Death Dust
The Rise, Decline, and Future of Radiological Weapons Programs
William C. Potter, Sarah Bidgood, Samuel Meyer, and Hanna Notte


chapter abstract

Death Dust focuses on the largely unknown history of the development and demise of state-level radiological weapons (RWs)—sometimes portrayed as a "poor man's nuclear weapon." It does so by means of a comparative case study analysis of the pursuit of RWs in the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, Egypt, and Iraq. This introductory chapter outlines the methodology employed in this volume, the sources of which it makes use, and the research questions it asks and answers. It also previews the major findings the authors derive relating to the circumstances that might encourage additional states to pursue RWs and how the proliferation of such weapons would impact nuclear deterrence and the international nuclear nonproliferation regime.

1The United States
chapter abstract

This chapter traces the evolution of the U.S. radiological weapons program and the factors that drove or inhibited it at different phases. In so doing, it highlights the unusual parallelism in time and substance between the emergence of RWs in science fiction and U.S. governmental interest in this capability. It shows that, while scientific-technocratic advocates of RW were able to persuade key military-technical stakeholders to implement a U.S. RW program, they were unsuccessful in securing broader support for the new weapons technology across government. It also finds evidence that RW advocates neglected to exploit external threats to justify the adoption of these weapons in part because of faulty intelligence about the state of the Soviet RW program. These shortcomings resulted in the RW program losing out in the competition for financial resources to chemical and nuclear weapons.

2The Soviet Union
chapter abstract

This chapter examines the Soviet experience with radiological weapons. It finds that, unbeknownst to U.S. intelligence, the USSR's active pursuit of an RW capability lasted for approximately a decade beginning in 1947. Drawing extensively on Russian-language sources, it identifies perceived foreign threats—including information pointing to the U.S. pursuit of radiological weapons—as a prime motivator behind Soviet efforts in this area. Ultimately, however, the sunsetting of the U.S. RW program, the departure of key RW advocates, competition from chemical and nuclear weapons, bureaucratic barriers to weapons innovation within the Soviet military industrial complex, and, to a lesser extent, health and safety considerations all contributed to the gradual demise of the Soviet RW program—though not before prototype radiological weapons were tested.

3The United Kingdom
chapter abstract

In contrast with the United States and Soviet Union, there is little evidence the United Kingdom seriously contemplated the pursuit of a radiological weapon during World War II. Still, as this chapter finds, a small number of military officials and scientists in that country were aware of the potential military implications of RWs and did not rule out the possibility that Nazi Germany might use radioactive fission products for both offensive and defensive purposes. This chapter examines the modest British exploration of radiological weapons that resulted and the forces that both drove and constrained it over time. Although a few individual advocates did play an oversized role in promoting RW, even these promoters acknowledged the shortcomings of RW when compared to chemical weapons and nuclear weapons. By 1952, the UK's interest in these weapons had all but ended.

chapter abstract

This chapter examines Egypt's rudimentary and short-lived radiological weapons program. It demonstrates that although much of the evidence of these efforts remains circumstantial, resting to a large degree on Israeli claims and the testimony of Otto Joklik—an enigmatic, self-proclaimed arms merchant, former German army officer, and likely Israeli intelligence asset—there is no doubt that Gamal Abdel Nasser's Egypt sought to develop nonconventional weapons and means for their delivery. This chapter finds that the Egyptian RW program was almost entirely dependent on foreign assistance, was conceived of primarily for purposes of countering a regional adversary's military applications of nuclear energy, appears to have developed as a "special project" driven by an individual technological "entrepreneur," and was abandoned for reasons unrelated to progress in the pursuit of a nuclear weapon.

chapter abstract

The chapter analyzes the heretofore untold story of Iraq's efforts to develop and test RW. It probes the factors behind this quest, including its relationship to the Iran-Iraq war and perceived Iraqi military requirements, the role played by individual advocates in advancing it, the influence of bureaucratic-institutional factors—including the unusually welcoming environment for scientific entrepreneurs to pursue novel weapons programs—and the technical and political impediments that ultimately led to its demise. In so doing, it highlights important similarities and differences between the Iraqi program and the corresponding U.S., Soviet, British, and Egyptian programs. Its focus on a non-nuclear weapon state also is important for the lessons it offers to future would-be RW proliferators about the obstacles they are likely to confront should they embark on a RW program.

Conclusion: Patterns across Cases and Prospects for the Future
chapter abstract

The final chapter in this book highlights similarities and differences across the five state-level radiological weapons programs on which it focuses. By means of a comparative case study analysis, it points to more general explanations for the rise, evolution, and demise of weapons innovation involving RWs. It also explores what future circumstances might encourage additional states to pursue RWs, how the proliferation of such weapons would impact nuclear deterrence and the international nuclear nonproliferation regime, and practical steps that might usefully be taken by members of the international community to reduce the likelihood that there will be a resurgence of interest in and pursuit of radiological weapons. This discussion takes on special importance in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and the need to reexamine a number of prevailing assumptions about the utility of nuclear weapons and the operation of nuclear deterrence.