Saturday, March 26, 2016

The threat against nuclear power plants. Belgium nuclear security guard shot and access badge stolen.

Belgian mourners gather in Place de la Bourse after the attack in Brussels. Reuters.

A security guard at a nuclear power plant in Belgium was shot and killed and had an access badge stolen. Reuters. The murder happened just two days after ISIS attacked the city of Brussels, detonating bombs at the airport and in a metro station. The badge was immediately deactivated as soon as his body was found. The incident occurred in the Charleroi region of Belgium. Fears are high in Belgium as it was reported that the terrorists that attacked Brussels had originally planned to attack a nuclear power plant before those plans were canceled due to the arrests of other militants. Last year ISIS militants involved with the Paris attacks were discovered to be in possession of a video showing the movements of a nuclear power official. 

My Comment:
The obvious question is whether this murder has anything whatsoever to do with terrorism. Believe it or not, security guards have enemies as well. This could very well be a run of the mill murder, for all the reasons normal murders happen. It is significant that his ID access badge was stolen but that could just be incidental. If it was a robbery, for example, and the guard kept their card in their wallet or purse, it could have been taken by mistake. And there could be dozens of other reasons that the ID was stolen or the guard was murdered that have nothing to do with terrorism.

On the other hand, the timing is rather suspect. It's clear that ISIS has an interest in nuclear technology, both as a terrorism target, and for the possibility of creating a dirty bomb. The fact that the ISIS cell in Brussels was interested in attacking a nuclear power plant means that other cells active in the country could be thinking the same thing. It's plausible at least that this was part of a plan to attack a nuclear power plant.

Attacking a nuclear power plant would be a propaganda coup for ISIS and would cause a massive panic, even if it didn't accomplish much. In order to actually do some seriously damage a nuclear reactor they would either have to destroy the reactor's containment or damage its controls. If they could get past security, I think that a suicide bombing could probably accomplish that. Given how heavily guarded the nuclear power plants in Europe are, especially now, that would be a tall order. My guess is that they would be shot before they had a chance to pull it off. 

Still, damaging or even destroying a nuclear power plant would have huge consequences. First of all, there is the threat of radiation, which could kill or injure a large number of people. Far more then that would die during the attack itself. Second, there would be a disruption of the power grid, which would do massive economic damage and hurt recovery efforts. 

Finally, the psychological damage would be dramatic. People are afraid of nuclear power. Compare the reaction to the 2011 Japan Tsunami, which killed almost 16,000 and the meltdown caused by that disaster which killed zero people to date. Nobody remembers the tsunami, but everyone remembers that it caused a meltdown. People are still talking about the Fukushima radiation threat as if it is going to kill us all any day now. And that was from a natural disaster, not a man made terrorist attack. 

Even an unsuccessful attack on a nuclear power plant could cause a panic greater then what has been seen in Europe in years. If ISIS or another group managed to seriously damage a plant and actually cause a radiation leak it would be pure bedlam. Nuclear power would probably be on the way out in Europe and relations between Muslims in Europe and non-Muslims would completely degrade to the point of possible open warfare. 

Given that is what ISIS wants, it's obvious why they are so interested in attacking these nuclear sites. But I think the actual threat is low. Security is decent enough at these plants and I doubt they would be able to pull off a successful attack. Power plants in general are "hard targets" and nuclear ones are doubly so. It's so much easier to attack softer targets, like airports and metro stations. The impact of the attack is smaller when you choose a soft target but the chance of success is much better.

 I honestly think if they wanted to hit a nuclear power plant, the United States would be a better target, at least right now. Unlike Europe, we don't have our military posted at our nuclear power plants. We do have security guards, of course, and they are armed, but not so well armed that they could fight back against a determined attack. Fortunately, the threat in the United States is much less then the threat in Europe, so I doubt there are all that many people here interested in even trying compared to the massive threat that Belgium and the rest of Europe is facing right now. 

Of course, ISIS also has an interest in stealing nuclear materials to make a dirty bomb. That could have been the plan with this murder. They could just dress as the guard and then use his ID to get in and try to steal materials. It would be a dangerous plan with a small chance of success, but similar things have happened in the past. I would hope that nobody would be that careless during a time when the threat is so sky high, but anything could happen... Nevertheless, I think this possibility is extremely remote.

My guess is that this particular murder was just that. A normal, run of the mill murder. It sucks for the man or woman that was killed, but my guess is that the connection to international terrorism is mostly in these reporters heads. I could be wrong, but I hope that I am not. Either way though, it gave me an excuse to talk about the threat of nuclear terrorism... 

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