This is the second issue of the new feature called the IBC Threat Update that was initiated this November. It is intended to inform our readers about ongoing and emerging CRBNe-threats that need the attention of policymakers, experts and ordinary citizens. This week’s topics are the: Claim of alleged CW use in Kobani had no effect on international response, New outbreaks of avian influenza in the Netherlands, A radiological disaster waiting to happen in the Arctic waters, and Security incidents at nuclear plants in Belgium, France and Ukraine. The Threat Update is based on open sources
Claim of alleged CW use in Kobani had no effect on international response
On July 7, 2014, the Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations notified UN secretary-general Ban Ki Moon that ‘armed terrorist groups’ had entered the al-Muthanna chemical weapon complex on June 6, and may have got hold of chemical weapons or materials. In mid July, media reports appeared in which claims were made that Daesh may have used a chemical weapon in a battle on July 12 against the Kurds in the city of Kobani. The location of its use reportedly is now under control of Daesh. Photographs were distributed of three dead Kurdish fighters exhibiting ‘burns with white spots’ indicating the use of a blister agent, possibly mustard gas. The bodies showed no visible wounds or signs of external bleeding from bullets. The photographs of the dead Kurds were circulated on social media accompanied with calls for more international action against Daesh. On October 12, 2014, Syrian envoy to the UN, Bashar Jaafari, accused Turkey and Saudi Arabia of giving weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups fighting in Syria.
The al-Muthanna complex is a relatively well-known complex that has been inspected by international inspectors in the past. It is therefore known what was stored in bunkers 13 and 41. They held chemical weapons that until today could not be disposed off in a safe way. Bunker 13 reportedly held about 2,500 122 mm rockets filled with sarin while bunker 41 held about 2,000 155 mm artillery shells and one ton of mustard gas containers. Experts have indicated that the chemicals may have significantly degraded and become useless. It is therefore unlikely that Daesh got hold of intact chemical weapons. It is also unlikely that other materials they may have stolen from the bunkers could be used safely for military purposes. Some doubt whether theft from the complex was possible as it was closely monitored by the United States. Any attempt to loot the complex would probably have triggered air strikes or attacks with stand-off weapons. If indeed the July 12 attack involved shells contaminated with mustard gas or another unidentified blister agent, they probably originated from another source. As was reported in the IBC-TA of November, al-Qai’da related groups in Iraq do have experienced explosives experts that have experimented with the use of chemicals in IEDs.
The social media campaign aimed at triggering more international action did not have any significant effect. The Syrian complaint to the UN in October was probably mostly related to events in 2013 and had no relation to the July report on the alleged use of a CW in Kobani.
New outbreaks of avian influenza in the Netherlands
Since our report on the outbreak of avian influenza in the Netherlands in the IBC-TA of November, several new cases have been reported. In total five cases have now been reported in a period of two weeks. In all identified cases the farms were located in peripheral areas of the country with a relatively low concentration of poultry farms. In all cases the outbreaks occurred in closed stables. No cases have been identified in the heart of the Dutch poultry sector (Gelderse Vallei and De Peel) with a very high concentration of poultry farms.
Proof has been found that the virus probably has been introduced to the Netherlands by wild bird migration. The virus was found in several wild ducks (Smient, Anas Penelope) in Kamerik near the town of Woerden. The government has launched a study of bird migration patterns in the Netherlands to find out how they could affect the poultry sector. Also the testing of dead wild birds on the presence of viruses continues.
An avian influenza virus also struck the seal population in the Waddenzee. In the past month more than sixty dead seals have been found. Tests indicated that they probably died of the H10N7 virus.
Since the first outbreak the Dutch government assesses the situation on a daily basis and has introduced a series of countermeasures. Depending on the situation disruptive measures for the poultry sector have been gradually lifted to limit the financial damage. Strict hygiene and transport rules are emphasized. The country has been divided in four sectors to limit the risk of the transfer of the virus by trucks to the heart of the poultry sector. The financial damage to the poultry sector as a result of the outbreaks so far has been calculated at 32 to 39 million euro.
Simulations predict that outbreaks in peripheral areas tend to die out in a few weeks. As long as no new cases are identified in the heart of the poultry sector in the Netherlands, the financial damage to the sector can be kept at a relatively low level. If, however, new cases are identified in the high concentration areas, the damage could become again disastrous, as simulations show that a further spreading of such an outbreak is very difficult to prevent.
All identified outbreaks occurred in closed stables. The question why chickens in closed stables cannot survive while wild birds are not dying on a massive scale, has triggered a debate on the production methods of the poultry sector. The sector selects chicken races that grow quickly. The result is that these chickens are weaker and have less resistance. If an infection occurs in a mega-stable the consequences usually are big.
The Dutch government has acted until now in a very pragmatic manner by choosing countermeasures that on the one hand are not too strict to limit financial damage to the sector and on the other hand are not too easy in order not to cause unnecessary risk.
A radiological disaster waiting to happen in the Arctic waters
Until 1991 Russia dumped nuclear waste in its Arctic waters. It is estimated that it dumped 17,000 containers of nuclear waste, 19 rusting Soviet nuclear ships, 14 nuclear reactors cut out of atomic vessels at the bottom of the Kara Sea. Eventually these containers and reactor compartments will rust open and the cargo, including spent uranium fuel, may get into contact with sea water. This could result into the emission of massive levels of radiation into the environment. Especially, the carcass of the K-27 nuclear submarine is considered a great danger. Lifting a submarine to the surface is expensive and a highly technical operation. If something goes wrong it could have severe consequences for fish and other marine resources.
What is necessary is a risk assessment in which the risk of leaving the reactors at the bottom of the sea is weighed against the risk of lifting them. Many experts indicate that the risk of leaving the reactors at the bottom of the sea outweighs the risk of bringing them to the surface. International experience has been gained from the lifting of the Kursk submarine that could be used for other cases. The position of Russian state agencies on this issue is unclear. With the current geopolitical and economic developments a long-term environmental issue is probably not a high priority for the Putin government.
The Norwegian Bellona Foundation which is monitoring the situation estimates that if the submarines are left alone the first incidents are likely to happen around 2020, or in the best-case scenario by 2030. As the Russian and the Norwegian fishing industries are highly dependent on fish from the Barentz Sea any incident spreading radiation affecting marine resources can cause great financial damage to the fishing industry.
Security incidents at nuclear plants in Belgium, France and Ukraine
In early August an incident occurred at the Belgian nuclear plant in the town of Doel. A safety-lock had disappeared after which 65,000 liters of oil could leak away. As a result the turbines of the reactor were severely damaged and the plant had to be shut down. Reparation costs are estimated at 30 million euro. This is not the total damage because the electricity company Electrabel probably has to acquire electricity elsewhere to supply its customers. The company has calculated that the financial impact could be 27 million euro per month. In early December it was reported that a federal prosecutor had initiated an investigation. This is interpreted as an indication that the sabotage could be terrorism related.
Belgium already had problems with its electricity supply as two other reactors (Doel 3 and Thiange 2) were shut down due to micro-cracks in the reactor vessels that were supplied by a Dutch shipyard. These cracks reduce the capacity of a vessel to withstand spikes in pressure and temperatures during an accident. The reports about the problems in Belgium triggered other countries to investigate their own vessels of nuclear reactors acquired from the same Dutch shipyard.
In France drones were reported flying over nuclear plants in a two-week period up to October 20th. The flights at seven different locations did not present a threat to the operation and security of the nuclear installations. They do however cause a concern about the potential risk of inappropriate or malicious use of drones. According to French regulations there is a no-fly zone with a 2,5 km radius and a height of 1,000 around nuclear facilities. The French authorities have initiated a judicial inquiry.
In May 2014, twenty members of the neo-Nazi Right Sector stormed the Zaporizhya nuclear power plant, in Energodar city, Zaporizhya province. They were detained by the police. Zaporizhya is located between Donetsk and the now Russian Crimea and could potentially be the next province to separate from the Kiev regime. In March, the Kiev government had reported to the IAEA that it had reinforced security of its nuclear power plants. In May, NATO experts visited Ukraine to advise authorities there on improving the safety of nuclear power plants, gas pipelines and other critical infrastructure. The measures were taken out of fear of possible destabilization efforts in areas where strategic infrastructure was located. Early December a shutdown of one of the six reactors was reported as a result of a technical failure. The shutdown had a negative effect on the local electricity supply. In the second week of December media reports indicated that NATO planes delivered unidentified equipment to airfields in Zaporizhya.
The recent incident in Doel in Belgium illustrates that nuclear plants are vulnerable to insiders. Sabotage can cause severe financial damage, and can force companies to spend more money on security. In addition companies can be forced to acquire alternative electricity for their customers. More CCTV cameras and magnetic card locks on doors will be installed to improve internal security. The investigation has to find out whether the sabotage really was terrorism related and who was responsible. So far no one has claimed responsibility for the attack which is uncommon if the incident is really terrorism related.
The micro-cracks in the reactor vessels of two other plants have revealed a problem that concerns other countries as well. In several other European countries and the US reactor vessels are being tested using more robust ultrasound technology. In some countries vessels were acquired from the same Dutch shipyard.
The shortage of electricity in the coming period will have an impact on the debate in Belgium on the phasing out of its nuclear reactors.
The mysterious flights over nuclear facilities in France have not been solved yet. No perpetrator has been identified. Greenpeace has denied any involvement. The incidents have reinforced initiatives to find ways to detect and intercept drones.
The situation in Ukraine illustrates how critical infrastructure can become an essential pawn in a conflict situation. Some observers have raised the possibility that NATO could provoke a security risk to Ukraine’s remaining nuclear reactors. In doing so it can create enough fear and support for a possible intervention in Zaporizhya province preventing anti-Kiev forces from peeling the region away from Kiev. The fallout from a catastrophic event in Zaporizhya could affect millions of people across Europe, Russia and Eurasia.
The emerging threat of terrorist attacks with small toy drones
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is currently investigating a rash of incidents with small toy drones in the US. In France small drones were identified flying over nuclear plants. The incident triggered a public hearing by the French parliament. In the Netherlands a TV-show tricked law enforcement by claiming to have made video images of parliament with a drone while the footage was actually made in the small scale city of Madurodam, an amusement park in The Hague.
Although the incidents until now seem relatively harmless, experts have been warning that small drones could be equipped with explosives in order to execute a mass-casualty attack on a big crowd or targeted assassinations. In American TV series this use has already been demonstrated and may inspire terrorist organizations. The availability of drones increases as prices go down. Several companies advertise them as Christmas gift. Some models cost less than $ 500 and fit easily in a backpack. Some models can soar at over 1,000 feet and can reach speeds of 50 mph. Security experts view them as a serious hazard and warn that accidents are waiting to happen. Media have started to inform the public of the do’s and don’ts while using drones. The drone-controller should always keep the drone in sight and the drone should not be flown near the public and not be used in build-up areas.
Existing aviation regulation is insufficient and is in many countries under review in an attempt to deal with the emerging threat. In October, the FAA has extended an existing flight ban for open-air stadiums with more than 30,000 spectators to ‘unmanned and remote controlled aircraft’. It will take time before the public will be aware of the new rules. Terrorist organizations are likely to ignore them.
In the ongoing cat-and-mouse game governments will be motivated to initiate projects aimed at the detection and neutralization of drones. For example, the Dutch government is investing 1,75 million euro in the development of a radar system for the detection of drones and techniques to neutralize them. Also the French government launched a one million euro research initiative.
Several terrorist organizations have demonstrated the use of small drones for reconnaissance and surveillance purposes. As they become more easily available and operatives get used to their handling, it is becoming more likely that they will be used for executing attacks in the near future. It is uncertain whether law enforcement agencies will have the technical means in time to prevent such attacks.