By Michael Moran
WASHINGTON – The discovery of surveillance footage of one of Belgium’s nuclear facilities in a raid on Islamic State terror cells has lent new urgency to efforts at securing such sites against possible heists of nuclear materials.
Since the end of the Cold War, the risk of nuclear proliferation has focused primarily on suspected state-led efforts – mostly in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Iran and North Korea. But the video footage found during the arrest in February of suspected IS member Mohammed Bakkali, linked to the November 13 attacks on Paris, has caused shudders in western security circles. Since then, the IAEA has confirmed that radioactive material has disappeared from hospital facilities in the area of Iraq held by IS, raising concern that the group might be planning to build a radiological “dirty bomb.”
A dirty bomb is not a nuclear weapon per se, but rather a conventional explosive that would disperse highly radioactive material over a wide area. Though infinitely less lethal than an actual nuclear explosion, officials believe such a device could be highly lethal and render small areas of major cities uninhabitable for a prolonged period.
All of this should be top of mind later this week when President Barack Obama convenes the last of a series of Nuclear Security Summits (NSS) launched by the US in 2010 to focus on securing the widespread stocks of potentially lethal radioactive materials stored all over the world. The threat posed by such weapons falling into the hands of terrorists is highlighted in this new documentary released to coincide with the summit.
The nuclear security summits, held every two years since 2010, have bolstered international cooperation and raised awareness about the threat of nuclear terrorism posed by inadequately secured nuclear materials worldwide. For instance, the number of countries where highly enriched uranium or plutonium is stored has fallen – but 27 states still store such material, and not always in the most secure circumstances.
The March 31-April 1 summit at the White House in Washington will be the fourth such summit, and as Obama’s tenure is almost over, the final in the NSS series. Whether this work will continue is something that deeply concerns nuclear security experts.
“If the leaders finish this meeting and there’s no mechanism to continue engaging each other, to continue making commitments to build the global system we need for nuclear material security, we won’t reach the point that we need to in terms of a legal architecture, in terms of leaders that are committed to nuclear security, and in terms of building accountability,” says Joan Rolfing, president of the Nuclear Threat Institute, a nonprofit group that studies nuclear issues.
Another concern is Russia’s absence from the summit. Regarded as one of the more vulnerable links in the chain of nuclear material security, Russia has refused to participate in the final summit after its actions in Ukraine prompted US and EU economic sanctions. That has some experts worried that IS or other terrorist groups could take advantage of the loss of focus.
“The fact that Russia decided not to participate in the Nuclear Security Summit any longer is very detrimental to the process, because the United States and Russia remain the main holders of both nuclear weapons and nuclear material,” said Togzhan Kassenova of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Russia is extremely important to the secure nuclear future of the whole world. I just personally hope that maybe, with time, Russia will come back to cooperation with their partners on this very, very important issue.”
Meanwhile, in Belgium, authorities rescinded security badges from several employees of the country’s nuclear facilities late last week after investigations raised concerns about a possible IS plot to infiltrate or even sabotage the country’s nuclear power facilities. In 2012, Belgium confirmed that two employees of its nuclear power facility in Doel quit to join IS jihadists fighting in Syria. The issue, as they say, is on the front burner.
Michael Moran is a New York-based Managing Director for Global Risk Analysis concentrating on the United States and global issues at Control Risks, the world’s leading political, integrity, and security risk consultancy.