- "A radioactive cloud from a depleted uranium munitions explosion in Ukraine is heading for Europe," warn several posts from accounts sharing pro-Russian content.
- When contacted, the French Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN), which closely follows the Ukrainian conflict, told us that "there was no reason to make updates compared to the last notes", because no radioactive cloud was detected.
- The Commission for Independent Research and Information on Radioactivity (Criirad) concluded, in a note published on 24 May, that unsubstantiated information about a "radioactive cloud" was circulating on social networks.
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 for Europe," warned the Twitter account R7 Media on May 22, which presents itself as the new RT (Russia Today), the Russian channel that closed in January in France the day after the freezing of its bank accounts.
According to these claims, which have been circulating since May 19 on English or French social networks, an ammunition depot containing depleted uranium was hit by a Russian shell in the Khmelnytskyi region of 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 (see: photo of the article), the second is mentioned in the article of R7. The blast would have released a radioactive cloud heading towards Western Europe, according to Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev. A dispatch from the Russian state agency, Tass, reported this on 19 May. But, in Europe, no sensor has so far detected pollution of this type.
These munitions would have been supplied by the United Kingdom to Ukraine, which denounces the publications. Their explosion would be a "health and ecological scandal" that "threatens Europe" for R7. NATO would therefore be "directly responsible", indignant a user in a viral tweet.
The radioactive cloud would contain "mainly bismuth", an element that is "not very dangerous to human health according to European and Ukrainian authorities", says the article. "But is this really the case? continues R7, according to some [unspecified] sources bismuth and its salts can be dangerous for the kidneys or even fatal in high doses" and could also have adverse effects on fauna and flora.
The R7 publication states that measuring instruments recorded a sharp increase in bismuth level in Lublin, Poland, the day after the explosion.
Under the guise of information, these claims take up classic Russian disinformation techniques, mixing true and false information and highlighting the theme of the risk of nuclear escalation, a strategy that historian and propaganda specialist David Colon told us about last February.
When contacted, the French National Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety, which closely follows the Ukrainian conflict and publishes notes on nuclear risks such as the Zaporizhie nuclear power plant, told us that "there was no need to make updates compared to the latest notes", because no radioactive cloud was detected.
The Commission for Independent Research and Information on Radioactivity (Criirad) also conducted its research and concluded, in a note published on 24 May, that unsubstantiated information about a "radioactive cloud" was circulating on social networks. The sensors of the Criirad in France, in the Rhone Valley, have not revealed to date any anomaly, says the note, a more detailed analysis will soon be scheduled. Criirad also contacted the German Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BFS), which said it had not yet detected any trace of uranium isotopes that could have been released into 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 decays giving radium, which gives radon, which gives bismuth 214, but not depleted uranium. Depleted uranium has undergone a chemical treatment so that it is not associated with bismuth 214. »
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 radon that emanates naturally from the soil," says Bruno Chareyron. According to Marie Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin, which analyzed a station in Lublin, the peaks occurred during periods of precipitation and are due to the leaching of the descendants of radon-222, including bismuth 214.
No abnormalities detected around Khmelnytskyi
Finally, in Ukraine, radioactivity measurements around Khmelnytskyi are not abnormal, points out Criirad, which verified the data provided by monitoring sensors around the area considered. Shortly after explosions following shelling on the night of 12-13 May 2023 and on the morning of 13 May at a Ukrainian military base, the winds were directed westward and then northerly.
"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 southeast of the site," says 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 Defence has confirmed to us that the United Kingdom will provide depleted uranium munitions, as well as a squadron of Challenger 2 main battle tanks. "The British military has been using depleted uranium in its armor-piercing shells for decades," said a ministry spokesman, who declined to comment on claims about the Khmelnytskyi explosions. 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 munitions are a formidable weapon effective for piercing armor, but controversial because of the toxic risks for the military and populations. What are they? While depleted uranium is about 60% less radioactive than natural uranium, armour-piercing shells reaching their target produce uranium dust as well as metal fragments. The UK Ministry of Defence adds that independent research by the Royal Society has assessed that "the health and environmental impact of the use of depleted uranium munitions is likely to be low".
Chemical toxicity, the main risk
"The main risk is not radioactivity, but chemical toxicity," says the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. Ingestion or inhalation of large amounts can affect kidney function. If a person inhales large amounts of small particles for a long time, the main health concern will be the increased risk of lung cancer."
According to studies with which the International Atomic Energy Agency was associated, "the radiological risk to which people 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," says the UN 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," the United Nations concludes.
- War in Ukraine
- United Kingdom
- Fake Off