By Emily Schwartz Greco
The latest European terrorist attacks redefined nuclear security.
The ISIS supporters who attacked Brussels killed more than 30 people and injured hundreds more. Bombings at the city’s airport and a subway station blew up the notion that measures taken after the Paris siege were keeping Europe safe.
The scariest part of this story is something that hasn’t happened yet and hopefully never will: an act of nuclear terrorism.
World leaders and the experts who track the whereabouts of fissile material should see Belgium’s ordeal as a wakeup call. Nuclear reactors — as the Fukushima disaster proved five years ago in Japan — aren’t worth the risks they pose based on operational safety considerations alone. But security questions also render them unacceptably perilous.
Consider this news out of Europe that you may have missed.
Didier Prospero, a security guard at a Belgian reactor, was murdered in his own home two days after the March attacks. The killers shot the slain man’s dog too. After Prospero’s children found his body, authorities determined that his security pass was missing.
This gut-wrenching tragedy is even more troubling than it sounds.
Belgian authorities discovered hours of secretly recorded video footage of a nuclear scientist during a raid on a suspected terrorist late last year. Khalid and Ibrahim El Bakraoui, two brothers believed to have participated in the Brussels attacks, planted a camera in the bushes outside that scientist’s home.
Perhaps the suspected terrorists intended to sabotage one of Belgium’s aging nuclear reactors, turning it into a weapon of mass destruction — a tactic our government says the 9/11 attackers contemplated.
Or the suspected terrorists may have aimed to steal radioactive material for a “dirty bomb,” a conventional explosive that contaminates the area where it detonates with radiation. Either way, they’ve raised the bar for guaranteeing security at nuclear power plants.
Even before the attacks on Brussels and Prospero’s murder, Belgium was under pressure from Germany, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg to address lapses at the 11 aging nuclear reactors that generate half its electricity.
There were good reasons to be alarmed. The Belgian nuclear agency’s computer system has been hacked, intruders have stolen and sabotaged equipment, and two employees at a Belgian reactor joined ISIS after quitting their jobs.
Hundreds of thousands of Europeans had signed a petition calling for independent inspections of Belgium’s worrisome reactors weeks by late January. Their goal was to “avoid the next Chernobyl,” based on reports of leaks and cracks, along with assorted sabotage attempts.
Fifteen years after 9/11, how are reactor safety and security on our side of the pond? Not so hot, as seven engineers employed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently made clear.
Upon finding the NRC unresponsive to their concerns about a dangerous design flaw at all but one U.S. nuclear reactor, they filed a public complaint using the same channels available to all private citizens.
It’s not clear who has the power to do something about this problem.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo apparently doesn’t. He wants the Indian Point power plant located 30 miles north of the Bronx closed. That’s easier said than done, even though its two active reactors — rife with security and safety issues — are so near our country’s biggest city.
Plant operator Entergy downplayed one recent outage after blaming it on — get this — bird droppings.
If the company can’t protect Indian Point’s equipment against natural threats like avian excrement, how well would it handle terrorists?
Columnist Emily Schwartz Greco is the managing editor of OtherWords, a non-profit national editorial service run by the Institute for Policy Studies. www.OtherWords.org.