In the aftermath of the nuclear accident at Fukushima, Japan in 2011 over 400,000 people were evacuated from their homes. Five years on at least 120,000 of them remain in temporary shelter. Many may never return to their original residences.
Robots sent into the ruined reactors as part of cleanup efforts regularly die. The radiation kills even machines. To this day no one knows exactly where the reactor cores are. They melted through containment long ago and disappeared into the earth.
This is what the aftermath of a nuclear meltdown looks like. This is what ISIS aspires to produce in the heart of Western Europe.
In the wake of the recent Brussels bombings all non-essential personnel were evacuated from the Tihange nuclear power plant near Liege in Belgium. The action was described at the time as a routine measure. It now appears that was a cover story for public consumption and that authorities had tripped across a possible terrorist threat to the three reactors at the site.
Almost daily since additional details have come out. At least two former nuclear plant employees were recruited by ISIS. The current whereabouts of neither one is currently definitively known. The two bombers who attacked the Brussels airport had been surveilling a Belgian nuclear official, apparently in preparation for kidnapping him or stealing his security badge. Another employee of a different Belgian nuclear plant was recently murdered in broad daylight and his security badge taken by unknown assailants.
What exactly ISIS's plans were or are remains unclear. What is obvious, however, is that they intend to target European nuclear power plants. This is not a threat we may face some years in the future. It is a threat we are facing right now, today.
To appreciate the danger all this poses, we need to understand two things, what the consequences of a meltdown at a plant like Tihange would be and how easy it is to bring on such an event.
First, let's consider the consequences. Tihange sits just outside Liege, a city of 200,000. If Tihange melts down all of those people are going to have to be evacuated immediately. If the meltdown is anything on the scale of Fukushima another six million people are going to be driven from their homes shortly thereafter. It could be thirty years before any of them are going home. Every house, factory, school and hospital within fifty miles is going to have to be abandoned on a few hours notice. Even if miraculously no one is killed immediately, there will be a huge dead zone in the heart of Europe for a generation.
Now let's talk about what it takes to make this happen. The reactors at Fukushima were not crushed by the earthquake and tsunami that struck the region. Containment was not breached by forces of nature. Containment was breached by simple physics and time.
The tsunami and earthquake knocked out power to the nuclear plant. The reactors were shut down as a precaution. Then, catastrophe struck. The backup diesel generators in place to provide electricity to power the plants cooling system in just such an eventuality failed.
Fukushima sea water radiation
The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster was an energy accident at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant, initiated primarily by the tsunami of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami on 11 March 2011. The damage caused by the tsunami produced equipment failures, and without this equipment a Loss of Coolant Accident followed with nuclear meltdowns. | Photo: | Fukushima, Japan, Nuclear, Disaster, Tsunami, Radiation, Reactor,
Nuclear reactors generate enormous heat. When a reactor is shut down that heat does not simply dissipate. It takes days, in fact, for a reactor to reach cold shutdown. Until then the cooling system must continue to operate or the result is, inevitably, a meltdown, the breach of the containment vessel and a disastrous release of radiation.
In short, terrorists do not have to seize the control room. They don't have to breach the giant, concrete containment vessel. They have to force a shutdown of the reactor, and they have to cripple some element of the cooling system. After that the laws of nature take over and the result is inevitable.
There are 185 nuclear reactors in Europe. They are surrounded by a population of hundreds of millions. Each reactor is, in effect, a giant prepositioned weapon of mass destruction. Each one is a target.
For years we wondered when the age of terrorist use of chemical weapons would really arrive. We need wonder no longer. Every week comes another report of the use of mustard gas or chlorine gas by ISIS in Syria or Iraq. The once unimaginable has become routine.
We are standing at the precipice of a leap to the next phase of terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction. If we are not careful, vigilant and proactive, we will see the unthinkable, the seizure and meltdown of a nuclear power plant in Western Europe and a catastrophe that may make even 9/11 pale in comparison. We have been warned. The only question now is whether or not we will heed that warning.