Blog Post - Nuclear Security Matters

Belgium Highlights the Nuclear Terrorism Threat and Security Measures to Stop it

Mar. 29, 2016

By Matthew Bunn

As world leaders gather for the fourth nuclear security summit this week, in the aftermath of the horrifying terrorist attacks in Brussels, it seems likely that Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel will have more to say than anyone else — both about real nuclear terrorist dangers and about real steps taken to improve nuclear security.

Since the 2014 summit, Belgium has suffered a number of suspicious and alarming activities at its nuclear sites and against some of its nuclear technicians. In Aug. 2014, for example, someone with inside access at the Doel-4 nuclear reactor drained the lubricant for the reactor turbine, causing it to overheat and resulting in an estimated $100-$200 million in damage. The perpetrator and the motive remain unknown.

In Nov. 2015, Belgian police discovered that the terror cell that carried out the Paris attacks used a secret video camera to monitor an official at nuclear research sites with a wide range of nuclear and radiological materials, including enough highly enriched uranium for several nuclear bombs.

In response to what seemed to be a growing terrorist threat to the country’s nuclear infrastructure, the authorities beefed up protection against insider threats, toughened access control, deployed armed troops to protect reactors and, following the airport and subway attacks, removed all non-essential personnel from nuclear sites in order to reduce the number of potential insiders.

With a variety of different takes on these events swirling in recent news stories (see here and here), it’s worth clarifying what we know and what is still unknown about the scale of this threat and how best Belgium — and the rest of Europe — can protect itself. (A just-released Harvard study also has details up through February.)

What was the video monitoring of a nuclear official about?

The short answer is that we don’t know yet — though sustained monitoring of a nuclear expert may be the most troubling indicator yet of nuclear intent from the so-called Islamic State. Belgian terrorists recorded about 10 hours of video of a nuclear official at Belgium’s SCK-CEN research facility, near the town of Mol. As the Times story reports, Belgian authorities believe the hidden video camera was picked up by Ibrahim and Khalid el-Bakraoui, brothers who are believed to have later been suicide bombers in the Brussels attacks. They reportedly delivered it to Mohammed Bakkali, now under arrest, who is accused of helping with logistics for the Paris attacks.

Several media accounts have suggested the terrorists might have been after radiological material for a “dirty bomb” from SCK-CEN. This seems unlikely (unless they were confused, as is certainly possible) — radiological materials are available in many locations where they would be much easier to steal, like in hospitals and industrial sites. (The Nuclear Threat Initiative has a very good new report on the dirty bomb threat and steps to address it.) The Times story quotes me as seemingly worrying about Cs-137 from SCK-CEN; what I was actually saying is that Cs-137 is a big concern, and in many places it is much less well protected than at SCK-CEN.

The Times story largely dismissed — wrongly, in my view — the idea that the HEU at SCK-CEN might have been the terrorists’ ultimate objective, saying that the idea that terrorists could get such material and make a crude nuclear bomb “seems far-fetched to many experts.” Unfortunately, as we document in detail in our recentreport, repeated government studies, in the United States and elsewhere, have concluded that this is not far-fetched — that it is quite plausible that a sophisticated terrorist group could make a nuclear bomb if they got the needed nuclear material. As a 1977 Office of Technology Assessment study put it:

A small group of people, none of whom have ever had access to the classified literature, could possibly design and build a crude nuclear explosive device ... Only modest machine-shop facilities that could be contracted for without arousing suspicion would be required.

Of course, just because the terrorists could find and monitor a nuclear official’s home does not mean they could have broken in to SCK-CEN and gotten HEU or anything else. What did they think they could accomplish with this monitoring? One obvious possibility is that they envisioned either kidnapping the official or kidnapping his family to coerce him into helping them carry out whatever plot they had in mind. Such coercion is a frequent criminal and terrorist tactic. Breaking into a nuclear facility is not as simple as kidnapping someone. But a kidnapping might well contribute to a more complex plot.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Belgium Highlights the Nuclear Terrorism Threat and Security Measures to Stop it .” Nuclear Security Matters, March 29, 2016, https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/belgium-highlights-nuclear-terrorism-threat-and-security-measures-stop-it.