The Belgian security services completed their background check in 2009 for a new inspector at the Doel nuclear power plant, about an hour’s drive from Brussels. Like other inspectors, Ilyass Boughalab had access to secure areas of the plant. He’d work for three years as a nuclear technician before leaving for Syria in 2012. He was killed there two years later fighting on the side of the Islamic State terrorist group.
As details continue to emerge about the recent terrorist attack in Belgium, one concern long on the mind of international leaders is the risk posed by weapons-usable material that could be fashioned into a dirty bomb or crude nuclear device — and the safety and security of the 440 nuclear power plants in 31 countries. Next week, President Obama and more than 50 world leaders — as well as business luminaries — will gather in Washington for a push to reduce the risk of the most dangerous materials falling into the wrong hands. It could not come at a better time.
Fears of nuclear terrorism are not new. Since 1993, there have been more than 2,700 confirmed incidents of illicit trafficking, unauthorized possession or loss of nuclear and radioactive material reported to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Al-Qaeda originally wanted to target nuclear plants in its 9/11 plot. As formerDefense secretary Robert Gates said, “Every senior leader, when you’re asked what keeps you awake at night, it’s the thought of a terrorist ending up with a weapon of mass destruction, especially nuclear.”
In Belgium, worries over the security of nuclear plants are not new, either. In the wake of Boughalab’s death, several people have been refused access or removed from nuclear sites after displaying signs of extremism, according to Belgium’s Federal Agency for Nuclear Control. The Doel nuclear plant was hobbled by sabotage in 2014. Evidence of recent ISIL surveillance of a senior Belgian nuclear worker added to the known threat.
In Belgium and beyond, despite an appreciation of the danger of materials falling into the wrong hands, fully binding international nuclear security standards do not exist. The IAEA, the world’s nuclear watchdog, has security recommendations, but it is up to each country to develop regulations and enforce them. For example, not all nuclear facilities have armed guards. Some, such as those in Belgium, rely on local police and defense forces to protect plants against external assaults. Cyber security, too, poses a major vulnerability: A comprehensive recent report by the Nuclear Threat Initiative found that 20 countries do not have even the basic requirements to guard facilities from cyberattacks.
It’s clear that better standards can be developed to reduce the risk to nuclear facilities in the U.S. and around the globe. In this, the nuclear industry itself has the opportunity to play a leading role. The industry would do well to work with multiple stakeholders to develop an agreed list of “gold standard” practices that would improve security. Such standards could be used to demonstrate compliance with internationally agreed-upon principles. Financial and non-financial incentives could be structured to motivate voluntary compliance with these standards so that security can become a valuable commodity instead of an add-on cost. This private sector leadership would serve as a shot of adrenaline in global nuclear security efforts.
There is, of course, no simple answer to effectively and comprehensively reducing the threat of a nuclear terror attack — but sensible steps can be taken. The world can look to leadership in international organizations such as the IAEA, fast-developing countries such as China, as well as new industry efforts to bring about needed change. Next week’s Nuclear Security Summit is an opportunity to quickly improve defenses. Recent events in Belgium underscore the fact that it is an opportunity we can’t afford to miss.
Debra Decker is a senior adviser at the Stimson Center think tank and the co-author of two recent reports, “Nuclear Energy: Securing the Future — A Case for Voluntary Consensus Standards” and “The Quest for Nuclear Security Standards.”
This piece originally ran in USA Today, March 24, 2016