As the chaos surrounding the coordinated suicide attacks on Belgium unfolded on Tuesday morning, we reported that energy utility Electrabel was evacuating two nuclear power plants, Doel, made up of four reactors, and Tihange, comprised of three.
Electrabel would later dispute that account, drawing a distinction between a full evacuation and the utility’s generous offer to non-essential employees: “...people who are not strictly necessary on site can leave.”
— Electrabel (@Electrabel) March 22, 2016
Yay, a day off. It’s kind of like when you’re a kid and you get sent home from school early because it’s snowing. Only with terrorists. And three dozen casualties.
But the presence of military personnel belied Electrabel’s attempts to play down the incident.
The stepped up police and army presence certainly seemed to suggest that the threat to Belgium’s crumbling nuclear infrastructure was very real indeed. We say “stepped up” because there were already 140 soldiers at the Tihange and Doel sites, which host 40-year old reactors that The Guardian notes have “been plagued by a litany of problems such as pressure vessel micro-cracks, fire and one mysterious case of sabotage.”
Although nearly two thirds of Belgium’s electricity comes from the sites’ seven reactors, activists want at least two reactors shuttered on safety concerns. Those concerns - stemming from the discovery of “thousands” of micro-cracks - were amplified last month when Belgium’s federal prosecutor confirmed that on November 30, police seized footage that appeared to show a high-ranking Belgian nuclear official in an anti-terror raid. The surveillance video was discovered in a bust that resulted in the arrest of Mohamed Bakkali, who was charged with terrorist activity and murder in connection with the Paris attacks. His home in Auvelais may have been used as a hideout.
Unconfirmed reports out this week suggest that Bakkali was mentioned in the will of Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, which was found on a discarded computer discovered in a trash bin following Tuesday’s attacks.
Bakraoui blew himself up outside of a Starbucks in the Brussels airport. His brother, Khalid, carried out an attack on the city’s metro just a little over an hour later.
The connections between Tuesday’s attacks and the assault on Paris are now becoming clear and as we and others have documented extensively, this all appears to stem from the cell organized and run by Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the Paris "masetermind" who allegedly became Emir of War in Deir ez-Zor after Omar the Chechen (al-Shishani) was transferred to Iraq. Indeed, the cell may be connected to the January 2015 raid in Verviers that killed two of Abaaoud’s compatriots.
On Thursday, we get still more chilling evidence to suggest that this is all the work of the very same Belgium-based terror cell. According to Dernier Heure, it was the Bakraoui brothers that planted a hidden camera in the bushes and captured the 10-minute surveillance video of the senior Belgian nuclear official coming and going from his home. Here’s DH (Google translated):
Beheading a part of the cell at the Forest of operation and the arrest of Salah and his accomplice Abdeslam Choukri in Molenbeek, investigators may have averted the worst. By striking this blow, the authorities forced the cell to the origin of the attacks Brussels to accelerate its action and turn away from its first targets. Including the Belgian nuclear system.
According to information from the DH , the two people who have recovered the hidden camera in front of the home of the director of the research program and Belgian nuclear development were none other than Ibrahim and Khalid El Bakraoui brothers.
The video had been recovered by the two men shortly after the attacks in Paris, showing the full extent of the connections between France, Belgium and Syria.
It’s worth noting that DH has been wrong before (just yesterday for instance, the online paper claimed bomb maker Najim Laachraoui had been arrested when in fact he hadn’t and may actually be strewn around the Brussels airport in pieces). But if true, it underscores just how serious the threat to Belgium (and Europe) truly is.
Although officials will generally tell you that in the event an “amateur” dirty bomb were detonated, more people would likely be killed by the TNT than the radiation, the idea of a terrorist cell using radioactive material against the civilian population isn’t exactly something anyone wants to think about. Indeed, Belgian lawmakers were beside themselves when they learned of the footage last month.
“Your services possessed this videotape since Nov. 30, and the nuclear control agency was informed immediately,” said Jean-Marc Nollet, a Parliament member from Ecolo, told interior minister, Jan Jambon. “So I don’t understand how you could have been in possession of this video since Nov. 30, but on Jan. 13, when I questioned you on this, you answered, ‘There is no specific threat to the nuclear facilities.’ ”
“I agree we shouldn’t give in to panic, but between giving in to panic and denying the magnitude of the risks, there is a big difference,” Nollet continued.
“Concrete indications that showed that the terrorists involved in the Paris attacks had the intention to do something involving one of our four nuclear sites.” Sébastien Berg, a spokesman for Belgium’s Federal Agency for Nuclear Control said.
“If they find a way to spread such material among the population, they could do a lot of damage," he added.