Terror cell probe puts spotlight on nuclear concerns

The Wall Street Journal reports: Evidence unearthed in the investigation into the Islamic State cell behind the Paris and Brussels attacks has raised fresh concerns about terrorists’ efforts to get their hands on radioactive material.

Belgium’s federal prosecutor said last month that police had discovered a 10-hour videotape showing the home of a man who worked in Belgium’s “nuclear world” during a house search linked to the Paris attacks. The recording came from a surveillance camera installed in front of the man’s home, a spokesman for the prosecutor said at the time.

The same terrorist cell has been tied to Tuesday’s bloodshed at Brussels’ international airport and a subway station.

Authorities around the globe have long feared that terrorists could get nuclear material to build a so-called dirty bomb—which combines conventional explosives with radioactive materials—or launch an attack on a nuclear power plant. At the same time, Belgium’s nuclear plants, which provide the majority of the country’s electricity, have been criticized for a patchy safety record.

Just hours after the explosions in Brussels, Belgium’s nuclear safety agency, FANC, pulled nonessential staff out of the country’s two plants. Officials said the move was a standard measure when the country is at its highest threat level and they had no indication of a specific threat.

Staff members were back at work on Wednesday with strict security checks and a strong police and military presence, said Geetha Keyaert, a spokeswoman for Electrabel, a unit of France’s Engie SA, which operates Belgium’s nuclear plants. A FANC spokeswoman wouldn’t comment.

Belgium is especially vulnerable as a target because of its homegrown terror threat and the fact that its seven nuclear reactors are at least 30 years old, said Tom Sauer, a nuclear terrorism specialist at Belgium’s University of Antwerp.

Newer plants are protected against threats such as attacks by airplanes, “but in the older Belgian plants, there are still some vulnerable parts,” he said.

Belgian media reported in 2014 that a man who had left for Syria to become a foreign fighter had previously worked at one of the country’s nuclear power plants, which officials have since confirmed. “So there is visibly something wrong with the security clearances,” Mr. Sauer said.

Ms. Keyaert said that the man had regular access to a plant as a contractor before going to Syria in 2012. But while he was working there “he wasn’t radicalized yet,” she said. Unconfirmed local media reports said the man later died in Syria. [Continue reading…]

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