Belgium orders immediate security upgrade at its nuclear sites

After long relying on unarmed guards, Belgium decides to send soldiers with weapons to safeguard its reactors from a terrorist attack

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A nuclear power station cooling tower is seen next to a historical windmill in Doel, Belgium in March of 2011.

Virginia Mayo/AP

Just weeks after publicly confirming that terrorism suspects were spying on a senior nuclear official, the Belgian government announced it will take an unprecedented step towards strengthening security at the country’s sites that house potentially dangerous nuclear materials.

Historically, an unarmed private security force has guarded Belgium’s seven reactors and two power stations. The arrangement has long sowed anxieties in Washington, where officials complained vigorously — but in private — that the absence of armed guards at these facilities left the Belgians’ nuclear and radioactive materials vulnerable to theft.

After discovering a video of the nuclear official’s comings and goings during a late November raid on a suspected terrorists’ house, the Belgians altered their policy and decided to improve their security precautions, by creating a new “quick response team” for nuclear sites within their federal police force.

But after some publicity about longstanding U.S. criticisms of the Belgians’ security practices, including a Center for Public Integrity article co-published with NBC and Foreign Policy magazine, the Belgian council of ministers decided to act more urgently, by ordering the posting of armed military personnel at the sites.

Jose de Pierpont, spokesman for the Belgian foreign minister, confirmed the deployment. He said it had been suggested by the International Atomic Energy Agency and requested by Electrabel, the utility that operates the reactor sites. He said it was also influenced by "the fact that several other countries apply similar protection measures" -- a point made repeatedly by U.S. experts and officials. He also confirmed media reports in Belgium pegging the number of soldiers being dispatched to the sites at 140.

"The commitment of Belgian troops...is covered by a Protocol providing assistance of the military to the police forces if need arises," Belgian defense ministry spokesman Olivier Severin said."For obvious reasons, Belgian Defense will not comment on the nature of the threat."

Earlier, the country’s interior minister had downplayed the risks that nuclear materials might be stolen. But the decision to deploy troops at the sites suggests that a different view prevailed.

Belgian regulators had speculated after the video was seized that terrorists might have intended to kidnap the nuclear official or members of his family in order to gain access to radioistopes at the research center where the official worked.

Such materials are commonly used in medical and industrial applications, but could serve as the core of a radioactive “dirty bomb,” which is far easier to produce than a nuclear weapon and can sow panic and cause economic losses. U.S. officials had worried about the absence of armed guards because security drills have shown that intruders can penetrate many nuclear sites rapidly, making it hard for off-site police to respond in time to keep such sensitive materials from being removed.

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