President Obama invited more than fifty heads of state and heads of government to a summit in Washington DC this week to discuss the risks of nuclear terrorism. While the official agenda is tackling proliferation of nuclear weapons, recent threats on nuclear power facilities in Belgium will also be discussed.
A few years ago, a report on the vulnerability of Belgium’s nuclear plants was drafted by Belgian authorities. Only a few copies were made and they were secured in a safe. Rightly so. Nobody wants technical nuclear reactor details to get into the wrong hands. But, at the same time, and particularly in the wake of last week’s attacks, the Belgian parliament, media and public want to know if their government is taking the measures needed to protect against a breach of nuclear installations. Avoiding the discussion is not an acceptable option.
Doel nuclear power plant, River Scheldt, Antwerp, Belgium.
The nuclear threat is now openly discussed in the media. The El Bakraoui brothers, who detonated explosions that took many innocent lives at Brussels airport, are reportedly linked to planning an attack against a nuclear target in Belgium. This is in addition to the 2014 sabotage of Doel4 nuclear power plant where neither the saboteurs nor the motives have yet been identified.
Over the past years, several Greenpeace offices have commissioned several technical studies on threats to nuclear power plants which were handed to authorities in the relevant countries.
In 2014, Greenpeace in Belgium and France sent a report on the threat of commercial drones to national authorities, including to the Belgian Minister of Interior and nuclear authority, FANC. These drones are a serious threat, especially when combined with an infiltration of nuclear sites. Greenpeace did not receive any reaction from the Belgian authorities. In France, however, as a result of the report, the author was invited by the French Parliament to a hearing.
Another study focused on the threat from 3rd generation “Kornet” anti-tank missiles, based on the Russian model. Such missiles are capable of penetrating walls of a nuclear plant to cause serious damage.
Nuclear plants are not built to withstand today’s terrorist threats. More protection may help, but the vulnerabilities are so huge that heightened security can only serve as a deterrent. Russia has supplied Kornet missiles to Syrian troops. It can’t be ruled out that some of these weapons may now be in the hands of people with harmful agendas. This is highly concerning.
Greenpeace Belgium is calling for concrete steps to reduce the nuclear threat. A first step would be to close the two oldest and most vulnerable reactors Doel1 and Doel2. Their shutdown was planned for 2015, according to the 2003 nuclear phase-out law. Instead, the government decided to extend the lifetime of the reactors by another ten years until 2025. The decision was made without an environmental impact assessment or a public consultation, which is unlawful. And despite confirmation by the national grid operator that these relatively small reactors are not needed to ensure energy supply in Belgium. Greenpeace Belgium went to the supreme court last year to request that the decision be annulled. In the current climate, it would be wise for the government to take responsibility and act now, rather than await the outcome of the court.
As world leaders discuss nuclear security in Washington, let there be no doubt that the safest response they can make on nuclear power is to leave uranium in the ground. Responsible governments must refuse any extensions to the life of existing nuclear power plants and accelerate plans for their phase out. Leaders must also fast track safe renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power.
A Greenpeace Belgium activist erects a wind powered turbine in front of Doel nuclear plant.
Jan Van de Putte is an energy campaigner with Greenpeace Belgium.
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