Nukes & Terrorism | Mar 2016

Belgium Fears Nuclear Plants Are Vulnerable

– NY Times

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“BRUSSELS — As a dragnet aimed at Islamic State operatives spiraled across Brussels and into at least five European countries on Friday, the authorities were also focusing on a narrower but increasingly alarming threat: the vulnerability of Belgium’s nuclear installations.

The investigation into this week’s deadly attacks in Brussels has prompted worries that the Islamic State is seeking to attack, infiltrate or sabotage nuclear installations or obtain nuclear or radioactive material. This is especially worrying in a country with a history of security lapses at its nuclear facilities, a weak intelligence apparatus and a deeply rooted terrorist network.

On Friday, the authorities stripped security badges from several workers at one of two plants where all nonessential employees were sent home hours after the attacks at the Brussels airport and one of the city’s busiest subway stations three days earlier. Surveillance footage of a top official at another Belgian nuclear facility was discovered last year in the apartment of a suspected militant linked to the extremists who unleashed the horror in Paris in November.

Asked on Thursday at a London think tank whether there was a danger of the Islamic State’s obtaining a nuclear weapon, the British defense secretary, Michael Fallon, said that “was a new and emerging threat.”

While the prospect that terrorists can obtain enough highly enriched uranium and then turn it into a nuclear fission bomb seems far-fetched to many experts, they say the fabrication of some kind of dirty bomb from radioactive waste or byproducts is more conceivable. There are a variety of other risks involving Belgium’s facilities, including that terrorists somehow shut down the privately operated plants, which provide nearly half of Belgium’s power.

The fears at the nuclear power plants are of “an accident in which someone explodes a bomb inside the plant,” said Sébastien Berg, the spokesman for Belgium’s federal agency for nuclear control. “The other danger is that they fly something into the plant from outside.” That could stop the cooling process of the used fuel, Mr. Berg explained, and in turn shut down the plant.

The revelation of the surveillance footage was the first evidence that the Islamic State has a focused interest in nuclear material. But Belgium’s nuclear facilities have long had a worrying track record of breaches, prompting warnings from Washington and other foreign capitals.

Some of these are relatively minor: The Belgian nuclear agency’s computer system was hacked this year and shut down briefly. In 2013, two individuals managed to scale the fence at Belgium’s research reactor in the city of Mol, break into a laboratory and steal equipment.

Others are far more disconcerting. In 2012, two employees at the nuclear plant in Doel quit to join jihadists in Syria, and eventually transferred their allegiances to the Islamic State. Both men fought in a brigade that included dozens of Belgians, including Abdelhamid Abaaoud, considered the on-the-ground leader of the Paris attacks.

One of these men is believed to have died fighting in Syria, but the other was convicted of terror-related offenses in Belgium in 2014, and released from prison last year, according to Pieter Van Oestaeyen, a researcher who tracks Belgium’s jihadist networks. It is not known whether they communicated information about their former workplace to their Islamic State comrades.

At the same plant where these jihadists once worked, an individual who has yet to be identified walked into the reactor No. 4 in 2014, turned a valve and drained 65,000 liters of oil used to lubricate the turbines. The ensuing friction nearly overheated the machinery, forcing it to be shut down. The damage was so severe that the reactor was out of commission for five months.

Investigators are now looking into possible links between that case and terrorist groups, although they caution that it could also have been the work of an insider with a workplace grudge. What is clear is that the act was meant to sow dangerous havoc — and that the plant’s security systems can be breached.

“This was a deliberate act to take down the nuclear reactor, and a very good way to do it,” Mr. Berg, the nuclear agency spokesman, said of the episode in a recent interview.

These incidents are now all being seen in a new light, as information is mounting from investigators that the terrorist network that hit Paris and Brussels may have been in the planning stages of some kind of operation at a Belgian nuclear facility.”

…Continuing reading @ NY Times