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



I will show you fear in a handful of dust.


At best, a fine line separates good science and good science fiction. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the realm of military innovation and novel weapons systems. Who is to say, for example, which is more fanciful or imaginary: a city dusted with synthetic “death sand” particles or a gigantic, nuclear-propelled torpedo packed with radioactive waste?

More than seventy years separates the first “science fiction” account of radioactive death dust attributable to Robert Heinlein and his publisher, John W. Campbell, in 19411 and the contemporary “doomsday” weapon depicted on slides held by Russian defense officials meeting with President Vladimir Putin.2 The concept for the latter weapon, some Russian sources maintain, resembles the idea of a giant, nuclear-powered torpedo outlined a half century earlier by Soviet nuclear weapons designer and subsequent human rights and disarmament activist Andrei Sakharov.3

And yet, the concept of radiological weapons (RWs) was introduced to avid science fiction readers at practically the same time that President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s science advisors were secretly debating the merits of these novel weapons. Subsequently, defense figures in other countries also became attracted to the idea of easy-to-manufacture but devastatingly lethal radiological munitions whose use would not discriminate between civilian and military targets.4 Some viewed their development as horrific but inevitable; others regarded the weapons as necessary, at least until they could be replaced by even more powerful nuclear arms that relied on the effects of heat and pressure rather than radiation to do the killing.

The RWs imagined by Heinlein and Campbell were pursued in earnest by the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as several other states. During the Second World War, senior U.S. and British military figures feared that Nazi Germany was intent upon their development, and they took precautions against their employment during the planning of the invasion of Normandy. As early as 1940, the United Kingdom itself had begun to explore RWs. Following the conclusion of hostilities with Germany, it continued a program of research on RWs known only to a handful of British defense officials and scientists—including two Soviet spies: Klaus Fuchs and Alan Nunn May.

Although still shrouded in secrecy and largely ignored by both scholars and diplomats, the efforts to develop radiological weapons by these three World War II allies—all of whom had tested nuclear weapons by 1952—were not isolated events. The UN Special Commission on Iraq discovered that Saddam Hussein’s regime developed and tested three prototype RW devices in the mid-1980s. There also is circumstantial evidence that Egypt sought to procure the materials for an RW capability in the early 1960s in tandem with its efforts to develop a ballistic missile program. It would be surprising, moreover, if other past and present would-be nuclear weapons aspirants did not seriously contemplate and possibly invest in the pursuit of what may have been perceived to be a “poor man’s nuclear weapon.” Israel, for example, conducted civil defense exercises in 2011, motivated by the fear of possible Iranian possession and use of RWs, and was viewed by President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt as seeking such a capability in the early 1960s.5 Others have suggested that North Korea also may have entertained the idea of RWs for the purpose of impeding U.S. and South Korean military operations.6 More recently, both shortly before and following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Kremlin’s propagandists produced a flurry of unsubstantiated and intentionally misleading allegations that Ukraine was pursuing an RW program centered on the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.7

Notwithstanding the substantial, if often overlooked, historical record of RW research, development, and, for at least three states, actual testing of radiological weapons, there is no evidence that any country has ever deployed RWs in an operational mode. In fact, since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, most expert commentary on radiological weapons has focused almost exclusively on non-state actors, who are assumed to covet radioactive dispersal devices or “dirty bombs” for the purpose of inflicting nuclear punishment on the cheap. Yet, despite the widespread availability of radiological sources and the relative ease of matching a conventional explosive to a radioactive payload, no terrorist has successfully caried out a dirty-bomb attack.8

This paradox raises many unanswered questions. Should one conclude from this history that RWs are a thing of the past, more suitable to pulp fiction than serious military procurement or doctrine? Or has an emphasis on non-state actors obscured the continuing possibility that states may pursue RWs, perhaps in addition to or in lieu of nuclear weapons? Why did so many states express interest in RWs, sometimes invest significant resources in their development and testing, but in all instances ultimately choose not to deploy them? Why is so little known known about these multiple false starts, especially outside the United States? Can one draw more general conclusions about the primary drivers and disincentives to acquire radiological weapons? Does renewed Russian interest in a “super torpedo” with an especially toxic radioactive payload represent an outlier in this respect, or does it herald a possible revival of military interest in more efficient and technologically sophisticated radiological weapons? Is there a norm or taboo against their use comparable to those regarding nuclear or biological weapons? Are there military objectives that could usefully be served by RWs, or are the weapons fundamentally inefficient, easily countered, and dependent on too large an investment to justify their existence? Under what circumstances in the future might more states express interest in and/or introduce RWs into their military arsenals, and if the weapons were to proliferate, what would be the implications for nuclear deterrence policy? Finally, what means—including arms control—exist to mitigate the dangers associated with the production, deployment, and use of radiological weapons?


This book addresses these and other questions by employing a comparative analysis of the previously underexplored cases of state-level RW programs in the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and Iraq, as well as the more ambiguous case of Egypt. We draw upon newly available archival material, interview data, and other primary sources to illuminate the drivers of and impediments to weapons innovation in this specific nuclear sector. Although the study is not principally devoted to theory building, it is informed by relevant theoretical and conceptual approaches in the fields of international relations and public policy, and it benefits especially from the literature on organizational change and weapons innovation—a literature to which the authors have previously contributed.9 Its focused comparative analysis of RW developments across multiple countries, paired with an examination of the relationship between the rise and demise of RW programs and the fate of parallel chemical and/or nuclear weapons programs in the United States, Soviet Union, United Kingdom, Egypt, and Iraq, also enhances the generalizability of its findings—an important but often overlooked dimension of theory construction.

Although eclectic, our approach most closely resembles the method of structured focused comparison pioneered by Alexander George. Its intent is to hone and refine existing theories and conceptual frameworks by assessing their ability to explain the impact of different variables on policy behavior across multiple cases. By asking the same set of specific questions across several cases, one increases the generalizability of findings and the cumulation of knowledge.

Our research design also is informed by the conceptual framework proposed by Matthew Evangelista in his comparative analysis of U.S. and Soviet development of new military technologies, a framework that several of the authors have employed (in a modified form) productively in their own research on Soviet and Russian military innovation.10 According to Evangelista, one can identify five different stages in the process of weapons innovation peculiar to each country. In the United States, these stages are “technocratic initiative,” “consensus building,” “promotion,” “open window,” and “high-level endorsement.” Their counterparts in the Soviet Union are “stifled initiative,” “preparatory measures,” “high-level response,” “mobilization,” and “mass production.”11 Although this framework was conceived for the purpose of comparing and contrasting military innovation in the two Cold War rivals, it also provides a lens through which to examine alternative drivers of and impediments to the innovation process in other countries.

For example, drawing on Evangelista’s hypotheses for the present study raises the following questions: Did the impetus for the pursuit of new weapons systems by the United Kingdom, Iraq, and Egypt more closely resemble the U.S. pattern in which a push for new weapons technology arises from below (i.e., from scientists and the military officials with whom they interact) or the Soviet model in which directives typically come from above in response to technological developments abroad? Similarly, did internal factors involving bureaucratic consensus building and policy advocacy in these states usually precede a formal decision for advanced research and development or production, as is often the case in the United States, or did they more closely resemble the post-adoption mobilization/implementation phase characteristic of the Soviet weapons innovation process? Finally, for purposes of illustration, to what extent and at what stage of the RW innovation cycle in different countries do perceptions of external threat become salient? Do they more closely resemble the case of the United States where the perception of an external RW threat was largely irrelevant to the innovation process or the case of the Soviet Union in which concerns about U.S. interest in RWs precipitated research and development in this area? Or is it the case that the pursuit of RWs in the United Kingdom, Egypt, and Iraq was shaped by factors different from those Evangelista considers in his analysis of U.S. and Soviet military innovation? In short, while it is not our intent to apply Evangelista’s framework explicitly in our analysis, his concepts and generalizations provide a useful point of departure for identifying potential drivers and inhibitors behind different national actors’ decisions to embark on, develop, and subsequently abandon their respective RW programs.

Given our frequent use of the term innovation, it is important to define the concept and to distinguish it from two other terms often used in discussions about the adoption of new weapons systems: invention and diffusion. Although there is no standard definition of these terms, even within a military context, we treat invention as the process by which a new idea or concept is created, innovation as the process by which an invention is translated into a tangible product and adopted by an organization, and diffusion as the process by which an idea or product spreads to or is emulated by another organization. Invention thus precedes innovation, but diffusion does not presuppose adoption of the new idea for a weapon system. This distinction is important in understanding the rise and abandonment of RWs in the cases under review, as RWs as a concept appear to have diffused from the United States to the Soviet Union (and to other countries), although the innovation never really took hold in either country’s military in the form of mass production and deployment.

Another important definitional question is what constitutes a radiological weapon. During the early years of the nuclear age, RWs were often considered a subset of nuclear weapons, but they were never precisely defined. For example, in 1948, the United Nations described “radioactive material weapons” alongside “atomic explosive weapons” and “lethal chemical and biological weapons” as types of weapons of mass destruction, but without elaboration. Thirty years later, ambiguity associated with the term contributed to the difficulty in gaining international support for the draft U.S.-Soviet convention on the prohibition of radiological weapons.12

The authors of this volume define a radiological weapon as one designed to disperse radioactive material in the absence of a nuclear detonation. This standard definition encompasses a variety of weapons, which state actors have contemplated, pursued, or in several instances tested, including those intended to produce mass casualties and others designed for area denial and sabotage missions. Although we focus on state-level RW programs, the definition is consistent with devices and techniques usually associated with non-state actors, including radiological dispersal and emission devices,13 often misleadingly referred to as “dirty bombs.” In all instances, the weapons make use of fission products or irradiated isotopes.

The one instance in which we depart from the standard definition of RWs is in our discussion of some nuclear bomb designs intended primarily to create added radioactive fallout. These include “salted bombs,” which enhance the normal nuclear weapon fallout by surrounding the core of the nuclear device with neutron-absorbing metal.14 They should not be confused with enhanced radiation weapons such as “neutron bombs,” which rely on bursts of high energy neutrons rather than radioactive fallout to achieve their lethal effects.15

An additional methodological issue that may be obvious but still should be highlighted involves the primary level of analysis in our research—that is the nation state. Although we will have reason to look below this level at individuals and organizations involved in the formulation and implementation of policy related to radiological weapons, we consciously have chosen to avoid an analysis of non-state-actor pursuit of radiological dispersal devices (RDDs). That facet of nuclear terrorism is an important subject but one that has received much attention by scholars and experts in governments and international organizations since September 11, 2001.16 In contrast, there is a dearth of research on state-level RW programs, which differ significantly from those involving non-state actors with respect to motivations for acquisition and use, technical requisites for production, storage, and delivery, the intended target set, and the magnitude of potential loss of human life. For example, although a non-state actor would have little prospect of employing an RDD to kill large numbers of individuals, it might perceive the device as an effective means to instill mass panic among a civilian target population, assuming that were an objective of the terrorist organization. For that purpose, one would not need a sophisticated dispersal device or a large amount of highly radioactive material. Smaller radioactive sources that are widely used commercially in medicine, industry, agriculture, and scientific research could suffice.17 In contrast, state actors, who are interested in RWs for military missions such as area denial, will require much more difficult-to-produce radionuclides with very specific characteristics.18 In other words, while the basic principles of radiological dispersal may be similar for would-be state and non-state actors, the motivations, costs, benefits, and alternative means available to inflict damage are very different. As such, a finding that no national actors to date have elected to deploy RWs, while encouraging, is neither a guarantee that this condition will persist indefinitely nor reason to believe that the factors responsible for state abstinence will have much bearing on the behavior of non-state actors.

A final methodological consideration concerns sources. In the U.S. case study, we relied heavily on unclassified and declassified government documents. An especially valuable resource was the final report of the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments, released by President Bill Clinton in October 1995 under Executive Order 12958. Other important primary-source materials included correspondence and analyses by early U.S. RW enthusiasts. Much of this material was obtained during visits to the U.S. National Archives in College Park, Maryland, the Library of Congress, the University of California Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, and the New York Public Library.

We faced greater challenges in securing comparable information about the Soviet, British, Iraqi, and Egyptian radiological weapons programs, given the relative paucity of accessible primary-source material. We were able to compensate in part for this deficit in the Soviet case by distilling a great deal of relevant information on the program’s origins and structure from declassified Russian-language documents on the “USSR Atomic History” section of Rosatom’s digital library website. We also benefited from the investigative reports on the Soviet RW program published in Russian by the Bellona Foundation, as well as retrospectives written by Soviet participants in the testing of radiological weapons.

Much of our analysis of the British case is informed by a close reading of declassified documents from the UK National Archives in London, access to which was restricted without explanation in 2018 before being restored just as mysteriously in 2020. These documents were supplemented by newspaper accounts, secondary historical accounts of the British nuclear and other nonconventional weapons programs, and an important recent scholarly publication in the journal War in History.19

One might have expected it to have been easier to investigate the Iraqi RW program given the extraordinary investigations into Iraq nonconventional programs conducted by the UN Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM). While we made use of various UNSCOM reports and declassified U.S. intelligence documents, there is surprisingly little material available directly related to Saddam Hussein’s RW efforts. Also, regrettably, some of the UNSCOM and International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors with whom we spoke, including very senior officials, either were unfamiliar with the specifics of the RW program or had poor recollections about Iraq’s work in that domain. These factors may explain in part why prior scholarly accounts of Iraqi nuclear activities largely gloss over the RW program.

If well-documented information generally is difficult to come by regarding four indisputable state RW programs, the facts surrounding the Egyptian case are exceptionally hard to distill. In an effort to unravel the many intertwined strands of the story, some of which appear to have been intentionally woven in order to disguise the true nature of the fabric, we have relied on Austrian, German, and Swiss court documents, declassified U.S. intelligence reports, publicly available Israeli government accounts, contemporaneous media accounts, and biographies of some of the relevant actors. While some pertinent facts remain obscure, we have compiled the most comprehensive accounting of Egyptian RW efforts to date.

Prior Scholarship on the Sources of Military Innovation20

A major impetus for this book was the paucity of scholarship on, or even descriptive accounts of, prior state actions to pursue RW programs. These efforts ranged from informal consideration of the concept to R & D efforts, to production and testing of the weapons. Although there is no evidence that radiological weapons were ever deployed as operational systems in any country’s military arsenal, knowledge to that effect was, as best we can discern, rarely the subject of examination by either government analysts or scholars. It is not surprising, therefore, that prior to the authors’ research, no comparative study was undertaken of the dynamics of weapons innovation related to RWs.

More difficult to explain is the paucity of comparative research on the broader topic of military innovation, especially that involving the weapons systems of the relatively small number of nuclear weapons possessors. While perceived limitations of data access may account in part for this research deficit, it also probably results from the preponderance of work on the subject by U.S. scholars, who naturally display a U.S.-Eurocentric bias in terms of case selection.

Despite overall limitations in the scope and variety of scholarship on military innovation, one can identify a robust literature drawn primarily from U.S. cases. Explanations for the origins, adoption, and retention or termination of different types of weapons can be grouped into at least five categories: international security imperatives, bureaucratic political determinants, scientific and technological breakthroughs, economic resources and organizational capacity, and status and prestige.21 Insights from these categories of explanations relevant to the subject of radiological weapons are summarized below. Their relative explanatory power for specific instances of RW innovation, as well as their more general applicability across different country cases, are examined in subsequent chapters.

International Security Imperatives

Historically, the dominant explanation for military innovation has focused on the international security environment and is heavily influenced by neorealist assumptions. Perceived threats from adversaries, a need to engage in balancing behavior, and the operation of action-reaction dynamics are among the presumed drivers of decisions to acquire new weapons systems, which may have military rationales as varied as deterrence, compellence, or actual warfighting needs. A common element among most studies emphasizing external security considerations is the insight that contending states will emulate one another’s innovations in what often appears to be an action-reaction process. As Stephen Rosen puts it, “innovations in one nation will trigger matching or responsive innovations in another.”22 An important subsidiary thesis governing the military innovation diffusion process noted by Rosen is that “the link between the activities in the competing nations is the network of military technical intelligence.”23

Bureaucratic Political Determinants

Many security-oriented explanations of foreign policy decisions in general and weapons procurement outcomes in particular are vulnerable to criticism about their neglect of internal factors. In response to this perceived shortcoming, a rich literature on domestic sources of foreign policy—and weapons acquisition—developed, drawing heavily on organizational theory and public policy analysis. Especially influential was the early work on bureaucratic politics and organizational processes by Morton Halperin and Graham Allison.24 They demonstrated convincingly that policy outcomes often are suboptimal from the standpoint of the government as a whole and cannot be explained adequately without reference to the individual and organizational actors involved in what is fundamentally an intranational political bargaining process. In other words, while technological breakthroughs and perceptions of external threat may influence an organization’s interest in considering new weapons systems, the most important factors determining military innovation (or the lack thereof) are the personal and organizational interests, frames of reference, and influence of the key players involved in the decision-making process, including the often-overlooked implementation phase.25

Scientific and Technological Breakthroughs

Another explanation for military innovation (and arms racing), which usually emphasizes domestic considerations, focuses on science, scientists, and technology as catalysts for the development of new weapons. Although far from uniform in perspective, this school of thought often highlights supply-side, “technology push” factors.26 According to one prominent proponent of this category of explanation, “Ideas for a new weapon system derived in the first place, not from the military, but from different groups of scientists and technologists who are concerned to replace or improve old weapon systems.”27 One can regard such scientists as change agents or “technological entrepreneurs” committed to promoting new weapons technologies in the face of both indifference and bureaucratic resistance to change.28 One of the most important insights derived from this school of thought is the key roles scientists play in giving rise to new ideas for weapons systems and advocating for their development and adoption.29

Economic Resources and Organizational Capacity

A number of studies of weapons innovation emphasize the impact of economic factors. These explanations range from the financial resources at the disposal of the organization to the nature of the state’s economic system, to the role attributed to the military-industrial complex and defense contractors.30 They also may focus on less tangible organizational resources such as the capacity of a military organization to change, a capacity that may be influenced by economic factors but also may reflect the size, age, and culture of an organization.31 According to one of the most well-developed theories emphasizing both economic and other organizational resources, military innovators must possess both the financial capital to acquire new technology and the internal capacity to adopt the innovation, which may involve major changes in operating behavior.32

Status and Prestige

A subset of scholarship on weapons proliferation, arms racing, and military innovation highlights the importance of international status and prestige as a motivating factor for weapons acquisition, especially for emerging powers.33 This literature suggests that states may covet certain military capabilities not so much to counter specific threats as to gain status, which can “increase autonomy and influence, while also helping a nation feel more secure in its environs.”34 Yet, considerations of status have been found to vary in importance, depending on the type of weapon. For example, Brad Roberts observes that they drove the acquisition of conventional weapons by newly decolonized nations in the early 1960s but failed to account for states’ pursuit of chemical or biological weapons.35 In addition, a number of studies indicate that nuclear weapons may be seen by some developing states as symbols of scientific knowhow and modernization and as a way to command the attention of and assistance from industrialized nations.36 By the same token, other studies have found that would-be great powers may regard nuclear weapons as a prerequisite for that status.37 Similarly, there is evidence that ballistic missile acquisition has been motivated by a desire to gain prestige—for instance, among states in the Middle East.38

Despite the large number and diverse nature of studies undertaken to probe the emergence of and resistance to new weapons, the field still lacks a robust theory of weapons innovation that has broad explanatory and predictive power. Even the most sophisticated theoretical approaches, such as Michael Horowitz’s “adoption-capacity” theory, leave some variables underspecified, require more information about organizational capacity than is often available, and are better equipped to explain the interstate diffusion process than the original decision to adopt a new weapon system. Indeed, although there has been a proliferation of excellent case studies of weapons innovation decisions over the past half century, explanations for the origins and outcomes of weapons decisions often are not cumulative and frequently are contradictory.

These same theoretical limitations are apparent with respect to innovation regarding radiological weapons, and no single theory or conceptual framework adequately explains the rise and demise of radiological weapons programs in the five countries we have examined. Collectively, however, they provide numerous insights into the dynamics of policymaking involving what once was regarded as a promising new military technology. Application of the method of structured, focused comparison to the cases of the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, Egypt, and Iraq also enables us to tease out the similarities and differences in their life spans.

A Preview

In addition to this introduction, the book consists of five case studies of national RW programs and a forward-looking conclusion. Chapter 1 examines the U.S. experience with radiological weapons. It depicts the unusual parallelism in time and substance between the emergence of RWs in science fiction and U.S. popular culture more generally and the appearance of U.S. governmental interest in RWs. This chapter then follows the evolution of the U.S. RW program during and after the Second World War and analyzes the factors driving the program at different phases of its development. Although scientific-technocratic advocates of RWs were able to persuade key military-technical stakeholders to implement a U.S. RW program, including an active testing phase, they were unsuccessful in securing broader support for the new weapons technology among the military services, Congress, and the executive branch. They also neglected to exploit external threats to justify the new weapon’s adoption or to secure high-level endorsement for the novel RW technology, outcomes that were influenced in part by faulty U.S. intelligence about the state of the Soviet RW program. These shortcomings, compounded by technical deficiencies in the production process and the lack of a compelling military mission, resulted in the RW program losing out in the competition for financial resources with the more established chemical weapons program and the rapidly expanding U.S. nuclear-weapons complex.

The book’s second case study, chapter 2, examines the Soviet RW experience. Unbeknownst to U.S. intelligence, the Soviet Union actively pursued radiological weapons for approximately a decade beginning in 1947. Drawing extensively on Russian-language sources, we chronicle the underexplored origins and evolution of the Soviet RW program, a novel weapons program that in many ways resembled its U.S. counterpart. As was the case in the United States, it appears that Soviet interest in the possible military applications of radioactive material also can be traced to the early 1940s. Although the contours of the U.S. and Soviet programs did not follow identical paths, both eventually suffered similar fates. Changes in perceived threats, 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, but not before the Soviet Union had tested prototype radiological weapons. Although we cannot point to a Soviet science fiction counterpart to Robert Heinlein’s “Solution Unsatisfactory,” at least some members of the Soviet RW testing program were consultants to the 1953 science fiction film Serebristaya pil’ (Silver dust), a heavy-handed depiction of alleged U.S. efforts to develop radiological air bombs containing a silver-gray radioactive dust that was tested on innocent civilians.

The United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom were the first three states to develop and successfully test nuclear weapons. Perhaps not surprisingly, they also were the first three countries actively to pursue radiological weapons. As such, the third case study in our book, chapter 3, is an analysis of the largely unknown history of the United Kingdom’s RW program.39 Although there is little evidence the United Kingdom seriously contemplated the pursuit of a radiological weapon during World War II, a small number of British military officials and scientists 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. Interestingly, one of the British scientists involved in reviewing a U.S. report about possible German work on radiological weapons was the Soviet spy Alan Nunn May, who reportedly communicated this information to Soviet intelligence. The more famous Soviet atomic spy, Klaus Fuchs, also was privy to British thinking about RWs in the post–World War II period prior to his arrest in February 1950, but it is unclear how much importance he attached to this military innovation or if he passed along any intelligence related to RWs to his Soviet handlers.

As in the cases of the United States and the Soviet Union, a few individuals in the United Kingdom played oversized roles in advocating for RWs. Eventually, however, they all acknowledged the shortcomings of RWs when compared to chemical weapons, not to mention nuclear weapons, which the United Kingdom first tested in Western Australia in October 1952. Although there is documentary evidence of discussions within the Atomic Energy Research Establishment about the merits of RWs beyond this date, for all practical purposes, the advent of British nuclear weapons marked the end of the United Kingdom’s interest in radiological weapons.

By the end of the 1950s, the large-scale radiological weapons programs of the United States and the Soviet Union had run their course, as had the more modest exploration by the United Kingdom. If any other threshold nuclear state pursued RWs during this period, evidence has not yet come to light. However, at the beginning of the 1960s, interest in RWs emerged in a new region, the Middle East. Chapter 4 examines the rudimentary and short-lived RW program of Egypt (known as the United Arab Republic from 1958 to 1971). It attempts to untangle the complex web of Israeli allegations, U.S intelligence assessments, and Austrian, German, and Swiss police and court records regarding Egyptian efforts to acquire radiological sources from abroad. While much of the evidence regarding an Egyptian RW program remains circumstantial and rests to a large degree on Israeli claims and the testimony of Otto Joklik—an enigmatic, self-proclaimed arms merchant, former military officer in the German army, 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. For that purpose, Egypt recruited a large cadre of expatriate German scientists, engineers, and military personnel. According to depositions and documents collected by Swiss investigators outlining Joklik’s work in Egypt and reviewed by the authors of this book, he had been involved in two Egyptian weapons projects, one of which—Project Ibis—was intended to produce radiological artillery shells. Although U.S. intelligence was skeptical of both Israeli claims of the Egyptian threat and Joklik’s testimony, suspicions about Egyptian intentions lingered and made the headlines in November 1963. In an interview with C. L. Sulzberger of the New York Times, former Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion voiced concern that Egypt, with India’s assistance, was seeking to develop warheads for its rockets.40 Although the interview published in the Times does not specify the kind of warhead being pursued, Sulzberger subsequently reported that Ben-Gurion had in mind a missile equipped with “nuclear garbage.”41 What is perhaps most interesting about the inchoate Egyptian RW program—and what sets it apart from those of other states—is that it was almost entirely dependent on foreign assistance, was conceived of primarily for purposes of countering a regional adversary’s military applications of nuclear energy, appeared 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.

While the Egyptian RW program was short-lived, made limited headway, and might be mistaken for a convoluted spy movie, Saddam Hussein’s pursuit of radiological weapons was very real indeed. The book’s last case study, in chapter 5, analyzes the heretofore untold story of Iraq’s efforts to develop and test RWs before abandoning the program. It probes the factors behind Iraq’s quest for RWs, the relationship of the program to the Iran-Iraq war and perceived Iraqi military requirements, the role played by individual advocates (especially Hussein Kamel, Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law and head of Iraq’s Military Industrialization Corporation), 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 the demise of the program. The chapter highlights important similarities and differences between the Iraqi program and the corresponding U.S., Soviet, British, and Egyptian programs. The 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 an RW program. Finally, the study of the advanced but ultimately aborted Iraqi effort to acquire a novel weapon system addresses the question of why the Iraqi endeavor has largely been ignored or, at best, treated as a footnote, whether in declassified intelligence reports, the memoirs of scientists involved in Iraq’s nuclear weapons program, or the scholarly accounts of Saddam Hussein’s quest for WMD.

Having described and analyzed all known prior cases of state-level radiological weapons programs, the book, in its conclusion, highlights similarities and differences across the programs with an eye to identifying 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 and the how the proliferation of such weapons would impact nuclear deterrence and the international nuclear nonproliferation regime. This discussion takes on special importance in the aftermath 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 in a radically different international security environment. The chapter concludes with a discussion of 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.


1. See Anson MacDonald, “Solution Unsatisfactory,” Astounding Science Fiction, 27, No. 3 (May 1941): 56–86. The story by Robert A. Heinlein was published under the pseudonym “Anson MacDonald.”

2. For a discussion of the Russian weapon, see Jill Hruby, Russia’s New Nuclear Weapons Delivery Systems: An Open Source Technical Review (Washington, DC: Nuclear Threat Initiative, 2019), 30–32, See also Steve Weintz, “Why Russia’s Status-6 Torpedo Is Really a 100-Megaton Cruise Missile,” National Interest, July 7, 2018; and Hanna Notte, Sarah Bidgood, Nikolai Sokov, Michael Duitsman, and William Potter, “Russia’s Novel Weapons Systems: Military Innovation in the Post-Soviet Period,” The Nonproliferation Review, 28, No. 1–3 (2021): 61–93,

3. The accusation about Sakharov, for which little evidence is presented, is made by Evgeny Krutitkov, “Sverhsekretnyj proekt ‘Status-6’ napominayut ideyu akademika Sakharova” [Top-secret project “Status-6” recalls an idea of Academician Sakharov], Vzglyad, November 12, 2015,; and is repeated by many Russian commentators. Alex Wellerstein also refers to the connection in “An Untold Story of the World’s Biggest Nuclear Bomb,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, October 29, 2021,

4. Indeed, in some cases, civilians were envisaged as the primary target. We are grateful to William King for highlighting this point.

5. See Owen Sirrs, Nasser and the Missile Age in the Middle East (London: Routledge, 2006), 112.

6. For a discussion of the possibility that North Korea considered RW before obtaining a more robust nuclear weapons capability, see Potter and Lewis, “Cheap and Dirty Bombs.”

7. See Matthew Goldenberg and William C. Potter, “Russian Misinformation about Ukrainian Radiological Weapons Capabilities and Intentions,” CNS Research Note, March 10, 2022,

8. For an extended analysis of the terrorist risks posed by radiological dispersal devices, see Charles D. Ferguson and William C. Potter, The Four Faces of Nuclear Terrorism (New York: Routledge, 2005), 259–317.

9. Meyer, Bidgood, and Potter, “Death Dust: The Little-Known Story of U.S. and Soviet Pursuit of Radiological Weapons.”

10. Notte et al., “Russia’s Novel Weapons Systems.”

11. Matthew Evangelista, Innovation and the Arms Race: How the United States and the Soviet Union Develop New Military Technology (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988), 52.

12. Lesley Kucharski, Sarah Bidgood, and Paul Warnke, “Negotiating the Draft Radiological Weapons Convention,” in Once and Future Partners: The United States, Russia and Nuclear Non-Proliferation, ed. William C. Potter and Sarah Bidgood (London: IISS, 2018), 187–216.

13. A radiation emission device would not require a conventional explosive to disperse radiation and might consist simply of a radioactive source placed near a target, such as a heavily traversed area.

14. See James Arnold, “The Hydrogen-Cobalt Bomb,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 6, No. 10 (1950), republished online on September 15, 2015, The article is based on a February 1950 Chicago Round Table presentation by Dr. Leo Szilard.

15. The idea for a neutron bomb usually is attributed to Samuel Cohen, who developed the concept in 1958. See Thomas H. Maugh II, “Samuel T. Cohen Dies at 89; Inventor of the Neutron Bomb,” Los Angeles Times, December 2, 2010,

16. See, for example, G. M. Moore, “Radiological Weapons: How Great Is the Danger?” UCRL-ID-1544879 (Livermore, CA: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, June 1, 2003); Graham Allison, Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe (New York: Henry Holt, 2004); and Ferguson and Potter, The Four Faces of Nuclear Terrorism. For more recent analyses, see Ioanna Iliopulos and Christopher Boyd, “Preventing a Dirty Bomb: Case Studies and Lessons Learned” (Washington, DC: Nuclear Threat Initiative, 2019); and BreAnne K. Fleer, “Radiological-Weapons Threats: Case Studies from the Extreme Right,” The Nonproliferation Review, 27, No. 1–2 (June 2020): 1–18.

17. Radioactive sources around the world are estimated to number in the millions. There is little information however, about the number of “orphaned sources”—those no longer subject to institutional or national control because they have been lost, abandoned, or stolen. Fortunately, although many orphaned sources pose a significant health and safety hazard for individuals who may be exposed to them inadvertently, relatively few lend themselves to use as terrorist weapons. In a 2003 study, the Center for Nonproliferation Studies identified the following seven reactor-produced radioisotopes as posing the greatest security risks: californium-252, cobalt-60, cesium-137, iridium-192, strontium-90, americium-241, and plutonium-238. While these same radioisotopes have been available to some state-level RW programs in the past and remain a potential source of material for a contemporary state-level RW program, as the case studies in this book indicate, their characteristics did not lend themselves to the military missions envisaged by past RW aspirants. See “Inadequate Control of World’s Radioactive Sources,” International Atomic Energy Agency press release, June 24, 2002,; and Charles D. Ferguson, Tahseen Kazi, and Judith Perera, “Commercial Radioactive Sources: Surveying the Security Risks,” Occasional Paper No. 11 (Monterey, CA: Center for Nonproliferation Studies, January 2003), especially 16–18.

18. These characteristics, discussed in more detail in subsequent chapters, include high energy gamma emission and a half-life that is at least several weeks but no longer than approximately one year.

19. William King, “A Weapon Too Far: The British Radiological Warfare Experience, 1940–1955,” War in History, 29, No. 1 (January 11, 2021): 1–23,

20. This literature review draws heavily on the article by three of the authors, Meyer, Bidgood, and Potter, “Death Dust: The Little-Known Story of U.S. and Soviet Pursuit of Radiological Weapons.”

21. This list is not exhaustive. One scholar reviewing the literature has proposed that schools of military innovation research should be thought of in terms of “civil-military,” “interservice,” “intra-service,” and “cultural” models. See Adam Grissom, “The Future of Military Innovation Studies,” Journal of Strategic Studies 29, No. 5 (2006): 905–34. Several of these categories could be subsumed under the heading of “bureaucratic political.” See also Owen Reid Cote, Jr., “The Politics of Innovative Military Doctrine: The U.S. Navy and Fleet Ballistic Missiles” (PhD diss., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1996). A relatively recent contribution to the literature on the factors influencing the sources and retention of different types of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) innovation is “weapons substitution theory.” It does not fit neatly into traditional categories of explanations for the pursuit of new weapons but has a basis in economic theory dealing with the cross elasticity of demand. Most relevant to the authors’ work on RW is the article by Michael C. Horowitz and Neil Narang, “Poor Man’s Atomic Bomb? Exploring the Relationship between ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction,’Journal of Conflict Resolution, 58, No. 3 (April 2014): 509–535.

22. Stephen Peter Rosen, Winning the Next War: Innovation and the Modern Military (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991), 45.

23. Ibid., 45.

24. See, for example, Morton H. Halperin, “The Gaither Committee and the Policy Process,” World Politics, 13, No. 3 (April 1961): 360–384,; Morton Halperin, Priscilla Clapp, and Arnold Kanter, Bureaucratic Politics and Foreign Policy (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1974); Graham T. Allison, “Conceptual Models and the Cuban Missile Crisis,” American Political Science Review, 63, No. 3 (September 1969): 689–718,; and Graham T. Allison, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (Boston: Little, Brown, 1971).

25. Case studies with a bureaucratic politics focus include Michael H. Armacost, The Politics of Weapons Innovation: The Thor-Jupiter Controversy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969); Edmund Beard, Developing the ICBM: A Study in Bureaucratic Politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976); and Robert J. Art and Stephen E. Ockenden, “The Domestic Politics of Cruise Missile Development, 1970–1980,” in Cruise Missiles: Technology, Strategy, Politics, ed. Richard Betts (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 1981), 359–413. A more recent extension of this literature, but with a focus on organizational frames of reference and stereotypes, is Frank L. Smith, American Biodefense: How Dangerous Ideas about Biological Weapons Shape National Security (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014). It suggests that the military’s preference for “kinetic weapons” is an obstacle to the adoption of systems that do not resemble traditional bullets or bombs—an insight relevant to the fate of RW.

26. See Mary Kaldor, “The Weapons Succession Process,” World Politics, 38, No. 4 (July 1986): 580,

27. Solly Zuckerman, Nuclear Illusion and Reality (New York: Viking, 1982), 143, quoted in Matthew Evangelista, Innovation and the Arms Race, 13. Another major exponent of technology as a driver of military innovation—and arms races—is Herbert F. York. See York, Race to Oblivion: A Participant’s View of the Arms Race (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1970).

28. For a discussion of the role of change agents in the innovation and diffusion process, see Everett M. Rogers and F. Floyd Shoemaker, Communication of Innovations: A Cross-Cultural Approach, rev. ed. (New York: Free Press, 1971), 233–248.

29. A rarely cited but important study of this phenomenon in the Soviet context is Andrew Aldrin, “Innovation, the Scientists and the State: Programmatic Innovation and the Creation of the Soviet Space Program” (PhD diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 1996).

30. Studies emphasizing the role of economic drivers in the weapons acquisition process include Jacques S. Gansler, The Defense Industry (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1980); J. Ronald Fox, Arming America: How the U.S. Buys Weapons (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974); and “How Defense Industries Keep the Business Coming,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (May 1976): 44–46. For a review of other economic explanations, see Michael E. Brown, Flying Blind: The Politics of the U.S. Strategic Bomber Program (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992).

31. The most fully developed explanation for military innovations emphasizing economic resources and organizational capacity is Michael C. Horowitz’s “adoption-capacity theory.” See Horowitz, The Diffusion of Military Power: Causes and Consequences for International Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010). Jon Schmid also develops a related explanatory framework, which he calls “threat-capacity theory.” See Schmid, “The Determinants of Military Technology Innovation and Diffusion” (PhD diss., Georgia Institute of Technology, 2018), 31–36.

32. Horowitz, The Diffusion of Military Power, 8–12.

33. See, for example, Brad Roberts, Weapons Proliferation and World Order after the Cold War (The Hague: Kluwer Law International, 1996); and Martin Wright, Power Politics (London: Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1978).

34. Roberts, Weapons Proliferation and World Order after the Cold War, 120.

35. Ibid.

36. See William C. Potter, Nuclear Power and Nonproliferation: An Interdisciplinary Perspective (Cambridge, MA: Oelgeschlager, Gunn, & Hain, 1982), 139–140; and Scott Sagan, “Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons? Three Models in Search of a Bomb,” International Security, 21, No. 3 (Winter 1996/97), 73–80.

37. See, for example, Ciro Zoppo, “France as a Nuclear Power,” in The Dispersion of Nuclear Weapons, ed. R. N. Rosecrance (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964), 113–156.

38. W. Seth Carus, Ballistic Missiles in Modern Conflict (New York: Praeger, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1991); and Sirrs, Nasser and the Missile Age in the Middle East.

39. As noted above, the only extended analysis on the British experience is the 2021 journal article by William King (see note 19).

40. C. L. Sulzberger, “The Little Old Man in the Desert Using Nuclear Energy,” Foreign Affairs, New York Times, November 16, 1963, 21.

41. C. L. Sulzberger, “The Problem of a Garbage Bomb: Neither Missiles Nor Funds,” Foreign Affairs, New York Times, November 20, 1963, 42.