Not Secure Enough: The Threat of Terrorists Acquiring Nuclear Materials is Still Serious


The recent suicide bombings in Brussels have turned the lion’s share of public discourse, perhaps only briefly, away from the torrid primary elections coverage in the United States. These attacks merely served to underline the threat to the West that the self-declared Islamic State poses. The Brussels attacks represent not just a reaffirmation of ISIL’s ability to strike outside of its typical areas of operation, but also a potential near miss with an even weightier and more transcendent threat, namely the vulnerability of nuclear power plants and other facilities that house fissile materials or materials that emit dangerous amounts of ionizing radiation.

Last month Belgian prosecutors revealed that a video recording, seized in a December 2015 raid on the home of suspected Paris attack accomplice Mohamed Bakkali, featured some 10 hours of covert surveillance footage of a senior employee at the Belgian nuclear research center (SCK CEN) traveling to and from work. Reports since the Brussels attack have stated that the videographers were none other than the El Bakraoui brothers who blew themselves up in Brussels. It is not certain why they were filming the Belgian official, but one plausible theory is that they were preparing to kidnap a family member in order to coerce the official to grant them access to the nuclear facility in the hope of acquiring nuclear or radiological material. Though worrying on its own, the nefarious activity in evidence on the tape occurred against the background of broader concerns about the security of nuclear facilities in Belgium. In 2001, al Qaeda operative Nizar Trabelsi was arrested in the midst of plotting to bomb the Keine Brogel Air Base, a facility thought to have housed U.S. Air Force tactical nuclear weapons at the time. From 2009 to 2012, Ilyass Boughalab, a Belgian national killed fighting with ISIL in Syria in November 2012, was employed and cleared to enter sensitive areas at the Doel nuclear power plant just outside of Antwerp. Then, in August 2014, an act of sabotage likely committed by a facility insider caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage at the same plant and forced a reactor to be shut down for four months. The same facility was illegally overflown by a drone aircraft (whose operator was never caught) the day after being returned to full operation. This nexus of dangers is all the more worrying given that the facilities most threatened were a research facility believed to house significant quantities of fissile material and a nuclear power plant unusually proximate to a large population center.

Although Belgian nuclear security officials clearly have reason to worry, the problem is not limited to a single country. For one, there are numerous facilities housing dangerous radiological and nuclear materials around the world that are far less secure than Belgium’s facilities, particularly those languishing in former Soviet territories and places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Indeed, START’s recently released Nuclear Facility Attack Database (NuFAD), which records breaches of sensitive nuclear facilities, indicates that in recent years even some of the nuclear facilities ostensibly afforded the best conceivable security have been startlingly open to intrusion. In the last 10 years alone we have seen the storage site of South Africa’s weapons grade uranium breached in a sophisticated way by a mysterious team of intruders, the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee deeply infiltrated by an octogenarian nun and her fellow elder activists, a likely nuclear-equipped Pakistani air base fending off a Taliban attack for five consecutive hours, the Israeli plutonium production facility at Dimona targeted by Hamas rockets, and nuclear power facilities across Europe entered almost casually by activists on numerous occasions.

In order to succeed in their nuclear or radiological attack ambitions, terrorists need to do more than simply acquire the right material; they need to construct, transport and detonate a radiological or nuclear weapon. A nuclear bomb would be far more difficult to pull off than a less catastrophic radiological dispersal device. Yet, access to the right material is really the hard part. History has shown that even at the most heavily protected sites, a poor security culture and a belief that the security measures of yesterday are sufficient to deal with an ever-evolving threat can lead to glaring vulnerabilities. Fortunately, most of the recent successful intrusions of nuclear facilities have been by protesters with no intent to either steal or release radioactive materials. Yet, as the Belgian case shows, actors with far more malicious intent like ISIL are also interested in acquiring access to these sites.

The decision by Belgian authorities earlier this month to dispatch 140 armed military personnel to stand guard at the country’s nuclear facilities indicates that the most recent evidence of nuclear facility threat, coupled with the non-nuclear but certainly tragic attack that did occur, was enough to convince Belgian policymakers to firmly shut whatever window of opportunity had been left open for would-be nuclear facility attackers. What remains to be seen, as the events in Belgium fade from the front pages, is whether Belgium’s newly and necessarily bolstered security practices will be maintained, and more importantly, if any pressure to reassess nuclear security ripples out to regulators elsewhere before the next threat is on their doorstep. Renewed nuclear security vigor is not only necessary in Africa and Central and Southern Asia, where security culture often falls far short of accounting for the threats that abound in these regions, but also in the world’s most advanced nuclear countries, where security standards long deemed adequate stand untested in the face of recently emerged and increasingly accessible implements of both kinetic and cyber infiltration. The Belgian and similarly foreboding incidents across the globe make it imperative that regulators, facility operators and counterterrorism forces resist complacency when it comes to the security of nuclear facilities.


James Halverson is a researcher in the Unconventional Weapons and Technology Division of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (UWT-START). Mr. Halverson studies nuclear security issues, including the vulnerability of nuclear materials and facilities and the behavioral aspects of nuclear and radiological terrorism.

Gary Ackerman is the Director of UWT-START. Dr. Ackerman researches terrorist motivations and capabilities for engaging in unconventional terrorism, terrorist tactical decision-making and the effect on terrorist behavior of emerging technologies.