Analysis & Opinions - European Leadership Network

It’s Time to Prohibit Radiological Weapons

  • Sarah Bidgood
  • Samuel Meyer
  • William C. Potter
| Feb. 01, 2021

Radiological weapons (RW) are devices that are intended to disperse radioactive material in the absence of a nuclear detonation. The concept is an old one and first appeared at almost the same time in both the May 1941 science fiction story “Unsatisfactory Solution” by Robert Heinlein and in the Report of the Uranium Committee to the president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Both the story and the government report envisaged the use of radioactive dust carried by airplanes to be scattered over enemy territory. In the story, production of RW was depicted as a possible means by which the threat of its use could put an end to war. In the government report, RW were regarded as the first of three possible military aspects of atomic fission, the other two being a power source for submarines and “violently explosive bombs.”

Today, the origins of the concept of RW have largely been forgotten.  Indeed, since 9/11, radiological weapons have been associated mainly with non-state actors, who may not have the means or motivations to acquire and use far more lethal nuclear explosives.  A fixation on the very real dangers posed by nuclear terrorism, however, should not obscure the risks that states also may again pursue radiological weapons.

As the authors have documented in a recent article in International Security, the United States and the Soviet Union both developed and tested RW extensively in parallel with their post-World War II nuclear weapons and chemical weapons programs. Although both countries decided to discontinue work on radiological weapons by the late 1950s, that outcome was by no means preordained and was the result of a combination of technical, economic, bureaucratic-political, and military considerations, including often faulty intelligence about the adversary’s RW capabilities.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

Sarah Bidgood, Sam Meyer, and William Potter, "It’s Time to Prohibit Radiological Weapons," European Leadership Network, February 1, 2021.

The Authors