Western news media finally notices there might be a problem
[Updates 12/13/07 & 12/20/07 below]
*** Earlier blog post with details of the attack here. ***
After rattling around the South African press for five days and some coverage by various blogs, including this one, Majikthise, and Danger Room at Wired, the break-in and shooting at South Africa's nuclear plant at Pelindaba got some ink in the New York Times.
The NYT reports,
"One week after the most serious attack on a nuclear installation in recent memory, the government of South Africa is largely mum about who was behind it, how they broke in or why."
The rest is a crisp summary of what's known. The Times report is a good start.
Six unanswered questions about this incident
Here are six questions that remain unanswered. They are mostly rhetorical since no one expects the South African government to be very forthcoming at this point.
1. Was Gerber in the reactor control room or the emergency services control center, which are two entirely different facilities at any nuclear plant? An Emergency Operations Center (EOC), which is where Gerber was reportedly attacked, doesn't have control of a reactor nor access to fissile materials. What's there that made it a target? What were the gunmen really after? Gerber was off-shift, but made it clear he was expecting trouble. What did he know before the attack? Was the EOC the key to disabling the security systems for the most sensitive part of the plant, where HEU is stored?
2. News media reports from South Africa seem to agree the first group of gunmen grabbed a computer, but later dropped it. What's on the computer? Most likely they just popped out the hard drive which is a lot easier to carry. Who has the computer now and what's on it?
3. What was the target of the second set of gunmen? If there were two attacks, then it is plausible there were two related targets, like a binary weapon, which if you combine them make something very destructive. Intruders at a former nuclear weapons plant are not looking to make off with lunch proceeds in the canteen cash register. They want something very badly, something which perhaps is so dangerous in its own right that its very existence may be denied by government authorities.
4. Most nuclear facilities have layers of security, not just an unarmed guard with a clipboard at a gatehouse. These layers involve a combination of armed guards on patrol, closed circuit TV, various types of sensors that alarm if disturbed by sound, vibration, or interruption of a laser beam or electric circuit, etc. So if any of these alarms sounded, how did at least four of the eight intruders make it all the way to the EOC and why did they go there?
5. What's left over from South Africa's nuclear weapons program that is still stored at Pelindaba? Highly enriched uranium (HEU) is too heavy to haul away with just four strong men. You need forklifts and trucks, plus lots of time. What about high speed electrical switches, nuclear weapons computer codes, other types of intellectual property, etc.?
6. Because nuclear facilities are "hardened targets" patrolled by a guard force with automatic weapons, rank amateur criminals go elsewhere to places, like convenience stores, banks, and gas stations. Put another way people who want to steal gold knock over jewelery stores in shopping malls not Ft. Knox. Only a trained group, armed themselves, and with a specific target, would tackle the security systems of a former nuclear weapons plant. Who sent them and why?
No other major media organization has reported on the Pelindaba break-in since the New York Times story. I exchanged email with a reporter from the Washington Post who decided the story was not newsworthy. That's an editorial judgment on the newspaper's part so I can't argue with it.
The paper's focus is mostly on inside-the-beltway politics and the U.S. presidential election. The Post did report on a South African police action that stopped a planned robbery of an armored car carrying cash. All 11 gunmen involved in the attempted robbery were killed by police gunfire.
Several U.S. wire services picked up the NYT coverage, but to date the majority of the coverage has been in the South African press despite allegations of efforts by the government to suppress it. The impetus for the attack and the objectives of the people who carried it out remain a mystery.
The Washington Post runs an OP ED piece on the break-in by Miach Zenko, from Harvard's Belfer Center. It's a good overview of South African media coverage, and he has a theory about the separate missions of the the two squads of four men each. I spoke to him by phone today [12/20/07]. Here's his scenario.
The first group of four attackers, Zenko says, had the mission of further disabling security systems at the plant so that the second group, also of four men, could attain another objective which was inside the interior security perimeter. However, the second group was detected almost immediately by plant guards who opened fire, so the second group never made it to their target. This is the reason the first group left essentially empty handed. They weren't supposed to take anything, just disable alarms and scram. Zenko doesn't have any idea what the target might be and the South Africans, if they know, still aren't talking about it.
Note that Zenko's OP ED in the Washington Post lays out his view that the attackers were after fissile materials of some kind, possibly HEU. However, when I asked him if they planned to carry it off in knapsacks, he agreed weight and lead shielding might be a problem. It takes at least 60 pounds of HEU to make a nuclear bomb, but that's just the start. Extremely sophisticated electronics, high order of craft with metallurgy, and work with shaped explosives is required and involves a high order of expertise.
Zenko's explanation also offers a reason why the first group attacked the Emergency Operations Center, which on its face has nothing of value to steal, but which is apparently a strategic target because reportedly it housed controls for plant security systems. Wrap it all up and what you have is a sophisticated attack that exploited inside knowledge of the nuclear facility.
Also, Zenko notes there is no truth, according to his South African sources, to the allegations that were immediately reported in the media after the incident, that Anton Gerber was doing anything but his job even though he was off-duty at the time of the attack. Gerber is more or less the hero of the incident because he drove off several of the attackers single-handedly in a fight inside the Emergency Operations Center and sounded the alarm despite being shot by one of them. He survived his wounds.
Finally, Zenko makes a good point in his close in the Post opinion piece. It is worth repeating here.
"Indeed, 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."
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