Online Commentary

Mar 04, 2022

Caution, Europe!

Mind the neglected risk of nuclear terrorism
Picture: Flare landing at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant
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In Europe’s heated discussion on nuclear power, some very real risks have long been neglected: the danger of malicious actors attacking a nuclear facility or getting hold of radioactive materials. Russia’s attack on the Ukrainian Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is a shocking reminder of the threats posed by non-state or indeed state-led nuclear terrorism. Given France’s plans for expanding nuclear power, European stakeholder must urgently develop comprehensive strategies to ensure nuclear security.

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In early February, French President Emmanuel Macron announced plans to build up to 14 new nuclear power plants. As part of his “France 2030” plan, the country’s nuclear energy sector will receive billions of euros in grants. In Germany and other EU member states, Macron’s nuclear project is proving controversial, particularly because of the unresolved question of how to dispose of highly radioactive waste.

Next to the environmental concerns surrounding nuclear power generation, a second set of risks has been all but eclipsed in France but also the rest of Europe: the threat of a physical attack on nuclear power facilities or of radioactive materials being combined with a conventional explosive device to make a “dirty bomb”.

Yet in late February, nuclear power plants in Europe made the headlines once again. This time, reports focused on the consequences of Russia’s war in Ukraine on that country’s nuclear facilities. On February 24, Ukraine announced that the Chernobyl nuclear power plant had been captured by Russia after heavy fighting.

On March 4, Europe’s biggest nuclear power plant, Zaporizhzhia in Ukraine, was attacked by Russian artillery, raising fears of a nuclear catastrophe that could easily surpass the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. The shelling caused a fire to break out, which was quickly brought under control, with at least initially no increased levels of radiation.

But even if Ukraine has been spared a nuclear disaster so far, these two events serve as a terrifying reminder of the risk that state or non-state actors may try to weaponize nuclear power for nuclear terrorism .

Oddly, discussions about expanding the use of nuclear power have rarely covered the dangers of nuclear terrorism. Surprisingly, this is true even for France, despite repeatedly having been targeted by terrorist attacks. In France, the risk of nuclear terrorism is barely ever considered, even though Macron’s government is working to expand both its nuclear power program and its counter-terrorism campaigns abroad and at home.

Ukrainian power plants as a reality check for Europe

What is the nature of the risk? This is a complicated question which requires a nuanced response. Nuclear security precautions vary depending on reactor type, location, and immediate physical environment of the reactor. Nevertheless, a very basic principle applies everywhere: The greater the number of nuclear power reactors – and of storage sites for highly radioactive waste – the more potential sources or targets exist for terrorists. To date, with 56 reactors spread over the country, France has the largest fleet of nuclear power reactors in Europe and the second largest in the world after the United States. It is ahead both of China and of Russia.

The following two forms of nuclear terrorism are generally feasible and plausible, given recent events in Ukraine. One involves the acquisition of radioactive material, whether by theft or purchase, and its combination with conventional explosives to construct a "dirty bomb." The other includes physical attacks on nuclear reactors and other facilities containing nuclear or highly radioactive material. In both scenarios, individuals who are part of relevant processes and operations can become targets or collaborators for nuclear terrorists, thereby constituting “insider threats.”

Until now, most experts believed that the consequences of a nuclear terrorist attack would probably be quite limited. They argued that a dirty bomb would be unlikely to cause such massive radiation that a large number of victims would need intensive care. A "hostile" takeover of nuclear power plants would cause primarily cause damages to the infrastructure and necessitate mass evacuations. Nevertheless, terrorists find the idea of nuclear terror strikes attractive, and that for a simple reason: Such an attack would spread horror far beyond its physical effect. The most important effect would be people’s fear of contamination and radiation which could cause mass disruption and panic, setting off even more chaos.

With the war in Ukraine, even state-led shelling of nuclear power plants is no longer inconceivable. This will likely lead to a shift in Europe’s discussion on nuclear security and the assessment of the probability and plausibility of man-made attacks on nuclear facilities.

A plausible threat to Europe?

What do terrorism and counter-terrorism studies say about the likelihood of nuclear terrorism? Insofar as it is possible to speak of “trends” in domestic and international terrorist attacks, the direction of travel appears to be away from relatively sophisticated, mature plans towards more rudimentary assaults such as launching knife attacks or steering trucks into crowds. At first glance, this could lead to the conclusion that more complex forms of terrorist attacks appear rather unlikely. However, the Ukrainian events and Russia’s actions are a pressing reminder that in war, nuclear power plants can serve as targets of great symbolic and physical value.

In the specific French context, there are several reasons why the potential threat of a nuclear terrorist attack should be taken very seriously. France’s military operations in Libya, Syria, and the Sahel are cited by radical Islamists to justify revenge acts on French territory. France, with its Republican values and its emphasis on secularism (laicité), which provides for a strict separation of state and religion, is considered the epitome of an “Islamophobic” West by Islamist groups. The persistent narrative is that France is waging a “war against Islam.” An attack on France's nuclear power plants would be in line with terrorist tradition of attacking fundamental aspects of French identity and national pride.  

Furthermore, transnational terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaida and the so-called Islamic State (IS) have amply demonstrated their interest in nuclear terrorism. Coincidently, particularly those two groups were responsible for the most devastating attacks in France in recent years: the Charlie Hebdo shooting in 2015, for which a branch of the Al-Qaida network claimed responsibility, and the November 2015 Paris attacks claimed by the Islamic State.

The European version of nuclear security

To make matters worse, experts consider many of France’s nuclear power plants to be rather run down, which clearly increases the security risks. According to a review by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) done in 2018, France has a strong legislative and regulatory framework for nuclear security. However, nuclear security is not a static attribution, and it requires investments, reviews, and adjustments. The combination of aging nuclear power plants and aging personnel plus the COVID-19 pandemic add more stress to nuclear security practices, across the globe as well as in France.

Nevertheless, President Macron has not put forward any specific plans to strengthen domestic nuclear security practices. Instead, Paris emphasizes its support of global initiatives, which are patchy at best. For too long, nuclear security and the prevention of nuclear terrorism have not received any high-level attention: President Barack Obama had positioned the United States as the leading actor on that issue, but the transition of power in Washington in 2017 ended that engagement. Despite President Joe Biden’s awareness of the topic, the current US administration has yet to spotlight nuclear security and nuclear terrorism.

Discounting nuclear terrorism and its prevention at home, moreover, is dangerous. The risk of nuclear terrorism in France is already plausible; expanding programs for nuclear power generation will only increase potential sources and pathways for malicious actors, whether state-led or non-state. France, as well as the European Union thus, thus need to assume more responsibility for defending against nuclear terrorism at home as well as abroad.

Wanted: European leadership

Regardless of differences over the principle of nuclear power generation, stakeholders need to take the following on board: When designing, fielding, and operating new nuclear power plants, France and the EU must integrate much stronger security measures. Furthermore, both have the scientific expertise, funds, and diplomatic track record to focus international attention on nuclear terrorism and take the lead on strengthening nuclear security worldwide. Brussels in particular should aim to fill the currently vacant position of a leading player for global nuclear security.

It is no longer possible to believe that attacks on European nuclear power plants are inconceivable. The situation of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants dramatically highlights the need to adjust assessments, prepare for emergencies, and boost nuclear security.

Bibliographic data

This online commentary was published on March 4, 2022.