The irradiation of metals by energetic particles causes significant degradation of the mechanical properties(1,2), most notably an increased yield stress and decreased ductility, often accompanied by plastic flow localization. Such effects limit the lifetime of pressure vessels in nuclear power plants(3), and constrain the choice of materials for fusion-based alternative energy sources(4). Although these phenomena have been known for many years(1), the underlying fundamental mechanisms and their relation to the irradiation field have not been clearly demonstrated. Here we use three-dimensional multiscale simulations of irradiated metals to reveal the mechanisms underlying plastic flow localization in defect-free channels. We observe dislocation pinning by irradiation-induced clusters of defects, subsequent unpinning as defects are absorbed by the dislocations, and cross-slip of the latter as the stress is increased. The width of the plastic flow channels is limited by the interaction among opposing dislocation dipole segments and the remaining defect clusters.