CBS Reairs Report on 2007 Attack on South African Pelindaba Nuclear Facility

Jun 23, 2010


By Oliver Bloom
On Sunday, 60 Minutes reaired a piece on the November 2007 attack on the South African nuclear facility at Pelindaba, the former site of South Africa’s nuclear program and now the storage location for an estimated 25 bombs’ worth of weapons-grade nuclear material. Shortly after midnight on November 8, four men managed to breach the 10,000 volt security fence on the plant’s south side and reach the security control room three quarters of a mile away. The attackers were only stopped when they ran into an off duty emergency officer who happened to be visiting his wife on duty that evening, and who, despite being shot, managed to sound the alarm. At the same time, another group of attackers attempted to breach the fence from the north side and opened fire on guards nearby. Despite the alarm being raised, both groups of attackers managed to escape. 
The case remains unsolved and the motives of the attackers remain unknown. Officials at Pelindaba and the South African Government so far underplay the severity of the attack. Rob Adam, CEO of the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa—the company that runs the Pelindaba facility—argues that
If these were sophisticated terrorists, Anton Gerber [the man who raised the alarm] wouldn't be alive to tell his tale today, I think that it was a piece of random criminality, frankly, having looked at it.
Well, I don't think that there was any concerted attack of a nuclear nature. You had one technically sophisticated individual with some friends.
What’s more, the general manager of the facility, Ari Van Der Bijl, disputes whether the two groups of attackers were even related. When asked by 60 Minutes about what the second team of attackers was doing while the first moved on the security control room, Van Der Bijl said
            You are talking about teams as if they are related. We don't think they are related.
And Ambassador Ambul Minty, the South African Deputy Director General of the Department of Foreign Affairs and South Africa’s representative to the IAEA, added
So far, the evidence we have is that it was an attempt at burglary. People went to the one facility and tried to take, for example, a notebook computer which they left behind, subsequently
The Pelindaba facility is off a main road. There's a lot of traffic on that road. So, if they felt that here is a facility that has gates, that has security, maybe there's something valuable.
On the other hand, Matthew Bunn of the Harvard Kennedy School noted that highly enriched uranium—the material that could be used in the creation of a nuclear bomb—is “certainly the most valuable single thing that's at that site.”
Bunn took issue with Adam’s characterization of the attacks as “random criminality.” Talking to 60 Minutes, Bunn said
These people cut through a 10,000 volt security fence. They disable sophisticated electronic intrusion detectors. They went straight to the emergency control center of the site. These people knew what kind of site they were in and knew what they were doing.
More worrying, he adds, is that the attack
does suggest that they [the attackers] had someone inside who was going to help them make sure that the security alarms didn't go off. And that security forces didn't respond in time.
It is somewhat reassuring to know that though the attackers managed to breach the security fence and reach the control room, they would have had more layers of security to bypass to ultimately reach the HEU, if that was even their ultimate aim. Nevertheless, the possibility that they had inside help, and the ease at which they reached the security control room, does suggest that they knew what they were doing and that they could have easily had plans for the rest of the facility’s security. For all we know, had the first group managed to successfully infiltrate the security control room, and had the second group managed to infiltrate the facility without alerting the guards, then the HEU could have been at risk. 
Also worrying is how unreported the attack was. Despite the Obama Administration’s emphasis on nuclear security, most prominently in its April 2010 Nuclear Security Summit, the American press had little coverage of the attack. Besides the 60 Minutes report, a brief New York Times piece and a Washington Post editorial by Micah Zenko at the Council on Foreign Relations were some of the few bits of coverage outside the blogging world.
Regardless of the intents of the attackers, which certainly seem to imply some interest in the nuclear material at the facility, the more pressing worry is, as Micah Zenko writes in his Washington Post editorial:
the essential ingredients required for making a nuclear weapon exist in more than 40 countries, in facilities with differing levels of security. Unfortunately, there are still no binding global standards on how to secure nuclear weapons and weapons-grade nuclear material. In the absence of sustained political leadership from the world's nuclear powers to develop, agree to and implement effective nuclear security standards, armed attacks such as the one at Pelindaba could become commonplace.
President Obama’s Nuclear Security Summit back in April was certainly a good first step at remedying this threat and world leaders are correctly realizing that nuclear terrorism poses an equally dangerous threat as nuclear proliferation. Nevertheless, more needs to be done not only in answering the questions that surround the Pelindaba attack but also in securing similar nuclear facilities around the globe. 
//NJR ZA under a Creative Commons License