After Brussels attack, new urgency for nuclear summit

In the aftermath of the bombings, Belgian officials have disclosed a number of discoveries suggesting the Islamic State’s interest in Belgium’s nuclear facilities – and lapses in those facilities’ security measures.

Francois Lenoir/Reuters
Activists wearing masks and protective suits protest against what organizers called a lack of safety of Belgian Nuclear power plants outside the Belgian Interior Ministry in Brussels, Feb. 1.

The nuclear security summit that will draw more than 50 world leaders to Washington beginning Thursday was looking like little more than a victory lap for President Obama. Having put the issue on the global agenda in 2009, Mr. Obama could hail some progress in reducing the risks from the world’s most dangerous materials.

Then Brussels happened.

In the aftermath of the bombings, Belgian officials have disclosed a number of chilling discoveries suggesting the self-proclaimed Islamic State’s interest in Belgium’s nuclear facilities – and lapses in those facilities’ security measures.

Those revelations, in turn, have served to ensure that Mr. Obama’s last nuclear-security gathering takes on a new sense of urgency.

But the renewed salience of nuclear-security issues, which nonproliferation experts say is overdue and welcome, does not mean that the most pressing threats and challenges related to the world’s nuclear stockpiles will be addressed at Obama’s summit, those experts add.

“The Belgian attacks made a session that was promising a lot of forgettable self-congratulations and rosy stock-taking a lot more relevant,” says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC) in Washington. “But does that mean this summit is going to take up the really important threats associated with terrorism, like sabotage and screening of workers in the control rooms and vulnerability of spent-fuel ponds? I bet you not.”

Nor, Mr. Sokolski adds, is the summit likely to take up what he and other experts say are the broader challenges confronting Obama’s goal of securing and reducing the world’s vulnerable nuclear stockpiles. Those are big, complex issues like the world’s rising interest in commercial plutonium and the “off limits” nature of the world’s (largely US and Russian) military nuclear stockpiles.

Some officials argue that military stockpiles don’t pose the security risk of civilian nuclear materials, which are handled by civilian employees vetted to varying degrees around the world. But Sokolski says more materials mean more risk, period.

“If you have more materials produced and moving around, it will be easier for the guy in the ski mask to get a hold of it,” he says.

In Belgium, a video seized by French authorities in the wake of the November Paris attacks revealed that someone – apparently associated with the Islamic State (IS) – was filming the daily patterns of a senior official with a Belgian nuclear research facility where a considerable stockpile of enriched uranium is kept.

Also in Belgium, an employee with a nuclear contractor who had security clearance to operate in highly sensitive areas of the country’s Doel power reactor abandoned his job in 2012 to fight for IS. That employee, a member of the group Sharia4Belgium, was killed fighting in Syria in 2014 – the same year someone else at the Doel reactor sabotaged the plant by opening a valve and causing a turbine to burn out.

Despite that, Belgium’s nuclear facilities operated with only unarmed security guards until earlier this month, although the country did take some security measures – like requiring plant employees to work in groups of at least two – in 2014. Such measures have prompted administration officials to laud Belgium for its security efforts.

“Belgium … has advanced nuclear security protocols in place,” says Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.

Obama launched the nuclear security summits in Prague in 2009 in a speech in which he called for eventually getting to “zero” nuclear weapons and for securing the world’s vulnerable nuclear materials, or “loose nukes,” within four years.

The goal of securing loose nukes has not been reached, but proliferation experts say that should not shroud the accomplishments of Obama’s initiative. Over the six years of the effort, 14 countries have completely given up holdings of weapons-grade fuel, and other countries have reduced those stockpiles and tightened security measures.

“I think it’s fair to say this is an Obama accomplishment,” says Sharon Squassoni, director of the Center for Strategic and International Security Studies’ proliferation prevention program. “The real question is, what happens after this?” she adds. 

With Obama leaving office next year, the idea is to turn the nuclear security effort over to five international agencies. But some proliferation experts worry agencies like the United Nations and Interpol don’t have the persuasive pull that the summit process did.

Without the summit, countries are likely to feel less obligated to follow the example of a country like the US, Ms. Squassoni says. Citing the challenge of unsecured medical isotopes and other radiological materials used in most countries, she says, “There are no legally binding obligations for countries to implement the kinds of security measures the US has on its radioactive materials.”

Another worrisome trend is the quest of a growing number of countries for plutonium reprocessing capabilities. Currently at least four countries – China, India, Japan, and Pakistan – are planning to build reprocessing plants to produce plutonium.                 

NPEC’s Sokolski notes that North Korea’s recent nuclear provocations are prompting some in South Korea to pressure the government to commence reprocessing fuel from the country’s nuclear plants to extract plutonium. With Japan and China already heading down the plutonium path, East Asia could be in for a “nuclear explosive materials arms race,” Sokolski says – though he says the issue is unlikely to appear on the summit agenda.

“The success of these summits depends on consensus, so I think we have some higher-ups in the administration who decided to set aside an issue like plutonium so as not to offend anybody,” he says.

Obama can argue that, particularly after Brussels, keeping nuclear materials out of the hands of terrorists has returned as priority No. 1. But in that case, Sokolski says, the summit should deliver on the mundane security issues that matter.

“In fairness to the administration, they can argue that this is focused on nuclear terrorism, not the plans of responsible states,” he says. “But in that case, let’s get folks to really tighten up security at plants and spent-fuel ponds and take measures to prevent control-room sabotage. Then they will have accomplished something.”

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