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March 14th was the international day of the drone. It was a celebration of the benefits to be expected from these flying robots to which designers, robotics researchers and industrialists predict a bright future with many civilian applications. It is true that drones have become known as machines of death. The CIA’s campaign of targeted assassinations of America’s enemies in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen and Iraq has resulted in several thousand deaths. Among them, a majority of innocent people, women, children, old people, collateral victims of the state terrorism practiced by the United States government. It is now a question of rehabilitating the drone by showing that it can also be a useful, practical, inexpensive, harmless device and especially that it can create a new lucrative market. 

While the jihadist terrorist threat, omnipresent in the media, has led to exceptional measures, there is complete silence about the terrorist risk hanging over nuclear sites 

In Belgium, about thirty companies already produce and use civilian drones for specific applications. Gatewing manufactures in Ghent a civil drone which, equipped with an automatic camera working in the visible or near infrared spectrum, can be used for many applications on dangerous or difficult to access sites: quarries, public works sites, archaeological sites… But it is in the field of leisure that the commercial future of the drone seems the most promising. Small ultralight machines with prices ranging from a few dozen to a thousand euros can operate in closed environments but also in the wild. Thanks to an on-board camera, of low weight, it is possible to realize without too much expenses of unpublished images of places or sites difficult to reach by the traditional means. There is plenty to attract many enthusiasts; this is already the case in France, where 100,000 recreational drones were sold in 2014. 

The other side of the coin, however, is obvious. As soon as a drone equipped with a camera can observe, photograph or film, it can also monitor, spy and violate a private or protected space. The drone is a real weapon of mass intrusion. In principle, the law prohibits flying over a private space and taking pictures without the agreement of the owner and the persons concerned. However, the facts show that the law is not adapted to today’s reality and, above all, that it is clearly difficult to enforce. 

In recent months, dozens of illegal overflights have taken place in our country and in neighboring countries. In France, about thirty overflights of nuclear sites by unidentified drones have been recorded in recent months; the latest (January 3, 2015) concerns the Nogent sur Seine power plant, east of Paris. The media reported it but no images were published. More seriously, the pilots of these drones could not be identified and no attempt was made to prevent the overflights. You’d think you were dreaming. While an innocent attempt to photograph a nuclear site from a distance turns you into a suspect and causes the police to be arrested, the police are unable to prevent an unidentified flying object from flying over the site. 

The risk of terrorism is real and the vulnerability of nuclear power plants is just as real. The overflight by drone can allow scouting for a future attack or even be used directly for such an attack. British engineer John Large, as quoted by the International Courier (February 26, 2015), explains that drones can easily be used to coordinate a terrorist attack on a nuclear power plant.  » You don’t need huge forces to achieve the instability of a nuclear power plant. Once unstable, the plant has enough energy to self-destruct. And the drones can lead the plant towards instability « he says.  » For example, it is enough for a drone to strike the power system of the plant, making it dependent on its diesel generators to cool the reactor. Then, these generators can easily be put out of order by a drone with a small charge. Without energy to cool the radioactive fuel, (…) it would take approximately thirty seconds for the fuel to start melting, » he adds.

While the threat of jihadist terrorism, omnipresent in the media since the massacre of the Charlie Hebdo editorial office, has led to exceptional measures such as the deployment of military forces to so-called sensitive sites, there is complete silence about the terrorist risk that hangs over nuclear sites. It is true that the nuclear industry has such a damaged image that it would be embarrassing to add to it: microcracks much more numerous and more worrying than announced in the tanks of Tihange 2 and Doel 3, technical incident attributed to a sabotage of the reactor of Doel 4, without forgetting the context of the disaster of Fukushima where the impossible accident took place. 

Having to acknowledge that nuclear power plants can be the site of catastrophic accidents has already been politically difficult. To admit that they are vulnerable to a terrorist risk is an even more difficult step to take. The choice of denial and state lies was thus logically imposed. The nuclear power plants are protected against terrorist attack and the overflight by drones does not present any danger; let’s face it! 

Paul Lannoye

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