Doel Nuclear Power Station // Source: wikipedia.org
EU counterterrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove said in an interview on Saturday that Belgium’s network of nuclear power stations, as well as energy and transport infrastructure, could become the targets of cyberattacks by terrorists in the near future.
“I would not be surprised if there was an attempt in the next five years to use the Internet to commit an attack,” de Kerchove told the daily La Libre Belgique.
He said such attacks would involve terrorists hacking into online computer systems which control facilities such as a nuclear power plant, dams, an air traffic control center, or a railroad switching station.
The fears at the nuclear power plants are of “an accident in which someone explodes a bomb inside the plant,” Sébastien Berg, the spokesman for Belgium’s federal agency for nuclear control, told the New York Times. “The other danger is that they fly something into the plant from outside.” That could stop the cooling process of the used fuel, Mr. Berg explained, and in turn shut down the plant.
The Times reports that de Kerchove’swarning comes as Belgium remains on high alert in the wake of Tuesday’s suicide bombing in Brussel, in which thirty-one people were killed and more than 300 injured.
Environmental activists in Belgium, Germany, and other neighbors of Belgium have voiced their concerns over security and safety at Belgian nuclear facilities for some time. These plants have experienced a number of problems recently, including an unsolved sabotage incident.
On Thursday, a security guard at a Belgian nuclear power station was murdered and his access badge stolen.
The Derniere Heure newspaper reported on Saturday that the guard had been shot dead in the Charleroi region, south of Brussels. The Belgian nuclear authorities said the man’s badge was de-activated as soon as his murder was discovered.
Derniere Heurealso reported that the terrorists who attacked the airport and a metro station on Tuesday had originally considered targeting a Belgian nuclear site, but that such an attack would have required more time and planning. The terrorists abandoned the nuclear facility attack plan after Belgian security services arrested a number of Islamist militants, forcing the terrorists to act more quickly and focus on soft targets instead of a hardened nuclear facility.
Belgian nuclear facilities have suffered a series of problems in recent years, raising questions about the vulnerabilities in the Belgian nuclear network and the ability of terrorists to exploit these vulnerabilities:
- In 2015, investigators discovered surveillance footage of a Belgian nuclear plant official in the flat of a suspect connected both to the Brussels attacks and the 13 November Paris attacks.
- Earlier this year, the Belgian nuclear agency’s computer system was hacked and was forced to shut down briefly.
- In 2013, two individuals scaled the fence at Belgium’s research reactor in the city of Mol, breaking into a laboratory and stealing equipment.
- In 2012, two employees at the nuclear plant in Doel resigned and went to Syria to join ISIS. The men fought in a brigade which included man Belgians, including Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the on-the-ground leader of the 13 November Paris attacks. One of the two men was killed in Syria, but the other returned to Belgium, was put on trial, convicted in 2014, but release after one year in jail. Pieter Van Oestaeyen, a researcher who tracks Belgium’s jihadist networks, says it is not known what inside knowledge about the Mol nuclear facility the two gave ISIS comrades.
- In 2014, an unidentified employee at the Doel plant where the two jihadists worked, walked into reactor No. 4, turned off a valve, and drained 65,000 liters of oil used to lubricate the turbines. The plant had to be shut down because the machinery b overheated. The reactor was out of commission for five months.
Experts told the Times that the most remote of the potential nuclear-related risks is that Islamic State operatives would be able to obtain highly enriched uranium. Even the danger of a dirty bomb is limited, they said, because much radioactive waste is so toxic it would likely sicken or kill the people trying to steal it.
Still, some experts are worried. Matthew Bunn, a specialist in nuclear security at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, noted that the Islamic State “has an apocalyptic ideology and believes there is going to be a final war with the United States,” expects to win that war and “would need very powerful weapons to do so.”
“And if they ever did turn to nuclear weapons,” he told the Times, “they have more people, more money and more territory under their control and more ability to recruit experts globally than Al Qaeda at its best ever had.”