Massive Arms Depot Blast Rocks Ukraine: Was It Radioactive?

May 16th, 2023 - by Yevgeny Kuklychev / Newsweek

Huge ‘Mushroom’ Blast in Khmelnytskyi
Reignites ‘Depleted Uranium’ Claims
Yevgeny Kuklychev / Newsweek

(May 15, 2023) — A viral video of a huge explosion near the city of Khmelnytskyi in Western Ukraine has been shared widely along with unverified claims that a “depleted uranium” storage facility was hit and reports that radiation levels were “rising” in the aftermath of the strike.

Concerns about the safety of Ukraine’s nuclear facilities, including the Zaporizhzhia power plant currently under Russian control, as well as Moscow’s nuclear sabre-rattling, have fueled fears of escalation throughout the 14-month Russia-Ukraine war.

But with little official commentary from Moscow or Kyiv about the Russian strikes on targets across Western Ukraine, which took place on the night of May 13, 2023, striking images of a huge explosion recorded near Khmelnytskyi added fuel to social media speculation and resurrected existing narratives about the so-called “depleted uranium” shells.

Newsweek Misinformation Watch assessed the veracity of the claims and speculation around the subject in an attempt to figure out what really occurred in the Western Ukrainian town.

video of a huge fireball appearing on the horizon has been shared widely on social media over the past 48 hours, with several reports in English, Ukrainian and Russian media geolocating the blast to an area near Khmelnytskyi, the administrative center of the Khmelnytskyi Oblast, about 100 miles from Ukraine’s border with Moldova.

“According to information, the value of the ammunition destroyed in the Khmelnytsky ammunition depot is about 500 million dollars,” said a post by Spriter, viewed nearly 7 million times.

“Another shot from Khmelnitsky shows huge mushroom cloud rising into the sky after Russian Aerospace Forces hit Ukrainian military objects in the city earlier in morning,” said a post by Trollstoy that received nearly 230,000 views.

“The Russians smoked a huge amount of American and European tax money in Ukraine’s Khmelnitsky,” another post claimed.

“Hearing rumors that there was a big stockpile of depleted uranium ammunition in the warehouses that got blown up. Pretty big oof if true,” tweeted Russians With Attitude, an account known to share pro-Kremlin propaganda.

The sheer ferocity of the blast, including the sinister-looking mushroom-like cloud of smoke rising in its aftermath, also fueled unverified claims about various types of munitions that could have been blown up and nuclear-weapon-related speculation.

“If the NATO arms depots that Russia is blowing up contain depleted uranium munitions as supplied by the UK those areas of Ukraine may become hotbeds for lung cancer and birth defects as the dust from those exploded DU [depleted uranium] munitions can contaminate large areas of land for decades,” wrote Kim Dotcom, a prominent anti-globalist commentator and conspiracy theorist.

Other accounts on Twitter and Telegram posted charts of purportedly “rising radiation levels” that, they claim, were observed in the hours following the strike. These were amplified by multiple reports in Russian media outlets.

Some posts referenced and shared graphs taken from SaveEcoBot, a Ukrainian service monitoring nuclear radiation levels across the country, as well as graphs attributed to the European Commission.

“Gamma radiation In #Khmelnitsky, Western Ukraine, after the explosion of an ammunition depot with reportedly depleted uranium weapons,” a tweet by another pro-Moscow account claimed.

A number of these sensationalist and incendiary claims were quickly picked up and amplified by US-based social media accounts, including right-wing commentator Chuck Callesto and the Gateway Pundit publication.

RADIOACTIVE PANIC: Russians Missiles Hit Ukrainian Ammunition Depot in Khmelnytsky Causing Massive Explosion – Cache of British Depleted Uranium Tank Shells Destroyed – Gamma Radiation Spikes in the Region’s Atmosphere.”

What We Know, What We Don’t

While not all of the facts and information about the multiple strikes on Western regions of Ukraine have been fully established, there are several elements to the viral conspiracy narrative that are provably false, misleading or lack evidence.

First of all, the shelling, which took place in the early hours of Saturday, May 13, was widely reported in local and international media, with officials on the ground saying that at least 21 civilians were injured in the attack that involved multiple drones and missiles.

Local authorities said that schools and medical institutions, administrative buildings, industrial facilities and private homes were damaged by the explosions.

The Russian military at the time claimed it hit an ammunition depot and a hangar, while Ukraine said the targets were “critical infrastructure.”

According to an investigation by GeoConfirmed, a Twitter account that geolocates visual content from the Russia-Ukraine war, there is little to support the notion that what was hit was a facility where “depleted uranium shells” were stored.

The researcher cites pre-war media reporting and public records to suggest instead that this was a Soviet-era ammunition dump, which, the reports indicate, could have contained as much as 30,000 tons of ammunition. Some of the articles suggest that aviation munitions stored at the facility date to 1949.

While Newsweek could not rule out the possibility that the “depleted uranium” shells provided by the U.K. had been stored there, past reports about the nature of these munitions put a big question mark over that claim.

Though Russian President Vladimir Putin misleadingly drew parallels between these types of shells and nuclear weapons, threatening to retaliate were the West to continue supplying them to Ukraine, the comparison is largely baseless.

Depleted uranium is a byproduct of the process to create the enriched uranium used in nuclear fuel and weapons but is far less powerful than enriched uranium and is incapable of generating a nuclear reaction.

It is true that DA munitions are radioactive and thus are considered to be controversial despite their continued use by Western militaries, as well as production by countries including Russia.

However, as Newsweek reported, no definitive conclusions have been drawn on the environmental impacts of DU, or the effects it could have on the human body. Their “radioactivity is something of a red herring, as the real danger appears to lie in its toxicity as a heavy metal,” military technology expert David Hambling said.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) similarly notes that depleted uranium is mainly a toxic chemical, as opposed to a radiation hazard.

The “radioactive spike” reports are also undermined by the actual timeline of events, as well as misleading use of the monitoring data.

Thus, for example, a graph used in the Gateway Pundit report and in other tweets appears to show a sudden jump in radiation levels, but the actual increase, according to EC data, begins on May 11, 2023, at least 48 hours before the missile barrage hit the area (at which point radiation level actually dropped slightly).

Further, the changes in the radiation levels appear to be fairly minor, peaking at about 155 nanoSieverts per hour (compared to 165 nSv/h recorded in Kharkiv on May 8, or nearly 500 nSv observed near the Chernobyl exclusion zone over the past week.)

As other social media users pointed out, parts of Germany, for example, also saw compatible spikes, but no “nuclear accident” claims have emerged on the back of that.

The Twitter account for SaveEcoBot, which was cited misleadingly by some to promote the false narrative, weighed in on the matter on Monday, calling the claims “fake news” and “Russian propaganda,” and affirming that the current “values do not exceed the natural levels.”

Eneregoatom, the National Nuclear Power Company of Ukraine, said in its official Telegram channel that “the radiation level at the industrial site [in Khmelnytskyi] and in the surrounding regions is at a level corresponding to the normal operation of power units and does not exceed natural background values.”

Newsweek has not been able to locate any official statements or credible reports that radiation levels in Khmelnytskyi or other parts of Ukraine are above normal or corroborate the claim about depleted uranium shells being destroyed in the Russian attack.

Newsweek reached out to Energoatom, the IAEA, as well as the Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministries via email for comment.

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