The mechanisms by which ionizing radiation directly causes strand breaks in DNA were investigated by comparing the chemical yield of DNA-trapped free radicals to the chemical yield of DNA single strand break (ssb) and double strand break (dsb), as a function of hydration (Gamma). Solid-state films of plasmid pUC18, hydrated to 2.5 < Gamma < 22.5 mol, were X-irradiated at 4 K, warmed to room temperature, and dissolved in water. Free radical yields were determined by EPR at 4 K. With use of the same samples, Gel electrophoresis was used to measure the chemical yield of total strand breaks, which includes prompt plus heat labile ssb; G'total(ssb) decreased from 0.092 +/- 0.016 micromol/J at Gamma= 2.5 to 0.066 +/- 0.008 micromol/J at Gamma= 22.5. Most provocative is that at Gamma= 2.5 the yield of total ssb exceeds the yield of trapped deoxyribose radicals: G'total(ssb) - G'sugar(fr) = 0.06 +/- 0.02 micromol/J. Nearly 2/3 of the strand breaks are derived from precursors other than radicals trapped on the deoxyribose moiety. To account for these nonradical precursors, we hypothesize that strand breaks are produced by two one-electron oxidations at a single deoxyribose residue within an ionization cluster.