Death Dust: The Rise, Decline, and Future of Radiological Weapons Programs – CISAC Stanford

February 14, 2024

Speakers: Sarah Bidgood, Hanna Notte, and William Potter

During the Second World War, U.S. and British military figures feared that Nazi Germany was pursuing a program to produce weapons that dispersed radiological material without a nuclear detonation. Although mistaken in their assessment, both countries in the postwar period launched their own radiological weapons (RW) programs, as did the Soviet Union. Death Dust explores the largely unknown history of the rise and demise of RW—sometimes portrayed as a “poor man’s nuclear weapon”—through a series of comparative case studies across the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, Egypt, and Iraq. The authors draw on newly available archival material and interview data to illuminate the drivers of and impediments to radiological weapons innovation. They also examine how new, dire circumstances, such as the war in Ukraine, might encourage other states to pursue RW and analyze the impact of the spread of such weapons on nuclear deterrence and the nonproliferation regime. They conclude by offering practical steps to reduce the likelihood of a resurgence of interest in and pursuit of radiological weapons by state actors.

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