[Hat tip to John Robb at Global Guerrillas]
*** Updates ***
Second effort to break-in reported,
see below this post
New information 12/20/07 here
CBS 60 Minutes story on Pelidaba nuclear site raid to be broadcast Sunday Nov 23, 2008
An attack by three or four masked gunmen on the Pelindaba nuclear facility on Nov 8th in South Africa has left a senior emergency officer seriously injured. Anton Gerber, Necsa emergency services operational officer spoke to the Pretoria News from his hospital bed hours after the attack. He was shot in the chest when the gunmen stormed the facility's emergency response control room in the early hours of Thursday morning (11/8). The motive for the attack is unknown.It is believed the raiders were after highly enriched uranium (HEU) stored at the facility.
It isn't known at this time whether the gunmen were intent on damaging the nuclear materials area of the facility as part of a terrorist attack, wanted to steal nuclear materials, or had some other motive. Details on the attack are sparse due to censorship from the government. Portions of the original newspaper reports on the web have subsequently been taken down. For instance, one early report implied the gunmen were sent by a jealous rival for the affections of one of the nuclear plant's operators who was said to be romantically involved with Gerber.
[Update - there is no evidence to support this early report.]
The shooting comes four months after Necsa's newly appointed services general manager Eric Lerata, 43, was gunned down in front of his home after returning from a business trip in France. It is believed he was followed from OR Tambo International Airport. Two men were subsequently arrested for stealing his car. They were reportedly driving it at the time of the arrest.
Not secure anymore
Pelindaba was regarded as one of the country's most secure national key points. Apparently, not any more. It is reportedly surrounded by electric fencing, has 24-hour CCTV surveillance, security guards and security controls and checkpoints. Apparently these controls were of little use in thwarting the attack. According to limited details in South African press reports, it is believed that the attackers gained access to the building, then used a ladder from Pelindaba's fire house to scale a wall.
Police spokesperson Superintendent Louis Jacobs told newspapers that no arrests had been made. This means the gunmen got away after the attack. "A case of armed robbery and attempted murder are being investigated," he said. Government censorship is said to have limited further details of the attack from being published in South African newspapers.
Pretoria News reported it was phoned by a man identifying himself as a Necsa legal adviser, saying the newspaper will be breaching the National Keypoints Act by publishing the story. He reportedly claimed that the interview with Gerber was "unethical" as "he was under sedation and thus incoherent" when it was conducted.
The only thing that appears to be more-or-less certain is that Gerber was shot inside the nuclear facility by unknown persons and that he may have put up enough of a fight to drive them off.
Site has ties to prior nuclear weapons program
According to NTI, South Africa is the first and only country to construct nuclear weapons and subsequently voluntarily abandon its weapons program. In 1993, then-South African president F.W. de Klerk revealed in a speech to parliament that South Africa had pursued a "limited nuclear deterrent capability," to counter a perceived Soviet threat in Southern Africa. In the 1970s and 1980s South Africa constructed six nuclear weapons. Less than a decade after completion of its first nuclear weapon, South Africa dismantled its weapons program. It said the reasons were that it was facing diminishing security threats and it was part of an effort to shed its pariah status. Since that decision in the early 1990s, South Africa has been instrumental in promoting nonproliferation globally.Questions remain about gunmen's motives
The question remains why armed gunmen shot and wounded a security manager at the former nuclear weapons plant in South Africa, how they got in, and got away, and whether the attack was designed to draw attention to the facility and its security measures or for some other as yet unknown purpose.
It is worth noting, perhaps paradoxically, that last month the IAEA completed a conference in South Africa on "Response to Illicit Trafficking Incidents Involving Nuclear and other Radioactive Materials." No one knows if the gunmen took anything, or if they did, the South African government in Pretoria isn't talking about it.
Nuclear Smuggling Case Emerges
It is apparently a busy week in South Africa for nuclear incidents. According to a report by a Pretoria TV station, a nuclear smuggling case is ongoing. It isn't known whether the case is related to the gunmen's attack on Pelindaba.
A woman has appeared in Cape Town Magistrate's Court Nov 8th on charges of helping to smuggle parts used in manufacturing nuclear weapons from the United States to South Africa. Marisa Sketo, 46, allegedly also helped to export the nuclear weapon parts illegally from South Africa to Pakistan. She is facing charges under the Weapons of Mass Destruction Act. The trial has been rescheduled for January 23, according to a court official.
An unnamed US source reportedly told the TV station the parts she allegedly helped to smuggle to Pakistan were "rapid high-voltage electric switches". A nuclear weapons expert, who did not want to be named, said these switches "were used in nuclear weapons." Most likely he is referring to Krytron detonation switches or similar switches.
The nuclear weapons could not be manufactured without them, said the expert. "It's an essential part in making atomic bombs. The fact that they are so dangerous is why the import and export are forbidden." He said it was ironic that the same device was used in making medical equipment using high levels of radiation. The news report did not say where the woman is alleged to have gotten the switches in the first place.
The 'Vela' incident resolved?
Although South Africa gave up its nuclear weapons in 1993, 14 years earlier it was right in the thick of a still unresolved controversy. Much of the U.S. information about it reportedly remains classified, and is therefore unknown as to content or even if it exists, so the following is a summary of open source speculation from some of the more credible analysts.
Also according to NTI September 22, 1979, a U.S. Vela surveillance satellite detected a "brief, intense, double flash of light near the southern tip of Africa." Due to its characteristics, U.S. nuclear weapons experts estimated that the flash could have resulted from the test of a nuclear device with a yield of 2-4 kilotons. South Africa emerged as the prime source, but the South African government denied that it had conducted a nuclear test. Subsequently, noting that South Africa did not supply a complete nuclear device with HEU until November 1979, AEC head Waldo Stumpf said that "this should put to rest speculations as to whether South Africa was responsible for the 'double flash' over the South Atlantic Ocean."
Other speculation alleged that Israel had conducted a nuclear test, either alone or in conjunction with South Africa. Additional speculation was that the blast was designed, in part, to test the capabilities of anti-missile radars to detect incoming MIRV warheads behind the electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) of the first upper atmosphere explosion. Significantly, U.S. experts assigned to investigate the explosion disputed whether the EMP detectors of the Vela satellite were operating at the time of the blast. If so then the EMP theory is just another wild idea about the blast.
According to GlobalSecurity.org, in an April 20, 1997 article the Israeli Ha'aretz newspaper, South African Deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahad confirmed for the first time that a flare over the Indian Ocean detected by an American satellite in September 1979 was from a nuclear test. The article said that Israel helped South Africa develop its bomb designs in return for 550 tons of raw uranium and other assistance. Assuming the ore was milled into yellowcake, the yield at four pounds per ton would have been 2,200 pounds. This doesn't make much sense. If the South Africans already had uranium enrichment facilities, why would they give the Israelis "raw" uranium?
In July 1997 Pahad denied in a statement to an Albuquerque, NM, newspaper he had made the original remarks to the Israeli newspaper. The significance of the location of the denial is that Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists, located in New Mexico, were at the forefront of open source attribution that a nuclear blast had taken place. The South Africans tried to blame the flash on meteorites entering the earth's upper atmosphere.In his 2006 book On the Brink, retired CIA clandestine service officer Tyler Drumheller wrote of his 1983-1988 tour in South Africa:
"We had operational successes, most importantly regarding Pretoria's nuclear capability. My sources collectively provided incontrovertible evidence that the apartheid government had in fact tested a nuclear bomb in the south Atlantic in 1979, and that they had developed a delivery system [emphasis added] with assistance from the Israelis."
Update Nov 13th - Second Break-in attempt reported
Briefing the media on the embarrassing security breakdown which occured at Pelindaba, near Pretoria last Thursday, South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (NECSA) head Rob Adam revealed that the western section of the plant had also been breached.
A security officer spotted a second group of intruders on the plant premises and fired at them, causing them to flee, he told reporters. Adam also said that the first group managed to steal a computer.
The Times in Pretoria says the site was subjected to a "coordinated military-style attack" bent on obtaining computer information about bomb making processes.
Pelindaba is home to South Africa's former nuclear weapons program and still stores enriched uranium and bomb making components that are left over from that era.
Update Nov 14th - details of break-in reported
Rob Adam, chairman of the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa (Necsa), which runs the 2300ha facility near Hartbeespoort, told a newspaper in South Africa that the armed men clearly had prior knowledge of one of the most elaborate security systems in South Africa. The admission comes after reports of attempts to censor news media coverage of the incidents.
Both groups fired on security personnel who tried to stop them. One group of four cut through the outside fence and bypassed the 10 000 volt security fence and electronic alarm.
“I am not saying it is an inside job, but that whoever did this knows these systems very, very well. My sense is that the two attacks must have been coordinated, but there is no evidence of that yet.”
The raiders deactivated several layers of the security, he said, which was why no alarm was transmitted to the facility’s security control center.
Adam said the first group of raiders was caught on surveillance cameras, but a security operator had failed to notice them.
Pelindaba has suspended its general manager of security, head of security, chief security officer and three officers who were on duty that night until it completes an internal investigation of the raid and of its security systems.