Brussels Attacks and Global Nuclear Security

by Jerry Byers

The article was originally written for Russia Direct

The recent bombings in Brussels and the subsequent discovery of information that ISIS militants may have been targeting Belgian nuclear facilities should be concerning. The threat of a nuclear disaster at the hands of terrorists is a global concern, and one that requires all of the major players in the nuclear community to be involved in presenting and implementing solutions cooperatively.

Should we be worried about security of nuclear facilities in Europe?

Most analysts agree the threat in Belgium is real. In a recent New York Times article by David E. Sanger and William J. Broad they state,

And Belgium, where a nuclear facility was sabotaged in 2014 and where nuclear plant workers with inside access went off to fight for the Islamic State militant group, has emerged as a central worry. The country is so divided and disorganized that many fear it is vulnerable to an attack far more sophisticated than the bombings in the Brussels airport and subway system last week.”

The Nuclear Policy Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in a video, listed four ways that terror groups might generate a nuclear threat.

  1. To buy or steal an actual nuclear bomb;
  2. To build a bomb using Highly Enriched Uranium that was bought or stolen;
  3. To sabotage a nuclear power facility;
  4. To build a “dirty bomb”, which is a conventional bomb with radioactive material attached that would be dispersed during an explosion.

Terrorist activity is largely based on the allocation of limited resources towards efforts that create the largest impact. The risk to reward ratio for attacking nuclear targets has typically been high due to increased security measures taken over the last 15 years and most recently during the series of Nuclear Security Summits initiated by the Obama administration starting in 2010.

There is also some evidence that breaching the nuclear threshold in terrorist activities is seen by many terror groups to be crossing the line of what they are willing to do in order to accomplish their goals. Most terror groups are interested in creating change and improving their position of power. A nuclear attack would likely prove to be far more detrimental than any potential gains. Therefore, only the most extreme groups have typically shown interest in these types of attacks and most of those have lacked the means to follow through. ISIS may be another matter.

However, attacks on infrastructure projects such as a nuclear facility need not induce some type of radiological disaster. Taking a nuclear facility offline could very likely do significant economic damage, as these facilities provide base-load electricity to major population centers, many of which do not have adequate spare capacity. The attacks could very well make a huge impact without crossing the nuclear threshold and would have limited direct bloodshed. Consequently, the “fear factor” would still be in play.

The timing of this threat with the culmination of the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington D.C. last week is ominous. More importantly, Russia’s boycott of the Summit came at a time when cooperation and leadership between the two largest holders of nuclear materials and weapons, Russia and the U.S., is needed.

Russia’s absence from the final Nuclear Security Summit is both noticeable and regrettable given the recent threats posed to Belgian facilities. For over two decades Russia-U.S. cooperation in the area of nuclear security has helped to secure vast amounts of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium throughout the world.

As Matthew Bunn of The Project on Managing the Atom pointed out in an article earlier this year, there have been many successes over the last 20 years resulting from cooperation between the two.

“As just one example, in the 1990s, Russian experts found a critical bug in U.S.-supplied software for keeping track of nuclear materials, which could cause material to just disappear from the books; the Russian work benefitted both countries.”

Another one is the removal and security of HEU in Ukraine, enough to build eight nuclear bombs.

 Furthermore, Russia’s experience and preparedness is substantially better than many of their European counterparts in the nuclear security realm because of their experience. The boycott of the Summit may be a lost opportunity for them to assert themselves as a global leader with an issue that overshadows international politics and is seen by many as considerably more important than economic and territorial disputes.

What needs to be done?

Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs lists six ways to improve nuclear security in a video it produced and as outlined by Matthew Bunn.

  1. Setting Global Minimum Standards for Security of Nuclear Facilities;
  2. Implementation of the minimum standards;
  3. Complacency;
  4. Consolidate possession of nuclear materials into fewer hands;
  5. Building Consistency and Confidence in existing facilities capabilities;
  6. Continuation of Cooperative Forums.

Russia has, or could play, an influential role in all six of the recommendations, but their failure to attend takes away a great opportunity on a world stage to assert themselves in that role.

One of the common themes of concern is in security complacency. Besides the Belfer Center recommendations, independent nuclear security consultant, Dmitry Kovchegin points to the lack of “stress tests” on the existing nuclear security measures worldwide. Furthermore, some facilities in Europe and elsewhere fail to even arm their security personnel.

Kovchegin and other experts consider additional screening and follow-up with workers and access at nuclear facilities, not only necessary, but also imperative. There is a large consensus in the nuclear security community that nuclear facilities need to conduct and maintain more thorough background checks. In this regard, the U.S., Russia, and Europe should be the standard setters. Unfortunately, as the latest events have suggested, facilities in Europe may be some of the weakest links in the chain.

In Bunn’s assessment, “It’s critical to keep a dialogue among technical experts going. Often, the personal relationships among scientists and engineers built up over years of joint work have provided a back channel of communication that has helped the U.S. and Russian governments overcome problems. The two governments need to find ways to let their technical experts work together. The problem of nuclear security is too important to let political disputes get in the way.”

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