Over the last decades, the nuclear threat has kept shifting more and more away from the so called “rogue states” to non-state actors. In wake of the terrorist attacks in Brussels on March 22, 2016 the threat of terrorists attacking a nuclear power facility has become more urgent than ever. In the midst of all the chaos and news updates on that day, it almost went unnoticed that all major nuclear power plants in Belgium were immediately evacuated, with only necessary staff remaining, and that 140 armed military personnel were dispatched to guard the facilities. Experts believe that the original plan was to attack a Belgian nuclear power plant and that a concrete risk will stay high for at least the next five years.

Recent developments in Belgium prior to the attacks indeed show that the threat of terrorists acquiring nuclear material is very real.  Belgian prosecutors publicized a video recording seized during a house raid, which features some 10 hours of covert surveillance footage of a senior employee at a Belgian nuclear research center (SCK CEN). The videographers are believed to be the El Bakraoui brothers, responsible for the Brussels attacks. Reasons for the video remain unclear, but one scenario includes the possible abduction of either the expert or one of his family members.

The El Bakraoui Brothers
The El Bakraoui Brothers responsible for the Brussels Attacks

However, there is reason to believe that ISIS might know the inner workings of the Doel facility already: A former employee joined ISIS in Syria in 2012 to fight among them, he is believed to be killed by now. Chances are high that he shared critical information. Additionally, just over 48 hours after the terrorist attacks in Brussels, a security guard of a nuclear research facility was found shot dead in his home with his security access badge allegedly stolen. But these threats are not limited to Belgium alone.

The incidents highlight the dangers and unpreparedness nuclear facilities in Europe and elsewhere face. Three scenarios of possible nuclear use by terrorists seem most likely: The first scenario involves uranium-based improvised nuclear devices (INDs), known as homemade atomic bombs. For long time, these were believed to be almost impossible to acquire for terrorists, as highly enriched uranium and special knowledge are required to build such devices. The second, and more likely scenario, involves so called ‘dirty bombs’. These bombs, also known as radiological dispersal devices (RDDs), are not actually nuclear weapons. The explosive blast is usually much heavier and deadlier than the small distribution of radioactive material which these weapons disperse. Material for this kind of bomb can be acquired from much less guarded facilities such as research laboratories, hospitals or universities. Also, unlike for actual nuclear bombs (e.g. as used in Hiroshima), no particular knowledge to build such a device is needed, an internet connection suffices. The last scenario involves the targeted attack by plain, water or land of a nuclear facility to cause a “non-design-basis accident” and a major nuclear fall-out similar to Fukushima or Chernobyl. However, this case is still less likely as a study found that “the likelihood of both damaging the reactor core and releasing radioactivity that could affect public health and safety is low”.

Continuing high threat levels led President Obama to initiate the high-level Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) in 2009 with the latest one held in Washington D.C. in April 2016. Representatives from fifty-two countries pledged to continue improving their nuclear security and adopted action plans to work together and through international agencies. Nonetheless, important nuclear actors such as Pakistan or Russia did not partake. As the final communiqué of the NSS recognizes, international cooperation is indispensable in successfully countering nuclear and radiological terrorism.

President Obama (l.) and other Heads of States at the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington D.C.
President Obama (l.) and other Heads of States at the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington D.C.

But actions speak louder than words: As long as nuclear stocks grow worldwide, the threat of terrorists getting nuclear weapons will also continue to grow. As President Obama put it on April 1: “our work is by no means finished (…) Global stocks of plutonium are growing, nuclear arsenals are expanding in some countries, with more tactical nuclear weapons which could be at greater risk of theft (…)”. Indeed, some observers already see a revival of the Cold War era arms race between the USA, China and Russia. Even worse, the NSS just addresses civilian nuclear stocks, intended for use in nuclear power and medical research. However, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, 83% of worldwide nuclear stockpiles are in military control. This leaves a mere 17% to be discussed at such summits. Evidently, problems are manifold, but what can be done about it? Two steps are apparent:

  1. Security of nuclear power plants has to be taken seriously immediately, not a year from now. Every country has to thoroughly revise their security strategies as these differ highly between states. Until now, no global standards in protection exist, with some countries relying on local police forces or even unnamed guards. Agreeing on global security standards is a vital step towards global nuclear security.
  2. Improving the oversight of not only safety, but also security is just as important. International Institutions in this area exist, but they also have to be used. A priority must be to provide enough funds to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which has begun assisting member countries looking for ways to protect their nuclear plants more effectively. Since 2010 the IAEA has started to train Police and Border guards. It also tracks and records illicit trafficking. Enhancing these counter activities are another important step to improve nuclear security worldwide.

These are just two of the most pressing issues regarding nuclear security and protection from terrorists. The list goes on, without having even mentioned the danger that comes from cyber hackings. Much needs to be done and time is running out. As terrorist attacks painfully show us again and again, a 100% safe world does not exist. But let us at least make sure that nuclear weapons stay out of reach in the near and distant future.