War in Ukraine: No, a radioactive cloud is not heading west

Relayed from accounts sharing pro-Russian content, the news seems alarming. And resurrects the ghost of the Chernobyl disaster. “A radioactive cloud from an explosion of depleted uranium munitions in Ukraine is heading towards Europe”, thus alerts the R7 Media Twitter account on May 22, which presents itself as the new RT (Russia Today), the Russian channel which closed in January in France the day after its bank accounts were frozen.

According to these claims, which have been circulating since May 19 on English and French-speaking social networks, an ammunition depot containing depleted uranium was hit by a Russian shell in the Khmelnytskyi region in western Ukraine. . This strike is not necessarily dated in the publications, but May 13 or 14 is mentioned. For the first, this date appears at the top left of a video showing an explosion (cf.: photo of the article), the second is mentioned in the article by R7. The explosion would have released a radioactive cloud which would move towards Western Europe, according to the secretary of the Russian Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev. A dispatch from the Russian state agency, Tass, reported on May 19. But, in Europe, no sensor has yet detected pollution of this type.

Screenshots of tweets relaying false information about a "radioactive cloud" which would head for Western Europe.
Screenshots of tweets relaying false information about a “radioactive cloud” heading towards Western Europe. – Screenshot/Twitter

This ammunition would have been supplied by the United Kingdom to Ukraine, which denounces the publications. Their explosion would be a “health and ecological scandal” which “threatens Europe” for R7. NATO would therefore be “directly responsible”, indignant a surfer in a viral tweet.

The radioactive cloud would contain “mainly bismuth”, an element which is “not very dangerous for human health according to the European and Ukrainian authorities”, says the article. “But is that really the case? continues R7, according to certain sources (not specified) bismuth and its salts can be dangerous for the kidneys or even fatal in high doses” and could also have harmful effects on the fauna and flora.

The publication of R7 specifies that measuring instruments recorded a sharp increase in the level of bismuth in Lublin, Poland the day after the explosion.

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Under the guise of information, these claims use classic Russian disinformation techniques, mixing true and false information and highlighting the theme of the risk of nuclear escalation, a strategy that the historian and propaganda specialist told us about. David Colon, last February.

Contacted, the French National Institute for Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety, which closely follows the Ukrainian conflict and publishes notes on nuclear risks such as at the Zaporijie nuclear power plant, told us “that there was no material to update on the latest notes”, as no radioactive cloud was detected.

The Commission for Independent Research and Information on Radioactivity (Criirad) also carried out its research and concluded, in a note published on May 24, that unsubstantiated information about a “radioactive cloud” was circulating on social networks. The Criirad sensors in France, in the Rhone Valley, have so far revealed no anomalies, the note indicates, a more detailed analysis will soon be scheduled. Criirad also contacted the German Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BFS), which indicated that it had not yet detected any trace of uranium isotopes which could have been released in Ukraine.

Bismuth 214 is not associated with depleted uranium

In Poland, in Lublin, as mentioned in some posts, an increase in the level of radioactivity was detected, linked to the presence in the air of bismuth 214, on May 15. But explains Bruno Chareyron, nuclear physics engineer and director of the Criirad laboratory, “the natural uranium in the earth’s crust disintegrates giving radium, which gives radon, which gives bismuth 214, but not uranium impoverished. The depleted uranium has been chemically treated so that it is not associated with bismuth-214.”

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The presence of bismuth 214 in Lublin cannot therefore be linked to the explosions in Ukraine. “There is very regularly, when it rains, a natural leaching of bismuth 214 produced by the radon which emanates naturally from the soil”, emphasizes Bruno Chareyron. According to Marie Curie-Skłodowska University from Lublin who analyzed a station located in this city, the peaks occurred during periods of precipitation and were due to the leaching of the descendants of radon 222, including bismuth 214.

No abnormality detected around Khmelnytskyi

In Ukraine, the radioactivity measurements around Khmelnytskyi are not abnormal, points out the Criirad, which checked the data provided by the monitoring sensors around the area in question. Shortly after explosions following bombardments on the night of May 12 to 13, 2023 and on the morning of May 13 at a Ukrainian military base, the winds were oriented in a westerly and then northerly direction.

“No really significant increase was recorded by the 8 sensors located within a radius of 50 kilometers around the area, except for a sensor located 12 kilometers south-east of the site”, underlines the Criirad. But this increase began on May 11 and was not located under the prevailing winds, notes the association. It is linked to a change in the type of dosimeter that day, according to the Ukrainian hydrometeorological service, contacted by Criirad.

“Russia is deliberately trying to misinform”

Finally, the British Ministry of Defense confirmed to us that the United Kingdom will provide depleted uranium munitions, as well as a squadron of Challenger 2 main battle tanks. for decades, said a ministry spokesman, who declined to comment on claims about the explosions in Khmelnytskyi. It is a standard component and has nothing to do with nuclear weapons or capabilities. Russia knows this, but is deliberately trying to misinform. »

These ammunition are a formidable weapon for piercing armor, but controversial because of the toxic risks for soldiers and populations. What are they ? While depleted uranium is about 60% less radioactive than natural uranium, armour-piercing shells hitting their target produce uranium dust as well as metal fragments. The UK Ministry of Defense adds that independent research carried out by the Royal Society has assessed that “the health and environmental impact of the use of DU munitions is likely to be low”.

Chemical toxicity, the main risk

“The main risk is not radioactivity, but rather chemical toxicity, stresses however the canadian nuclear safety commission. Ingestion or inhalation of large amounts may affect kidney function. If a person inhales large amounts of small particles over a long period of time, the main health concern will be an increased risk of lung cancer”.

According to studies with which the International Atomic Energy Agency has been associated, “the radiological risk to which populations and the environment were exposed was not significant in cases where the presence of depleted uranium had caused localized contamination of the environment in the form of small particles released at the time of impact”, emphasizes the United Nations office for disarmament affairs. On the other hand, “when fragments of depleted uranium munitions or complete munitions of this type are discovered, people who come into direct contact with these objects could suffer the effects of radiation”, concludes the United Nations.

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