Analysis / Ben FrankelMore questions than answers in South Africa's nuclear facility attack

Published 15 November 2007

What was the purpose of the two coordinated, “military-style” attacks on South Africa’s Pelindaba nuclear facility last week? The answer may lie in the facility’s history: Two decades ago the apartheid regime used it to produce six operational nuclear bombs; were the intruders after bomb-making records, blueprints, and computer files?

You worry about 9/11-like attack involving a jumbo jet crashing into the containment vessel of a nuclear power plant? This may or may or may not happen, but as we speculate about the likelihood of such an attack, we should not forget about old-fashioned, low-tech threats to nuclear facilities. Take the attack last week on a nuclear facility in South Africa, and attack that should have received more coverage in the press but did not. Four gunmen attacked the Pelindaba nuclear facility in South Africa, leaving a senior emergency officer seriously injured. The gunmen stormed the facility’s emergency response control room in the early hours last Thursday’d morning. Last week’s shooting comes four months after Eric Lerata, the newly appointed services general manager of the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa (NECSA), was gunned down in front of his Montana home after returning from a business trip in France. Pelindaba is regarded as one of the country’s most secure national key points. It is surrounded by electric fencing, has twenty-four-hour CCTV surveillance, security guards, and security controls and checkpoints.

Ironically, the attack comes as the country prepares to preside over an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) convention on nuclear safety. The convention’s announced goals include achieving a high level of global nuclear safety via safety related technical co-operation; establishing and maintaining effective defenses in nuclear installations against potential radiological hazards; and preventing accidents with radiological consequences.

It is believed that the attackers gained access to the building by using a ladder from Pelindaba’s fire brigade and scaling a wall. The men are thought to have forced open a window by pulling out several louvers.

Now, the attack described above was only the first of two attacks on the facility that night: The Sowetan reports that at the very same time that four armed intruders stormed Pelindaba’s control room and shot an emergency officer, another attempt was made to bypass the nuclear site’s security. The site’s outer security perimeter was breached in both incidents, NECSA’s chief executive Rob Adam disclosed the other day. While the four intruders were trying to overcome the emergency officer in the control room, a patrolling security officer spotted other intruders at the western section of the NECSA site. He fired at the intruders and they fled. Adam said that the two attempts appeared to have been co-ordinated but there was no evidence to verify this as yet. Adam described the four robbers who shot and wounded emergency station commander Anton Gerber as “technically sophisticated criminals”:
“Modus operandi implied prior knowledge of electronic security systems. I’m not saying it is an inside job. I’m saying whoever did this, knows these systems very, very well,” he said. The four intruders gained access to the site by cutting the outside fence and slipping through the electric fence. “Several security layers on the electric fence were de-activated,” Adam said. The intruders were caught on the security cameras but the guards on duty apparently did not spot them. Adam said the nuclear facilities, including a research nuclear reactor on the site, were not compromised. “Each facility has its own additional security measures which are designed to provide yet another mechanism of defence in depth in the even of such a breach.”

What were the intruders after? To answer this question we should remember that in the 1980s South Africa used the Pelindaba facility to build six operational nuclear bombs. In 1990, as F. W. de Klerk, South Africa’s president, concluded that the days of the white apartheid regime were numbered, he ordered the dismantling of the weapons — and of South Africa’s nuclear weapons infrastructure. The dismantling was done under UN supervision and was completed in 1991. The Times of South Africa suggests that herein lies the answer as to what the purpose of what the paper calls “military-style” attack was: Nuclear weapons-related documents, records, blueprints, computer files, and the like — information which would be valuable to terrorists looking for a short-cut to the bomb.

As we wait for more answers to emerge from South Africa, we should ask ourselves whether such an attack can happen in the United States. More about this question next week.