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Belgium's nuclear security scares

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green ‒ Nuclear Monitor editor


A number of nuclear security issues have emerged in Belgium in recent months, and long-standing problems have been exposed. Here we pull together some of the most illuminating commentary.

Academics Robert Downes and Daniel Salisbury summarize recent problems and provide some context:1

"Belgium's counter-terrorism efforts are once again being called into question following the recent tragedies in Brussels. The attacks were carried out against soft targets – the public check-in area of Brussels Airport and Maelbeek metro station – but a series of unusual and suspicious occurrences were also reported at nuclear facilities in the country. Occurring a week before a major international summit2 on nuclear security, these events highlight the very real threat to nuclear facilities. For Belgium, this recent episode is one item on a long list of security concerns.

"The US repeatedly has voiced concerns about Belgium's nuclear security arrangements since 2003. That year, Nizar Trabelsi, a Tunisian national and former professional footballer, planned to bomb the Belgian Kleine-Brogel airbase under the aegis of Al-Qaeda.3 The airbase, which holds US nuclear weapons, has seen multiple incursions by anti-nuclear activists who have gained access to the site's "protected area", which surrounds hardened weapons storage bunkers.4 Yet, Belgium only started using armed guards at its nuclear facilities weeks before the March 2016 attacks.5

"Beyond incursions, so-called "insider threats" have also cost Belgium dearly. The nation's nuclear industry comprises two ageing power stations first commissioned in the 1970s (Doel and Tihange), and two research facilities, a research reactor facility in Mol, and a radioisotope production facility in Fleurus.

"In 2014, an unidentified worker sabotaged a turbine at the Doel nuclear power station by draining its coolant.6 The plant had to be partially shut down, at a loss of €40 million per month. Based on this history, the Belgian authorities should be primed to take nuclear security especially seriously. But there are serious questions about whether they are.7

"Islamic State is believed to have taken possession of radiological materials, including 40kg of uranium compounds in Iraq.8 This suggests a possible interest in fabricating a radiological dispersal device – or "dirty bomb" – that would spread dangerous radioactive materials over a wide area.

"It had been assumed that IS was concentrating this activity in the Middle East. But that all changed in late 2015. A senior nuclear worker at the Mol research facility was found to have been placed under "hostile surveillance" by individuals linked to the Islamic State-sanctioned attacks in Paris.7 Reports suggested that the terrorist cell may have planned to blackmail or co-opt the worker to gain access to either the facility or radiological materials.

"Alongside the 2014 Doel sabotage incident, this raises the spectre of an "insider threat". A worker could use their access, authority and knowledge to sabotage a nuclear plant or remove material for malicious purposes.

"This concern is furthered by reports of a worker at the Doel plant, who was associated with the radical Salafist organisation Sharia4Belgium, joining Al-Qaeda-inspired militants in Syria in late 2012.6 Following his death in Syria, the Belgian nuclear regulator reported that "several people have ... been refused access to a nuclear facility or removed from nuclear sites because they showed signs of extremism"."

Before and after the March 22 terrorist attacks in Brussels, authorities revoked the security clearances of 11 workers at the Tihange nuclear power plant.9,10 After the March 22 attacks, all non-essential staff were sent home from the Tihange and Doel nuclear power plants to reduce the risk of unauthorized access, and military presence was increased at the sites.11,12

Patchy record

A February 29 analysis by the Center for Public Integrity outlines Belgium's patchy record on nuclear security:7

"In 2004, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell raised the reactor security issue with Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel, according to a February 2005 U.S. diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks.13 U.S. nuclear authorities also asked their counterparts in France ‒ which arms guards at its own nuclear sites ‒ to help persuade the Belgians to take the issue seriously.

"Three years later, many of the security upgrades urged by Washington were still not in place, due to what Belgian officials termed "unforeseen technical, budgetary, and management issues," according to a March 2007 U.S. cable disclosed by Wikileaks.14 But by late 2009, Belgian security authorities had completed some of the work and invited American officials to witness a security drill there.

"In the drill, 13 armed police units from the surrounding area responded to a mock attack on the reactor site by five supposed terrorists equipped with rifles and small explosives, who pretended to be trying to gain access to dangerous radioactive materials. U.S. officials on the scene termed the exercise a sign of progress, but said room for improvement remained, and urged the Belgians to take lessons from more robust "force-on-force" exercises conducted at similar facilities in the United States.

"It wasn't until 2013, nine years after Powell's complaint, that Belgium enacted laws strengthening its security clearance procedures and providing serious criminal penalties for both improper handling of radioisotopes and for attempted break-ins at the high-security areas of nuclear sites. An inspection team sent to SCK-CEN and other nuclear sites by the International Atomic Energy Agency in December 2014 concluded that "the physical protection system ... is robust" but also recommended additional measures to improve security. ...

"Scheerlinck, the nuclear regulatory spokeswoman, responded that although the government recently decided to create a "Nuclear Quick Response Team" within the federal police, arming the guards stationed on-site at such facilities is not currently being considered. Doing so "would give people a false sense of security and ... weapons should only be used by people who are properly trained to deal with the kind of situations that require an armed intervention (i.e. the police and military)," she said in an emailed comment.

"Even after taking some of the security precautions urged by Washington, Belgium ‒ which has seven operating nuclear reactors ‒ was embarrassed by several 2014 incidents15 that suggest important gaps remain."

Video surveillance and armed guards at nuclear plants

Last November, 10 hours of video footage of an employee of Belgium's nuclear research reactor centre SCK-CEN was discovered in a house being rented by Mohamed Bakkali, who was arrested on suspicion of helping to plot the November 2015 terrorist siege on Paris that killed 130 people.16,17,18 Belgian authorities believe the video camera was picked up from outside the employee's house by Ibrahim and Khalid el-Bakraoui, the suicide bombers in the March 22 Brussels attacks. The existence of the video footage became public knowledge on February 18. The Belgian interior minister initially rejected a proposal to deploy troops at nuclear plants but changed his mind a fortnight later and deployed 140 soldiers to guard five nuclear sites. Until then, Belgium had no armed troops or armed guards at its nuclear facilities.

In the absence of any concrete evidence, the motives for the video surveillance have been the subject of speculation. A spokesperson for Belgium's nuclear regulator said: "We can imagine that the terrorists might want to kidnap someone or kidnap his family."18 Another spokesperson for the nuclear regulator raised the possibility of "an accident in which someone explodes a bomb inside the plant".19 Others have speculated that the plan was to kidnap the employee "potentially to gain access to the facility and acquire enough radioactive material to create a dirty bomb."20

Nuclear security expert Prof. Matthew Bunn from Harvard University questions whether the motivation was to acquire material for a dirty bomb since radiological materials are available in many locations where they would be much easier to steal, such as hospitals and industrial sites.21 He argues that the possibility that terrorists were (and are) seeking fissile material for nuclear weapons has been too quickly dismissed. The SCK-CEN site at Mol contains enough highly enriched uranium [HEU] for several nuclear bombs.

Bunn writes:21

"The Times story19 largely dismissed ‒ wrongly, in my view ‒ the idea that the HEU at SCK-CEN might have been the terrorists' ultimate objective, saying that the idea that terrorists could get such material and make a crude nuclear bomb "seems far-fetched to many experts." Unfortunately, as we document in detail in our recent report22, repeated government studies, in the United States and elsewhere, have concluded that this is not far-fetched ‒ that it is quite plausible that a sophisticated terrorist group could make a nuclear bomb if they got the needed nuclear material. ...

"Of course, just because the terrorists could find and monitor a nuclear official's home does not mean they could have broken in to SCK-CEN and gotten HEU or anything else. What did they think they could accomplish with this monitoring? One obvious possibility is that they envisioned either kidnapping the official or kidnapping his family to coerce him into helping them carry out whatever plot they had in mind. Such coercion is a frequent criminal and terrorist tactic. Breaking into a nuclear facility is not as simple as kidnapping someone. But a kidnapping might well contribute to a more complex plot.

"If the Belgian suicide bombers were the ones monitoring the nuclear official, it's possible they first planned to attack the country's nuclear infrastructure.23 They may have shifted to the airport when their plans were accelerated by the arrests of co-conspirators, or because of Belgium's deployment of armed troops to guard its nuclear facilities. But a spokesman at the Belgian Federal Agency for Nuclear Control told the Washington Post that they "knew nothing" of any such a plot24, and Belgian federal prosecutors have not confirmed any such plot.

"Press accounts of the possibility the terrorists were planning some kind of an attack on nuclear facilities have unduly played down the potential dangers of reactor sabotage. A story19 in The New York Times, for example, quotes an argument that the TATP explosive the terrorists were using would not get through the steel pressure vessel of a nuclear reactor. It is certainly true that to cause a major radioactive release, terrorists would have to understand how to overcome a number of different safety and security systems. Getting into a power plant with a suicide vest of explosives would not be enough. But as Fukushima made clear, cutting off a reactor's electricity and cooling water can cause a disaster that can provoke widespread panic and cause devastating disruption and economic losses."

US nuclear weapons in Belgium

Jeffrey Lewis from the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies writes about the security risks associated with U.S. nuclear weapons stationed in Belgium:25

"If you were a Belgian terrorist, why settle for a dirty bomb, when you have the option of stealing an honest-to-goodness nuclear bomb? The United States "forward deploys" about 180 B61 nuclear bombs at bases in Europe ‒ including a small number at a Belgian air base known as Kleine Brogel, about an hour outside of Brussels. These weapons are the sole remaining tactical nuclear weapon systems that the United States deploys abroad. ...

"The security of these nuclear weapons is terrible. Yeah, yeah, yeah. The U.S. Defense Department will trot out a spokesbot to tell you everything is fine. Let me tell you a story or two. In an earlier job, I ran a project that tried to outline options for what would become the 2009 Nuclear Posture Review. One of the better parts was the travel. I made a lovely visit to Brussels, where my team had a series of very high-level meetings at the European Union and NATO headquarters. There were some steak frites, a little lambic beer, and a lot of talk about nuclear weapons. And at the time, senior U.S. military officers made one thing very clear to us: The security at the bases stunk.

"One commander noted that the upgrades necessary to meet security requirements would run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Another said his worst fear was that a group of activists would be able to get inside the shelters where the nuclear weapons are stored and use a cell phone to publish a picture of the vaults. And then it happened. In January 2010, a group of protesters who call themselves "Bombspotters" entered Kleine Brogel.4 Apparently the plan was to hang around on the tarmac of the runway and get arrested. But no one came to arrest them. ...

"It's true that the Bombspotters haven't been back to Kleine Brogel in a few years. But that's because they've been breaking into other locations. And, a couple of years ago, there was yet another incursion, by another group of activists, at Volkel Air Base in the Netherlands.

"Security still stinks, as far as I can tell. Which brings us back to the terrorist attacks in Brussels. Do we really want to keep these weapons in Belgium, in light of what we now know are very large and organized jihadi networks in that country and France? Or in light of these security failings? The rationale for keeping nuclear weapons in Belgium and other NATO countries is the idea of burden-sharing ‒ the notion that Belgium and other European governments should share political responsibility for defending this contribution to their national defense. Yet, what contribution are U.S. nuclear weapons making, precisely, to European security? At present, they seem to pose more of a threat, a temptation for local terrorist networks."


1. Robert J. Downes and Daniel Salisbury, 30 March 2016, 'Is Belgium's nuclear security up to scratch?',






7. Patrick Malone and R. Jeffrey Smith, 29 Feb 2016, 'The Islamic State's Plot to Build a Radioactive 'Dirty Bomb'',


9. Rachel Middleton, 25 March 2016, 'Fears Brussels cell was plotting radioactive attack after 11 nuclear workers' access passes revoked',

10. 24 March 2016,

11. Angelique Chrisafis, 26 March 2016, 'Belgium steps up security at nuclear sites in wake of attacks',

12. Reuters, 22 March 2016, 'Non-essential staff at Belgian nuclear plants Doel and Tihange sent home',




16. 27 March 2016,

17. R. Jeffrey Smith, 25 March 2016, 'A Nuclear Wake-Up Call in Belgium',

18. Patrick Malone, 24 March 2016, 'Report: Brussels suicide bombers sought radioactive materials',

19. Alissa J. Rubin and Milan Schreuer, 25 March 2016, 'Belgium Fears Nuclear Plants Are Vulnerable',

20. Samuel Osborne, 19 Feb 2016, 'Isis suspects secretly monitored Belgian nuclear scientist, raising dirty bomb fears',

21. Matthew Bunn, 29 March 2016, 'Belgium Highlights the Nuclear Terrorism Threat and Security Measures to Stop it',




25. Jeffrey Lewis, 29 March 2016, 'Belgium's Failed State Is Guarding America's Nuclear Weapons',


Belgium's nuclear power program: Trade unions take action

Belgium's nuclear program has featured prominently in the media in recent months, and not just because of the security scares. There were the thousands of cracks in the pressure vessels of two reactors, and a fierce public debate over the lifetime extension of the oldest nuclear reactors. Last week, trade unions blocked access to the Tihange nuclear power plant for several days. Only the operators could enter the plant. The trade unions complain about bad relations with the Executive Board, which would not respect an agreement between the board and the trade unions. Trade unions also claim that working conditions have deteriorated. The discontent of the trade unions also has to do with their dissatisfaction with government policy. According to them, government is far too friendly to businesses. On Friday April 15, the trade unions and the managing director came to an agreement and the blockade was removed. During the action, electricity supply was not disrupted.

Belgian law provides for the closure of Belgium's seven reactors within 10 years. What will be the future for the staff of the two Belgian nuclear power plants? Will they be able to find another job within owner Engie Electrabel? With the same job quality and wage conditions? There is another important question. In recent years traditional utilities such as EDF, Eon and Engie have experienced hard times. Their business model is faltering. Will Engie Electrabel be sufficiently profitable to maintain the current wage policy? If not, employees could risk worse salary conditions. Will employees accept that, or will there be strikes and blockades of nuclear power plants? These are major issues but there is little discussion or debate about them in Belgium at the moment. Last week's action at the Tihange nuclear plant might be the harbinger of a long and important social struggle.

‒ Luc Barbé, independent consultant on energy issues