A Nuclear Wake-Up Call in Belgium

Even before the March 22 Brussels attack pointed to the rising ISIS threat in Europe, the Belgian Council of Ministers took seriously a threat that many other governments around the world do not.
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By R. Jeffrey Smith

The video showed only the mundane comings and goings of a family living near Brussels. But when the Belgian government discovered it as the home of an Islamic State operative, they mobilized some soldiers.

Even before the March 22 Brussels attack pointed to the rising ISIS threat in Europe, the Belgian Council of Ministers took seriously a threat that many other governments around the world do not. They acted to reduce the possibility that radioisotopes at a factory 53 miles outside the capital could be grabbed by terrorists and fashioned into a so-called "dirty bomb" -- one that would contaminate a city with radiation, causing panic and financial calamity.

The video was found by accident in late November at a house rented by an alleged member of the terrorist cell that carried out the Nov. 13, 2015, siege in Paris. Its ordinary contents surprised investigators until they figured out that the central character was a research scientist with access to sensitive parts of Belgium's Nuclear Research Centre.

The radioisotopes made there are normally used for medical diagnoses and industrial purposes. Similar radioisotopes are spread worldwide in at least 13,000 buildings, mostly under light security. That means a terrorist could readily misuse them for nefarious purposes.

The risk of radiation bombs raised few concerns before it became clear that al Qaeda was seeking nuclear materials. And over the past 15 years, those worries have taken a back seat to an even larger anxiety: that materials usable in a Hiroshima- or Nagasaki-sized nuclear bomb might fall into the wrong hands.

As a result, the Obama administration has focused its attention until now on locking down or eliminating the big sparkplugs: plutonium and highly enriched uranium. But the smaller "dirty bombs" and their lighter security have been a real source of worry among specialists, some of whom say that a detonation somewhere in the world is inevitable.

"I'm surprised it has not happened yet," said Laura Holgate, the National Security Council's senior director for weapons of mass destruction terrorism, at a Washington symposium three years ago. The mechanics of such a device are simple and widely known.

An internal Energy Department report in 2013 counted 70,000 medical, industrial and research devices with potentially dangerous radiological materials, and observed that they are "poorly secured at facilities in nearly every country."

Belgium's practices were worrisome even before the video turned up, an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity determined. The country had resisted American pressure to heighten physical protections at its main nuclear research center for years, until Washington said it would stop providing radioactive materials for its medical isotope factory unless improvements were made.

Even after local police forces were drilled on responding to a terrorist attack, U.S. experts worried -- and privately complained -- about the absence of any armed guards.
This was the policy the Belgians abruptly changed in early March, after the video's discovery. They dispatched 140 armed soldiers to guard key nuclear sites. In February, Sweden similarly for the first time ordered armed guards at its sites, although they are not required to be in place until next year.

"Every country, no matter how safe it thinks it is, needs to protect nuclear weapons and the materials you could use to make them against the full spectrum of plausible threats," said Matt Bunn, a nuclear security expert and former White House official who is now at Harvard University. "And wherever there are potential nuclear bomb materials, they need to have armed guards."

Government studies have shown that attackers can reach sensitive areas at many nuclear sites quickly, and that "it's really hard to design systems" against a concerted assault, Bunn said.

That's why Britain, Canada, France, Germany and the United States have long posted armed guards at sensitive sites. But many other countries still don't. The Netherlands, which supplies a large portion of the world's radioisotopes, is one; Italy, Argentina, Brazil, Slovakia and Spain similarly lack regulations requiring armed guards at their nuclear sites, according to the nonprofit advocacy group Nuclear Threat Initiative.

Many other measures can be taken to limit the risks of radiological materials. These include expert training of security personnel, helping less-developed countries find and use non-threatening industrial or medical alternatives, and creating rigorous systems to track material locations.

A major problem, however, is that the U.S. budget for this work has declined steadily in recent years, largely to make room for increased spending on modernizing nuclear weapons. The administration in February proposed a $7.6 million cut for next year and $270 million less than previously planned over the next four years. A U.S. target for securing radiological materials in 4,400 facilities has slipped by more than a decade, according to the Arms Control Association.

U.S. officials will try to use Obama's final Nuclear Security Summit later this month to raise awareness about the threat of a "dirty bomb" in terrorist hands. But It will be hard for U.S. diplomats to urge other nations to do more when Washington is suddenly doing less.

R. Jeffrey Smith is the managing editor for national security at the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative newsroom based in Washington DC, and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.

The views expressed above are the author's own.

This post is part of a blog series produced by The Huffington Post and Carnegie Corporation of New York about issues related to the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit. World leaders will gather in Washington, D.C., on March 31-April 1 to address the threat of nuclear terrorism and steps toward creating a global nuclear-security system to prevent it. To view all of the posts in the series, visit here. Join the conversation on Twitter at @CarnegieCorp, #NGOsummit, #NSS2016.

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