Remember meForgot password?
    Log in with Twitter

South Africa cannot protect its nuclear stockpile

By Adriana Stuijt     Dec 22, 2008 in Science
There are growing fears among the nuclear powers that South Africa would not be able to safeguard its stored nuclear material. On November 7 2007, Africa's only enriched-uranium storage facility, Pelindaba in Pretoria, was invaded by two armed gangs.
Pelindaba, described as a 'fortress', houses hundreds of kilograms of highly enriched uranium -- remnants of the apartheid government's six nuclear bombs, dismantled in the early 1990s. This material is watched over by closed-circuit cameras from inside a supposedly secured control room which is surrounded by triple fencing and a cordon of other high-tech security measures.
Yet last year 's unprecedented, boldest assault ever on a facility containing weapons-grade uranium, is according to the Sixty Minutes TV programme, 'a still-unsolved crime that could have had calamitous consequences.'
Not mentioned in their report but perhaps it should have been: Only four months earlier, the country's National Energy Corporation of SA'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. All these incidents were just 'ordinary crime' the SA authorities are saying.
The highly enriched uranium stored there is worth millions on the black market and could be turned into fuel for illicit nuclear bombs. The anti-nuclear lobby and other interest groups believe these two seperate groups of attackers were after specific information -- while other security experts believe the attackers were after the weapons-grade uranium itself.
The Pelindaba attack has become an item of serious discussion in the security industry worldwide - so much so that it has even been developed into a defence safety analysis case study. This was said by Mike Kantey, the chairman of the Coalition Against Nuclear Energy in South Africa (Cane), this week.
Matthew Bunn of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government said in a 60 Minutes TV programme (see video above) aired about the attack that 'it would not be hard to buld a crude atomic bomb' if the terrorists (his words) 'had gotten hold of the stored uranium'.
Also interviewed by the programme were the attacked central control-room manager Anton Gerber and its operator Ria Meiring, who were injured in the attack and are now suing South Africa's control body, the Nuclear Energy Corporation, for its truly grotesquely lax security ...
See Sixty Minutes programme report here:
It has now been a year since two armed gangs launched simultaneous attacks on the Pelindaba nuclear facility outside Pretoria -- yet no one has been arrested for the crime that left Gerber wounded.
And South Africans are left wondering about the underlying motive for this double-assault by two gangs with handguns -- also because the government has drawn a heavy security veil across the entire incident.
The mystery already started within hours when the Nuclear Energy Corporation of SA executive in charge, Rob Adam, claimed that the control room had not been 'compromised' -- when it clearly had been, as Gerber was shot there and Meiring assaulted.... Then the police in Pretoria announced the arrest of three people, including a 17-year-old, in connection with these attacks a week after the incident - but those same cops now deny that anyone has ever been arrested for it.
Earlier this year, three security guards at Pelindaba were fired because 'they'd been caught sleeping on the job'. During the attack, Gerber was shot and injured by the intruders and Ria Meiring assaulted by the first four men who had managed to penetrate the 'secure'nuclear facility on November 7, 2007.
However Rob Adam, the chief executive of the Nuclear Energy Corporation of SA (Necsa), said at that time that the control room had not been 'compromised' in the attack by "four armed, technically sophisticated criminals". These men had entered the Necsa site unnoticed and then simply cut the outside fence, then slipping through the electric fence.
Moreover, the attackers had roamed the premises for about an hour unnoticed; stealing a ladder from a fire engine with which they reached the first floor of the emergency control centre through a window.
There, they stole a computer which, rather strangely, was placed on a balcony.
Then they attacked Gerber and Meiring in the control room, and left behind the computer.
The NEC-executive said at the time that 'it was evident the criminals had prior knowledge of the electronic security systems.
Attackers filmed on surveillance cameras but guards 'were asleep..'.
"These activities were captured on surveillance cameras but, unfortunately, not detected by the operators on duty," Necsa had said. As has recently become known, this was due to the fact that they'd been fast asleep.
The NEC also lied to the news media when he claimed that 'at no time was the emergency control room systems compromised' - when it clearly had been as Gerber and Meiring were attacked inside.
At exactly the same time, a second gang had also tried breaking through the boundary fence on the opposite side of the facility -- but they were spotted by a security guard who hadn't been sleeping on the job. That gang still managed to flee back across the wire fence and underneath the electrified fencing in the the ensuing shootout. And they have been running ever since - because no-one has ever been captured.
Gerber and Meiring, his fiance, now are suing Necsa for damages and loss of income following their ordeal.
Papers filed in the Pretoria High Court in November state that Gerber is claiming R850,000 and Meiring R750,000 from Necsa as well as from the security staff on duty on the night of the attack.
Summonses have been issued against Necsa and a security services manager, security shift supervisor and two camera room operators who were on duty.
The couple claim negligence -- on the grounds that the camera operators were asleep and did not warn them inside the central control room about the trespassers or organise a timeous response. It had taken security guards 24 minutes to respond to their calls for help.
Gerber said during a recent American network television 60 Minutes programme that it took police 10 months before they bothered to show up to interview him.
Necsa has meanwhile kept its report on what happened that night a closely guarded secret.
Arie van der Bijl, the general manager of Necsa, rather ridiculously also denied in the same programme that 'the two attacks on the same night were linked."
It had all been 'a coincidence,' he said - adding that if indeed these had been "sophisticated terrorists", Gerber would not be alive today. '
Abdul Minty, muslim, new director-general of the International Atomic Energy Commission...
His unproven claim was supported by South Africa's nominated director-general of the International Atomic Energy Commission -- Abdul Minty. He's the man who is going to be placed in charge of all the Nuclear Energy matters worldwide. A sobering thought... see
A hghly-placed senior South African police official said however the mere fact that the case was being investigated by the serious and violent crimes unit was a clear indication this was more than a "mere break-in". "This is a national keypoint, a protected site," this officer said.
Necsa has meanwhile offered a R25,000 reward, a mere $12,000, for the arrest and conviction of the two gangs. To date, there have been no takers. And who can blame them? One Rolex watch is worth more than that...
In January, IAEA experts concluded after their visit to Pelindaba that 'there was no evidence that sensitive nuclear areas were under any threat during the incident."
South African officials lied
The IAEA wants to make sure that Pelindaba still 'provided an appropriate basis" for ensuring physical protection of nuclear material and nuclear facilities at the site and submitted a long list outlining all the security improvements required to do so. If this was not undertaken, this material would have to be moved out of South Africa to a safer holding facility elsewhere...
This week Necsa again strongly denied that the intruders were anywhere near the valuable enriched-uranium stocks. "These stocks have additional internationally benchmarked security features protecting them," said its spokesman Elliot Mulane.
And although none of the attackers have been arrested nor questioned, he also denied that 'the attackers could have been after information. There is no mainframe computer in the building that the intruders broke into and the local area network is controlled from a server located about 2km from this building," he concluded.
See other reports here:
Guards axed after Pelindaba security breach see
'Horror list' of problems at Pelindaba see
Armed gangs eye nuclear research facility see
Robbers try again at SA nuke site see
More about Nuclear bombs south, Weapons-grade nuclear material, Armed gangs attacked, Sixty minutes, Serious breach nuclear-safety