursuit of Radiological Weapons,  Three international security experts chart the rise and fall of radiological weapons programs in the United States and the Soviet Union. The MIT Press Reader

By: Morgan L. Kaplan, 31 Jan 20, 

For decades, the thought of radiological weapons has conjured terrifying images of cities covered in “death dust.” Classified as a weapon of mass destruction — alongside chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons — it has remained a point of mystery as to why these devastatingly indiscriminate weapons were not pursued in earnest by more state and non-state actors alike.

What did early radiological weapons (RW) programs look like? How and why did they arise, and what accounts for their ultimate demise? Aside from a handful of known cases, why have RW programs not proliferated with the same alacrity as other weapons programs?

Thanks to the rigorous and rich historical work of Samuel Meyer, Sarah Bidgood, and William Potter of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, we now have more answers. Focusing on the United States and Soviet Union in the 1940s and 1950s, the authors, in a recent study published in the journal International Security, trace the unique origins of these RW programs, as well as explain why they were subsequently abandoned. Their study, “Death Dust: The Little-Known Story of U.S. and Soviet Pursuit of Radiological Weapons,” reveals a fascinating web of causes, including organizational and bureaucratic politics, international competition, economic and technological constraints, and even the powerful initiatives of well-placed individuals.

While the authors’ work examines the past, it speaks directly to the present and future trajectory of RW programs. If you are interested in military innovation, the history of weapons of mass destruction, the sociology of technology, and science fiction (yes, science fiction!), the exchange featured below is for you.

Morgan Kaplan: First things first, what are radiological weapons? Do any countries or non-state actors have them today?

Samuel Meyer, Sarah Bidgood, and William C. Potter: We define a radiological weapon as one intended to disperse radioactive material in the absence of a nuclear detonation. ……..

……….. May 1941 — the first reference to RW appeared in a U.S. government document: the Report of the Uranium Committee. The report identified three possible military aspects of atomic fission, the first of which was “production of violently radioactive materials … carried by airplanes to be scattered as bombs over enemy territory.” (The other two possible applications noted in the report were “a power source on submarines and other ships” and “violently explosive bombs.”) ………

Technological advances were among the major drivers of RW programs in both the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and RW were initially pursued in tandem with nuclear weapons and chemical weapons (CW) programs. The anticipated promise of RW as a weapons innovation, however, never materialized in either country due to a combination of factors, including technical difficulties in the production and maintenance of the weapons, diminution in the perceived military utility of RW relative to both CW and nuclear weapons, and low threat perceptions about adversary RW capabilities. ……..

the parallelism in many respects between the rise and demise of the U.S. and Soviet RW programs; and (5) the serious but ultimately unsuccessful effort by the United States and the Soviet Union to secure a draft convention at the Conference on Disarmament prohibiting radiological weapons.

MK: Are radiological weapons a thing of the past or do they remain an attractive option for some countries and non-state actors today?

The authors: We are encouraged that no country has either used RW in war or has incorporated them into a national military arsenal. We are concerned, however, that the Russian Federation, despite its own unsuccessful history with RW, has shown renewed interest in advanced nuclear weapons that seek to maximize radioactive contamination. We also worry that some countries may conclude that RW serve their perceived national interests, especially in the absence of international legal restraints. It therefore is important, we believe, to revive U.S.-Russian cooperation to ban radiological weapons and strengthen the norm against their use.


Morgan L. Kaplan is the Executive Editor of International Security and Series Editor of the Belfer Center Studies in International Security book series at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School. https://thereader.mitpress.mit.edu/death-dust-the-little-known-story-of-radiological-weapons/

January 2, 2021 - Posted by | history, radiation, Russia, USA, weapons and war

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