Belgian Terror and Nuclear Power

March 26, 2016

nukeplan

New York Times:

As a dragnet aimed at Islamic State operatives spiraled across Brussels and into at least five European countries on Friday, the authorities were also focusing on a narrower but increasingly alarming threat: the vulnerability of Belgium’s nuclear installations.

The investigation into this week’s deadly attacks in Brussels has prompted worries that the Islamic State is seeking to attack, infiltrate or sabotage nuclear installations or obtain nuclear or radioactive material. This is especially worrying in a country with a history of security lapses at its nuclear facilities, a weak intelligence apparatus and a deeply rooted terrorist network.

On Friday, the authorities stripped security badges from several workers at one of two plants where all nonessential employees had been sent home hours after the attacks at the Brussels airport and one of the city’s busiest subway stations three days earlier. Video footage of a top official at another Belgian nuclear facility was discovered last year in the apartment of a suspected militant linked to the extremists who unleashed the horror in Paris in November.

Asked on Thursday at a London think tank whether there was a danger of the Islamic State’s obtaining a nuclear weapon, the British defense secretary, Michael Fallon, said that “was a new and emerging threat.”

While the prospect that terrorists can obtain enough highly enriched uranium and then turn it into a nuclear fission bomb seems far-fetched to many experts, they say the fabrication of some kind of dirty bomb from radioactive waste or byproducts is more conceivable. There are a variety of other risks involving Belgium’s facilities, including that terrorists somehow shut down the privately operated plants, which provide nearly half of Belgium’s power.

The fears at the nuclear power plants are of “an accident in which someone explodes a bomb inside the plant,” said Sébastien Berg, the spokesman for Belgium’s federal agency for nuclear control. “The other danger is that they fly something into the plant from outside.” That could stop the cooling process of the used fuel, Mr. Berg explained, and in turn shut down the plant.

The revelation of the video surveillance footage was the first evidence that the Islamic State has a focused interest in nuclear material. But Belgium’s nuclear facilities have long had a worrying track record of breaches, prompting warnings from Washington and other foreign capitals.

Others are far more disconcerting. In 2012, two employees at the nuclear plant in Doel quit to join jihadists in Syria, and eventually transferred their allegiances to the Islamic State. Both men fought in a brigade that included dozens of Belgians, including Abdelhamid Abaaoud, considered the on-the-ground leader of the Paris attacks.

One of these men is believed to have died fighting in Syria, but the other was convicted of terror-related offenses in Belgium in 2014, and released from prison last year, according to Pieter Van Oestaeyen, a researcher who tracks Belgium’s jihadist networks. It is not known whether they communicated information about their former workplace to their Islamic State comrades.

At the same plant where these jihadists once worked, an individual who has yet to be identified walked into the reactor No. 4 in 2014, turned a valve and drained 65,000 liters of oil used to lubricate the turbines. The ensuing friction nearly overheated the machinery, forcing it to be shut down. The damage was so severe that the reactor was out of commission for five months.

Investigators are now looking into possible links between that case and terrorist groups, although they caution that it could also have been the work of an insider with a workplace grudge. What is clear is that the act was meant to sow dangerous havoc — and that the plant’s security systems can be breached.

“This was a deliberate act to take down the nuclear reactor, and a very good way to do it,” Mr. Berg, the nuclear agency spokesman, said of the episode in a recent interview.

Experts say the most remote of the potential nuclear-related risks is that Islamic State operatives would be able to obtain highly enriched uranium. Even the danger of a dirty bomb is limited, they said, because much radioactive waste is so toxic it would likely sicken or kill the people trying to steal it.

Cheryl Rofer, a retired nuclear scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and editor of the blog Nuclear Diner, said Belgium’s Tihange nuclear plant has pressurized water reactors, inside a heavy steel vessel, reducing the danger that nuclear fuel could leak or spread. She said that the Brussels bombers’ explosive of choice, TATP, might be able to damage parts of the plant but that the damage would shut down the reactor, limiting the radiation damage.

And if terrorists did manage to shut down the reactor and reach the fuel rods, they would have to remove them with a crane to get the fuel out of them, Ms. Rofer said. And then the fuel would still be “too radioactive to go near — it would kill you quickly.”

While experts are doubtful that terrorists could steal the highly enriched uranium at the Mol reactor without alerting law enforcement, some nuclear scientists do believe that if they could obtain it, they could recruit people who know how to fashion a primitive nuclear device.

Matthew Bunn, a specialist in nuclear security at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, said another worry was the byproducts of the isotopes made at Mol, such as Cesium-137.

“It’s like talcum powder,” he said. “If you made a dirty bomb out of it, it’s going to provoke fear, you would have to evacuate and you have to spend a lot of money cleaning it up; the economic destruction cost could be very high.”

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18 Responses to “Belgian Terror and Nuclear Power”

  1. peterangelo Says:

    Hey, I thought spreading needless baseless fear was the job of somebody with the words “homeland” in the job description. Sorry this is just a ridiculous post.

    • stephengn1 Says:

      …Go on…
      Can you please explain WHY this is “spreading needless baseless fear”?

      • Paul Clark Says:

        Peter is a lefty. Leftys believe Islam is a ‘religion of peace’. Leftys don’t like it when other leftys stray from their ‘tolerance’ narrative.

        • greenman3610 Says:

          You’re thinking of George Dubya Bush.

        • dumboldguy Says:

          Is this the Paul Clark of woodfortrees? That supposedly unbiased and apolitical computer programmer who only wants to advance the “debate” by providing analytical “tools”? Now running around calling people “lefties”? And commenting authoritatively on what “lefties” believe? No wonder deniers and the lemmings at WUWT think he’s a genius—-I can see their heads nodding in mindless agreement.

          • Paul Clark Says:

            No. Unfortunately the name Paul Clark is common like John Smith. WoodForTrees Paul Clark seems to stay out of controversies like this. Not sure why you criticise WoodForTrees though when the data comes straight from official data bases.

  2. stephengn1 Says:

    …Go on…
    Can you please explain WHY this is “spreading needless baseless fear”?

    • peterangelo Says:

      The real fear should be why over the past 15yrs the world is apparently so ill prepared and oh BTW when are we going to stop living in fear of ourselves and the monsters we create. WE are ISIS, ISIS is us and the world has to get its collective act together or things I call baseless (and they are) may no longer stay that way. Finally, How does rendering a large portion of the European continent uninhabitable further ISIS goals? Let’s not forget OBL was probably more concerned about climate change then almost the entire US congress. So yes baseless fear is the correct phrase.

  3. lorne50 Says:

    Really is not the world burning flooded and dying now nuks how do you sleep with all your fears

  4. peterangelo Says:

    Since when did this become a blog about terrorism, I get it the post was designed to point out the risk we face by not going to safe renewable energy. This was just a poor post for advancing that meme INHO. No disrespect meant to the blog owner in any of my comments..

    • stephengn1 Says:

      Please understand the link.
      In thinking about climate, the choice of our current and future energy sources is extremely important. It has been shown that nuclear energy is expensive, undemocratic and environmentally problematic to say the least. Terrorism, cyber and future climate threats to nuclear are just additions to a laundry list of items telling us that our resources and efforts would be better spent trying to adapt to the coming changes with more suitable energy sources

      …most especially that enormous natural fusion reactor in the sky – the energy source of all life since life began

      • kap55 Says:

        Expensive? Nuclear power is much less expensive than solar, and is likely to remain so. It’s also cheaper than wind in the long haul. Further, the cost of wind and solar increase as their market penetration increases; that’s not true of nuclear.

        Undemocratic? One might say the same thing about capitalism as a whole.

        Environmentally problematic? Much less so than any other energy source. For each MWh generated, wind uses three times more concrete than nuclear, five times more aluminum, ten times more steel, and 700 times more copper. That’s a lot of extra mining.

        It would be nice if we attacked the problem, which is fossil fuels, and stopped attacking one of the solutions.

  5. kap55 Says:

    In the needless baseless fear department:

    1. As usual for the anti-nuke crowd, nuclear weapons are falsely conflated with nuclear power. Nowhere in the article does it mention that nuclear power plants do not contain material used to make nuclear bombs. Instead, readers are repeatedly left with false implications that are the reverse of the truth. Why? Because when you’re writing an article with “nuclear” in the headline, baseless fears must be sown.

    2. Once we get to the guts of the article, what we find is that the real worries are that a bomb will be exploded inside the plant, or that a plane will be crashed into it. And we also find what the implications of that would be: the plant shuts down. Without a release of radioactive material. What, no danger to the public? Don’t mention that, just imply the reverse. Because baseless fears must be sown.

    3. Only after 12 paragraphs of fear-mongering are we finally allowed to read a bit of the truth, that any terrorists wanting radioactive material from a powerplant would kill themselves in the process of getting it. That doesn’t prevent the author from going to great lengths explaining what he thinks would happen if the impossible occurred and such a dirty bomb were built and used. But once again, false implications are spread, because in fact a dirty bomb kills from the blast, just like any other bomb. Not from the radioactivity. But baseless fears must be spread.

    One wonders why the NY Times has never written an article raising fears about terrorists stealing coal from a coal-fired powerplant in order to make gunpowder. Or why the Times has never written an article raising fears about terrorists dismantling solar arrays to make nunchucks or throwing knives. Those solar arrays are totally unguarded, so the danger is actually greater. But of course the Times would never write such articles, because that would be raising baseless fears.

    Meanwhile the Times actually had the evidence and totally misinterpreted it. The real takeaway from all this is that armed terrorists actually looked closely at the possibility of hitting a nuclear plant, and rejected the idea, choosing (as they always do) soft targets instead, to maximize actual deaths.

    So the total number of terrorist attacks on nuclear plants remains at zero, deaths zero, injuries zero. But you can’t say that, because it wouldn’t raise baseless fears. Which is the whole point of the article.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      Your points in 1) and 2) are good, but you start to go off track in 3). You need to slow down and stop trying to be so “cute” with your rhetoric after that—first, you do the cause no good with such ignorant foolishness as “…because in fact a dirty bomb kills from the blast, just like any other bomb. Not from the radioactivity”.

      Any fool knows that the damage and killing from the “blast” effects of any “bomb” are dependent mainly on its size. Dirty bombs are a somewhat different breed of animal, because they are meant to spread radioactive material widely, and may actually be less lethal blast-wise because of that.

      How much “killing” a “dirty” bomb does because of its radioactivity is dependent on how much radioactive material it contains, how potent the radioactive materials are, how well they are dispersed, and how “dense” the targeted population/area is. They are plain and simple terror weapons, and are meant to spread fear, which is not baseless since a well-done dirty bomb might kill a lot of people, albeit slowly, and render large areas uninhabitable. You might get away with “needless fear”, since no dirty bomb has ever been deployed (and it’s unlikely any will—-why should the terrorists take such an irretrievable step when plain old high explosives work well enough to scare everyone?)

      Your prattle about “….raising fears about terrorists stealing coal from a coal-fired powerplant in order to make gunpowder” and “raising fears about terrorists dismantling solar arrays to make nunchucks or throwing knives”. is snarky and just plain dumb.

      You should have prefaced “the total number of terrorist attacks on nuclear plants remains at zero, deaths zero, injuries zero” with “Nuclear Power, the most CO2 free source of large quantities of energy on the planet, and one of our few hopes to avoid catastrophic AGW, has resulted in very few deaths compared to those resulting from the use of fossil fuels, AND….”.

      You will be peeing into the wind, however, since the anti-nukes have been at it for so long and succeeded in getting too many people conflating nuclear power with nuclear weapons and mushroom clouds. Things will have to get worse before we come to our senses and accept nukes as part of the solution.

    • stephengn1 Says:

      “One wonders why the NY Times has never written an article raising fears about terrorists stealing coal from a coal-fired powerplant in order to make gunpowder.”
      — Do you have any idea how utterly absurd this comparison is?

      “Or why the Times has never written an article raising fears about terrorists dismantling solar arrays to make nunchucks or throwing knives. Those solar arrays are totally unguarded, so the danger is actually greater.”
      — in what alternate universe would destroying a solar array have more and longer lasting impact than say RPGs aimed at spent fuel pools?

      Does this, from the article:

      “In 2012, two employees at the nuclear plant in Doel quit to join jihadists in Syria, and eventually transferred their allegiances to the Islamic State. Both men fought in a brigade that included dozens of Belgians, including Abdelhamid Abaaoud, considered the on-the-ground leader of the Paris attacks.”

      Mean nothing to you? Do you believe there any difference, ever between “baseless fears” and genuine, rational costs to benefits analysis? Are you so blinded by your desire for and fanatical advocacy of nuclear energy that no facts can get through?

      I seems obvious to me and I invite your reply, that massive and immediate implementation of solutions like this (among many others):

      http://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/pressroom/newsreleases/2015/august/co2.html

      Are where we should place our (at this point Herculean) efforts

      • kap55 Says:

        > Do you have any idea how utterly absurd this comparison is?

        Of course it’s absurd. That’s exactly why I made the point. I would mention in context that gunpowder has killed far more people than nuclear weapons, much less nuclear power plants.

        >— in what alternate universe would destroying a solar array have more and longer lasting impact than say RPGs aimed at spent fuel pools?

        I suppose it’s the same alternate universe that doesn’t understand that spent fuel pools are located behind eight-foot walls of reinforced concrete. And that the spent fuel inside is twenty feet below the water. I’d say the nunchuks are riskier.

        > Does this, from the article: … Mean nothing to you?

        It certainly does. It means that jihadists could not do one damn thing at a nuclear power plant, and had to quit in order to carry out their jihad.

        > massive and immediate implementation of solutions like this (among many others)

        Great idea. It will require massive amounts of cheap, carbon-free energy to implement. So let’s not stand in the way of that, shall we?

        • stephengn1 Says:

          “I suppose it’s the same alternate universe that doesn’t understand that spent fuel pools are located behind eight-foot walls of reinforced concrete. And that the spent fuel inside is twenty feet below the water. I’d say the nunchuks are riskier.”
          –Then you’d be wrong. Have you ever seen what a shaped charge can do?

          “It certainly does. It means that jihadists could not do one damn thing at a nuclear power plant, and had to quit in order to carry out their jihad.”
          –Ah, I see. Would you have said the same about the jihadists testing airline security and training to be pilots just before 9/11 #DelusionalOrBlind?

          “Great idea. It will require massive amounts of cheap, carbon-free energy to implement. So let’s not stand in the way of that, shall we?”
          –Glad to see you agree that solid state solar (the harvesting of energy from the largest natural nuclear fusion reactor in our solar system) is a great idea. Now, precisely how much energy do you estimate it would take to create this technology using chemical vapor deposition?


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