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Tactical Nuclear Ambiguity: A short history of incidents mistakenly believed to be nuclear detonations

June 2, 2015

By Dan Kaszeta

Recent weeks have seen numerous reports that an explosion in Yemen was a “nuclear bomb” or even a “neutron bomb”.  These particular reports, about a large explosion in Yemen in late May 2015 are largely re-circulating due to articles in the widely derided and generally discredited Veterans Today. It is clear to me, for reasons that I will explain below, that the reports of nuclear warfare in Yemen are a fabrication, and that a large conventional explosion has, once again, fooled the unwise, uneducated, and/or deluded into thinking that a nuclear weapon was used.

One would think that a nuclear explosion is self-evident and obvious. But the smaller end of nuclear devices well overlaps with the higher end of conceivable conventional explosives.  The smallest tactical nuclear weapons in the Cold War had explosive yields measured only in tens or hundreds of tons of conventional explosives.  It is reputed that the US W48 155mm nuclear artillery shell had an explosive yield equivalent to not more than 100 tons of TNT.  Few people left alive today have first person experience of what a nuclear explosion looks like, and many people have an uninformed, caricatured, or stilted idea of what one might look like.

This is Part 1 of several.  In this article I will provide an overview of the history of explosions and events that were alleged to be nuclear detonations.  Part 2, next week, will describe the effects of small nuclear explosions and some of the evidence that they would leave behind, so that one can compare the established body of knowledge with the various incidents that are described in this post.

The History of Mis-Attributed Explosions

Ambiguity between conventional and atomic explosions is not unknown.  There is a long history of other events becoming confused for nuclear explosions, a history that dates back almost to the birth of nuclear weapons.  A small amount of research reveals a number of instances where some event has confused at least a few observers.  It is worth recounting some of these historic examples to put the Yemen incident into proper context.

(NEW) Port Chicago Disaster 1944:


In July 1944, at Port Chicago (in the San Francisco Bay area), there was a terrible accident that caused the explosion of many tons of munitions.  320 people, mostly African American military members, were killed.   The incident, its aftermath, and the investigation of it were mired in scandal.   A website mostly known for conspiracy theories includes this claim alleging that the explosion was actually a test of a nuclear weapon.  As this claim is completely at variance with the known history of the US nuclear weapons program, it is extremely suspect, to say the least.

Texas City 1947:

On April 16, 1947, the SS Grandcamp, a French cargo vessel carrying over 2000 tons of ammonium nitrate (a fertilizer as well as an explosive) caught fire and exploded in the port of Texas City.  The resulting explosion was one of the largest in (non-nuclear) history, and resulted in at least 581 deaths, and many thousands of injured, rating as one of the worst industrial disasters in US history.  The explosion was mistaken by some as a nuclear explosion.  Seismic readings in Denver, Colorado, were mistaken as a nuclear detonation.  Strategic Air Command briefly elevated the US DEFCON, believing that a nuclear attack may have occurred.


Houses 1 mile from Texas City Explosion. Photo: US Govt

Vietnam War:

At various points in the Vietnam War, both the US and South Vietnamese militaries used a device known as the BLU-82 “Daisy Cutter”, a large conventional device designed to clear landing zones in dense vegetation. In addition, fuel air explosives (FAE) were used at various times.  Both BLU-82 and FAE create quite dramatic effects.   In the 1990s I spoke with both Vietnamese and ex-Soviet military personnel (who had served as advisors in North Vietnam) who told me that field reports from Vietnamese regulars and guerrillas had reported the use of these weapons as tactical nuclear devices.


Fuel Air Explosive Bombs in South Vietnam. Photo: US Navy

Severomorsk, Soviet Union:

On May 13, 1984, a stockpile of naval missiles exploded near the town of Severomorsk.  A large number of surface-to-air missiles were destroyed and the five day fire imperilled the storage area for nuclear weapons.  The flash and seismic shock briefly caused US intelligence to believe a nuclear explosion had occurred.

First Iraq War:

In January 1991, a BLU-82 bomb was used by the US military to attempt to clear a minefield.  Both Iraqi military personnel and a nearby British SAS patrol allegedly reported this explosion as a tactical nuclear device.



BLU-82 explosion (Photo USAF)

Oklahoma City Bombing:

At least one of the many conspiracy theories surrounding the 1995 Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing alleges that “micro-nukes” had been planted inside the building by the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.

World Trade Center, 2001

Several conspiracy theories (here and here) allege that the destruction of the World Trade Center was actually destroyed by atomic demolition munitions, not hijacked airplanes.


At least one website post claims that the 2002 Bali, Indonesia, terrorist bombing was the result of a “micro-nuke”.  Thank you to @v36ar for this post.


A small number of conspiracy theorists (examples here and here)  claim that the US Army and/or Marine Corps used one or more tactical nuclear weapons in Fallujah in 2004.  An alternative theory is that the US used the battle there to dispose of old nuclear weapons no longer needed.  Interestingly, no particular explosion is cited in these theories.

tank fallujah

US Marines and M1A1 Tank in Fallujah. Photo: USMC


West, Texas

On 17 April 2013, a fire at a fertilizer plant in the town of West, Texas (near Waco) caused a large conventional explosion of many tons of ammonium nitrate. 15 people were killed and over 150 were injured.   Again, conspiracy theorists have claimed that this was actually a nuclear explosion.

Seismic data from West, TX explosion. Source: US Govt


In 2013 Veterans Today alleged that the Israeli military has used nuclear weapons three times in air strikes against Syria.  Interestingly, one of these websites either deliberately or inadvertently confuses the concept of “nuclear bunker buster” bomb (i.e. conventional device designed to take out bunkers that are hardened against nuclear attack) and nuclear bomb.


There was a large conventional explosion in February 2015 at a factory engaged in production of chemical components for ammunition and industrial explosive, near Donetsk  in Ukraine. Various social media accounts and websites reported this as a nuclear explosion.


A large explosion in Yemen in May 2015 was reported in various non-traditional new sources (here and here)  as a “nuclear bomb” and a “neutron bomb”.  Various sources blame Israel or Saudi Arabia for this incident.   “Neutron bomb” is a popular term for a small yield nuclear device that produces a higher fraction of prompt radioactivity than other similarly-sized nuclear devices.  Incidentally many myths and misconceptions about “Neutron bombs” are in circulation.

Coming in Part 2:  The Effects of Small Nuclear Weapons and Their Telltale Evidence, or how we can tell that these events were not nuclear detonations.

Dan Kaszeta

Dan is the managing director of Strongpoint Security Ltd, and lives and works in London, UK. He has 24 years experience in CBRN response, security, and antiterrorism.


  1. Max

    Hey Dan,

    thank you for opening this toppic here. I am eager to read what will follow.
    But don’t you think, that it is a little bit missleading, to name every idiot out there that had the idea, that this or that was a tac nuke?

    At least the “sightings” or due to heavy weed consumption as micro nukes declared explosions within “conspiracy theories” should not be summarised under incidents mistakenly believed to be…

    At least that conspiracy theory geeks are not believing mistakenly into that bull… they have agenda to do so, they have agenda to put everything in an perfect order to there idea of how the world “realy” is.

    So as a matter of personal opinion, I hope you don’t puzzle that wierd minded “mistakes” and stick to real incidents that have a clear pattern of misleads.

    Thank you,

    • Dan Kaszeta

      There’s always an argument to be had as to how much exposure to give to basically misguided conspiracy theories. For now, I am going with the approach that the people who make this stuff up, believe it, or spread it are not actually going to be using Bellingcat for fuel for their efforts. I don’t think that, by not pointing to a specific theory or idea, that I am going to somehow make it go away. Nor do I believe that because I provide a link to it that I am encouraging it in any particularly effective manner. There is also some benefit, I believe in calling out the more outlandish ideas that are posted by people and organizations that post more mundane stuff. If, for example, you believe that there is a secret alien UFO base on Mars, and you also post things about Yemen and Syria, it calls into question the general intellectual integrity of any claims you might make in the latter department.

    • iiJeebz

      First you say “don’t you think, that it is a little bit missleading, to name every idiot out there that had the idea, that this or that was a tac nuke?”
      The follow up with: “due to heavy weed consumption” What has ‘weed consumption’ got to do with anything? That in itself is ‘missleading’ (sic).

  2. Ian Walker

    Hi all

    The key factor in the videos is the speckling. That is what indicates a nuke.
    Seen Most clearly in this video:

    And also on this video do not confuse the white hot debris pushed along with the blast wave with the speckles that are static to the camera because they are ionizing incidents happening on the Charge Coupled Device CCD visible from 10 seconds to when the camera person is knocked over and then subsequently when they then turn the camera back toward the fireball.

    You can ignore the mushroom cloud, large explosions, with a rising fireball, chemical explosives or nuclear, cause the mushroom cloud.

    But the speckling and its incidence with the fireball is what indicates a Nuke. Note its directionality ie the CCD only picks it up facing the fireball.

    Consider the following purely chemical explosions:

    Arms Factory explosion in Russia note no speckling

    US Rocket fuel plant no speckling

    Arms Factory in China no speckling:

    Kirkuk Ammo dump explosion no Speckling

    The speckling is a charachteristic effect that ionizing radiation has on a Charge Coupled Device CCD, the bit in a camera that the lens focuses the light coming in on to, that then converts light to electricity, though in modern cameras it is integrated in a Active Pixel Sensor (APS) on a CMOS . I am perhaps showing my age, but the best optical devices at the moment are still CCD based and only the modern phones use APS on a CMOS. All kind of irrelevant as the ionizing radiation effect is the same on CCD or APS see fig.18

    Here is a video of phone cameras being tested for detecting ionising radiation:

    You can see the effect as well in videos such as this from Fukushima

    You will see the same in videos from Chernobyl

    As to it being a Neutron bomb while all Nukes produce Neutrons, if this were a true Neutron device I would expect the whole town to be dead within a short time of the explosion.

    What is needed is for the sight to be investigated.

    Kind Regards walker

    • Alexander Grimsmo

      What I see are both directional speckling, and, more alarmingly, non-directional random white scintillation of pixels all over the screen in the video. That’s what positively verifies there is high radiation involved.

  3. Sebastien VIALE

    Ian Walker, apparently, you are talking about something you know nothing about !!!

    First of all, a neutron bomb is a small yielded nuclear device and, by the speed of the explosion, you can clearly see that it’s a chemical reaction taking place and not a fission/fusion reaction, were the reaction takes place in the 10^-7th of a second. That’s why nuclear explosions create a very bright, instantaneous flash.

    Second, a nuclear device, once detonated will provide a much brighter light (x-ray, visible, infra-red and radio waves), that would, indeed blur the ccd sensor of the camera. Not that reddish color of the explosion that indicates a much lower temperature of explosion.

    Third, the speckles you are talking about are not speckles caused by neutrons/radiations because they appear only on one part of the image and not all of it. And when the camera films the sky or the ground, there aren’t any speckle anymore on the image and there should be some because radiations can travel through the camera easily even so if it’s tilted backwards. And it is the same with concrete, when the guy is crouching behind a balcony or something like that, you would see speckles. You would need a huge amount of concrete to protect you from (FYI, nuclear power stations have walls of concrete AND metal like lead of several meters/feet wide). It is very clear from the videos you posted about Fukushima and tests about a radiation source !

    Fourth, the fireball is not limited a nuclear explosion ! Far from it !!! Any explosion creating a large amount of heat will create a mushroom like fireball as the heat rises and the cooler air from the bottom is being sucked up to replace the hooter air/gases. From almost all the videos you posted, you can see mushroom fireball being created.
    examples :

    So, from what we can see from this video, any person with a scientific background (I am an engineer in mining explosives) will tell you that this is anything except a nuclear detonation.

    Best regards

    Sebastien VIALE

    • Dan Kaszeta


      Thank you for your informed commentary. I agree with your various comments. Neutrons aren’t in the visible light spectrum and should affect the camera regardless of the orientation of its lens. Not to mention all of the other various points you make.

      We still have not had a single case of flash blindness or flash burns or radiation sickness or a single finding anywhere of a radioisotope from this Yemen incident.


      • Ian Walker

        Hi all

        In reply to Dan Kaszeta

        On the matter of how a modern camera works.

        The device in a camera phone or GoPro is a CCD or in a few modern phones Active Pixel Sensor (APS) integrated on a CMOS, this does not matter really as they both are effected by ionising radiation in the same way. They are designed to pick up light incident with the lens and directional to it by building up charge on each of the grid squares where the light is incident. Ionising radiation Gamma, Alpha or Beta however effect them too, because they are Ionising which is charge, hence why they overcharge the detector and you get a white pixel, or group of them.

        We then come to why the camera detects radiation to its front only. That is down to number of factors by the primary cause is simple geometry. As the camera turns away from the source it simply becomes a smaller target, remember the lens has zero to do with this. The CCD itself is a small flat chip about a tenth the size of the lens.

        To give you an analogy the CCD is essentially a flat billboard and the source a machine gun, if the billboard faces the MG there are lots of hits as it turns edge on there are fewer hits.

        There are also some shielding and diffraction effects from the aluminium bars that form the CCDs grid; to use another analogy they act rather like blinds on window while you are edge on to them you can see through the blinds, so only photons coming in at 90 degrees to the CCD are registered, and like the anti scattering grid attached to a radiation counter that allows only directional ionizing radiation to be detected.

        Some further videos from Fukushima note the directionality of speckling effect on the CCD of the cameras, as in the cameras on the indecent in the Yemen.

        Notice also that zooming in like in the Yemen videos has no effect, this is ionizing radiation, nothing to do with light or the lens, just charge incidents at the detector. 😉 The only thing that increases the speckling is direction.

        Kind Regards walker

        • Alexander Grimsmo

          That’s what I thought. The white pixel scintillation is clearly random, and appears as white dots quite evenly spread on the screen. And when the camera is facing the explosion, that is what you can observe. Only ionizing radiation does that. With all the observed angles, this is clearly a nuclear explosion.

    • Ian Walker

      Hi all

      In reply to Sebastian Viale

      My own thoughts are that this was a low yield bunker busting bomb, the initial detonation of which took place underground hence no flash which only takes place in the initial blast. It was after all targeting an arms bunker. I think the fireball rising above the ground was as big a shock to those dropping the device as it was to the community. I think they got their intelligence wrong and the dump was not as deep or large as they expected. If it had all happened underground then no one would have been any the wiser, though, the major powers might have their suspicions.

      The key problems are

      1) an obvious case of proliferation, so either

      1 a) Saudi Arabia has nukes, in which case Iran will want them.


      1 b) Israel has them and its Policy of deliberate ambiguity is now shattered, and arguments about Iran become moot.


      1 c) There was a Nuke stored in a third world bunker that No One Knew Of!


      1 d) A major power has used a nuke on a non-nuclear power without clearing it through their democratic process, which will cause them serious repercussions; both within their nation and with their partners and the international community.

      2) If as I surmise it was a bunker buster then that is a serious escalation problem as such devices, will now be made by others and they are a short escalation rung, making nuclear wars more likely. Very Worrying!

      3) A nuclear power, used a nuke, on a non-nuclear power, and that then makes the Non Proliferation Treaty worthless. VERY WORRYING! UNLESS THERE ARE SERIOUS CONSEQUENCES FOR THE PERPETRATOR.

      What is needed is for the sight to be investigated by the IAEA to clear it up.

      Kind Regards walker

    • Ian Walker

      Hi all

      In reply to Sebastien Viale,

      On the matter of mushroom clouds

      You must have missed this part in my post:
      “You can ignore the mushroom cloud, large explosions, with a rising fireball, chemical explosives or nuclear, cause the mushroom cloud.”

      On the matter of a Neutron bomb

      You must have missed this part of my post
      “As to it being a Neutron bomb while all Nukes produce Neutrons, if this were a true Neutron device I would expect the whole town to be dead within a short time of the explosion.”

      Please read posts carefully so as to ensure debate is accurate, and that you do not go off the path.

      Kind Regards walker

  4. Sebastien VIALE

    Dear Ian Walker,

    Indeed, I misread your second post about the mushroom, I apologize.

    On the speckles matter, which would be the only indicator of ionizing radiations of a nuclear device, you will find the link of a video of a gopro passing through a electron beam. You will see that even after the camera passes the radiation source, speckles can be seen. And this even behind the wall.

    This video is done with a source of gamma radiation (electrons) which are less energetic (10 MeV max) than the neutron radiation that would be produced by neutron bomb (14 MeV). We have to be careful when talking about neutron radiation as they have a very wide range of energy. In nuclear power stations, the neutrons are slowed down to a “thermal” speed/energy/temperature (0.0253 eV). This means that when we usually talk about neutron radiation, we talk about low energy neutrons whereas a neutron bomb would produce ultra high energy neutron radiation.

    So for me, the Yemen video would still need to show speckles when seeing the sky and behind the wall. It is just a bunker burster bomb that hit a weapon storage facility and the “speckles” seen in the video are just caused by small amunition bursting in mid air.

    Best Regards Sebastien

    • Ian Walker

      Hi all

      In reply to Sebastien Viale,

      On the matter of “(“speckles” seen in the video are just caused by small amunition bursting in mid air.)”

      I am not talking about the white hot substance ejected and carried along on the blast wave, I can see how that can confuse people on cursory glance. I am talking specifically about the pixel speckles, that are all square and static to the camera view.

      Please look again at the videos using pause and you will see that the speckles are in the foreground. eg in front of buildings close to the camera and thus can not be small ammunition bursting in mid air miles from the incident.

      Kind Regards walker

    • Ian Walker

      Hi all

      In reply to Sebastien Viale,

      On the matter of radiation source and directionality.

      The video you post is a generalised source close to the detecting device, in this case a GoPro CCD type electronic camera.

      The incident in Yemen is the secondary fireball from an underground blast excursion, any Neutrons from the initial blast would primarily be absorbed by concrete and rock of the underground bunker, though some left vertically from the excursion as a more or less vertical Neutron beam, thus shielding the population from any direct neutron bombardment, to use an analogy in much the same way as when a grenade goes off the blast and shrapnel predominantly go up and out from the source of blast, hence why you hit the dirt to protect yourself, though the balistic path of the shrapnel means you are still in danger from shrapnel ~200m away as it returns along its parabola to once again be close to the height of a human being.

      So the effects we see on the CCD’s of the cameras is from secondary ionising radiation from the firball.

      Essentially as the distance from the detector in this case the CCD of the cameras increases the signal attenuates becomes more directional and less generalised and thus more of a directional point source. This why Gamma ray detectors on Gamma telescopes can discriminate a distant star and are not just swamped with its massive output.

      Or to put it another way it is far away so it is a directional point source.

      Kind Regards walker

      • Sebastien VIALE

        Hi Ian,

        I followed your advised and watched the video again. And I am sorry to tell you but for me, those speckles are not radiation speckles but just tiny explosions from residual ammo exploding. First, if you look closely to the video prior to the explosion, you will see smoke coming from the ground, probably from the bunker buster munition having started a fire in the bunker. Then you see a first explosion, then the second one, the most impressive one.

        If you look closely, the speckles only happen in one area of the video, that is, the bottom of the mushroom cloud. If those were radiation speckles, they would be seen EVERYWHERE on the video. It is clearly not the case. And by the end of the video, those speckles happen only on the ground, when the unexploded red hot ammo suddenly explode.

        As for the radiations, true, an underground explosion would shield some radiation but not a lot. The ultra high energy neutron would easily travel through few feet of dirt. And the neutrons hitting the ground’s atom would turn some into radiating sources. This effect is described in the internet pages I posted. So you would still be exposed to huge amounts of radiations if you were, indeed, looking at a neutron bomb.

        Furthermore, from a tactical point of view, exploding a neutron bomb in the ground, especially in a bunker, is completely useless and a huge waste of money ! A neutron bomb, should be exploded above the ground so that the area of radiation is maximized.

        Just to end my discussion, I would like to point out that this video was revealed by Veterans Today that is known for publishing lies and hoaxes about anything. And Jeff Smith, the so-called nuclear “expert” is just a scam, nowhere can you find references on his “nuclear” expertise, except one book sold on amazon … Yeah right … If he was a real expert, you would find plenty of reports on Internet about his research or scientific publications. But here, nothing.

        This is a more reliable source :

        Best regards, Sebastien

  5. michael

    I am not sure just what to make of all these discussions. On certain videos I clearly see the speckling on the film which is clearly not from the actual explosion. Also in watching a video from the inventor of the neutron bomb he clearly states that at a given range (1000 meters) the neutrons no longer have their effective energy.

    I will not discount that it could be a munitions depot popping off but I am still not convinced that its not a small tactical.

    Furthermore, just because the U.S. or any other government has not acknowledged the possesion of a certain weapon is certainly not to mean that they do not actually have it. (Come on you guys who stated that “they didnt tell us” so there fore we dont have it… Please how many times have classified systems been shrouded in secrecy. I believe in military security so I have no problem with this.

    • Alexander Grimsmo

      I observe the same random white pixels, that are not linked to the visual fireball. They are everywhere in some sequences. There’s no getting around, these cameras are being exposed to ionizing radiation. Some say that the EMP would kill the electronics, but only a atmospheric MAD-style nuke would do that. The radiation is however enough to cause white scintillated pixels, and that’s a sure sign of what we are dealing with.

  6. Andrea

    To this point in Jemen:

    The IAEA has already confirmed that it was a nuclear blast. Look here:

    “IAEA confirms Nuclear Attack on Yemen, May 20, 2015”

    “SAUDIS have ISRAEL “NUKE” Yeman for them! VIDEO Proof as IAEA confirms “probable” Israeli Nuclear Attack on Yemen, May 20, 2015 – A. The range of the camera is calculated to be about 4 to 5 miles from ground zero based on shock wave timing. B.Saudi has no F-16’s. The aircraft reported to be used to drop the bomb in Yemen were F-16’s. Photos and acoustic signature confirms that the jet engines noise is from a single engine jet fighter of the F-16 type. – Veterans Today website posted a report, prepared by Gordon Duff and Jeff Smith, on the bomb which fell on Naqm mountain in Yemen last week. A video received from Yemen, believed to be taken May 20, 2015, of an explosion, when analyzed by nuclear weapons experts is, by very high probability, a neutron bomb that could only have been an Israeli attack. The analysis: A. Its not a conventional 2k lb bomb. It’s much bigger. B. Its either a very large MOAB bigger than 4,000 lbs. or; ???? Max weight for an F-15 / 16 is about 2,000 lb payload per bomb rack making the deployment of a MOAB impossible. C. Its appears to be a small neutron bomb. The size, color, lightning effect and duration of the fire ball being suspended in mid air and the very large mushroom cloud is the main give away. The IAEA claim it was PROBABLY exploded by Israel.”

  7. Andrea

    Also Global Research confirms nuclear strike in Yemen:

    “The analysis:”

    “A. Its not a conventional 2k lb bomb. It’s much bigger.”

    “B. Its either a very large MOAB bigger than 4,000 lbs. or; ???? Max weight for an F-15 / 16 is about 2,000 lb payload per bomb rack making the deployment of a MOAB impossible.”

    “Lightning effect and duration of the fire ball being suspended in mid air and the very large mushroom cloud is the main give away, that is because it is being hit by neutrons from the nuclear fireball blast. It overloads the ccd’s electronic circuit producing white flashes. If the radiation is too high it will burn out the chip. They had big problems with this in Japan with the Fukushima robots cameras failing due to very high radiation counts.”

    “D. Delivery is most likely by an IDF F-16 with a Saudi paint job on the plane. They are not even hiding their use anymore, they just don’t publicly admit it and the IAEA does nothing or says nothing. That is the true war crime. The UN just ignores it unless the US, France or GB complain…”

    “Post Script:”

    “A. The range of the camera is calculated to be about 4 to 5 miles from ground zero based on shock wave timing.”

    “B. Saudi has no F-16’s. The aircraft reported to be used to droop the bomb in Yemen were F-16’s. Photos and acoustic signature confirms that the jet engines noise is from a single engine jet fighter of the F-16 type.”


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