Brussels attacks renew concerns over global nuclear security

As Belgian authorities continue an expansive international investigation following last month’s terrorist attacks in Brussels that killed 32 people, new scrutiny is being given to security lapses that have occurred over the years at the country’s nuclear facilities.

Such concerns had already been raised in Belgium following the November Paris attacks, when a video retrieved in raids from the home of a suspected Islamic State supporter showed the country’s nuclear research program director was being monitored at his residence.

Belgian officials said last week the country has strengthened protections for its nuclear facilities.

They cited an aegis that involved the installation of armed guards and a fortified vetting process for employees of the country’s two nuclear plants, which combined produce roughly 60 percent of the country’s electricity.

INTERACTIVE MAP: Locating Belgium’s nuclear plants

Graphic by Elif Koc/PBS NewsHour

Belgian officials also ruled out any link between the Islamic State and an employee of one of the country’s two main nuclear facilities who was murdered in March.

The claim that the country was on a path to improved security was supported by a report released last month by Harvard University Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs researchers.

The report reads:

In December 2014, the Belgian nuclear regulator imposed substantial new requirements for protection against insider threats, including strengthened access controls, deployment of additional cameras to monitor activities in key areas of plants, and new two-person rule requirements forbidding anyone from being alone in specified plant area.

But the 166-page report also shed new light on examples of security issues at Belgium nuclear facilities, including a 2014 incident of “nuclear sabotage” when someone opened a locked valve and drained a lubricant that caused a reactor to be shut down. A suspect was never found in the incident, which cost $100 million to repair.

The report also found at least one other former employee of a Belgian nuclear facility left his position to join ISIS in Syria sometime after 2012.

Matthew Bunn, a former White House adviser and a Harvard University professor who worked on the report, said in an interview with the PBS NewsHour that there is still a succession of unanswered questions about security incidents at Belgian facilities.

“I think they can say ‘we really took serious action,’” Bunn said. “They also have some things that are still not fully explained.”

In an interview, Page Stoutland, vice president of scientific and technical affairs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, an organization that has monitored and ranked risks to nuclear sites in 45 countries since 2012, said Belgium was on its way to greater security, but still had a few areas where the country isn’t “up to snuff.”

“They still have procedures to screen employees as insiders that are really not as comprehensive as other countries and until very recently they did not have armed guards at the site,” he said. “Belgium was one of the roughly half of the countries that do not have cyber security in place.”

In Washginton D.C. last week, world leaders met for a Nuclear Security Summit, the fourth international gathering on the topic since 2010.

Stoutland said despite some improvements to international nuclear security protocol since the advent of President Barack Obama’s biannual summits, gaps remain in Belgium and around the world.

“There’s no question that the momentum is sort of slowing on this agenda,” he said. “There are still seven countries that don’t have armed guards at nuclear sites, half of the countries have no laws pertaining to cyber security and there’s still a number of countries whose quantities of nuclear material are going up.”

Speaking at a press conference Friday, Obama lauded the “coordinated efforts” of the 50 heads of states in attendance, but called for better security and the removal of fissile material at some of the roughly 400 nuclear facilities existing around the world.

“We know that al Qaida has long sought nuclear materials. Individuals involved in the attacks in Paris and Brussels videotaped a senior manager who works at a Belgian nuclear facility. ISIL has already used chemical weapons, including mustard gas, in Syria and Iraq,” he said. “There is no doubt that if these madmen ever got their hands on a nuclear bomb or nuclear material they most certainly would use it to kill as many innocent people as possible.”