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A Nuclear Site Is Breached

An underreported attack on a South African nuclear facility last month demonstrates the high risk of theft of nuclear materials by terrorists or criminals. Such a crime could have grave national security implications for the United States or any of the dozens of countries where nuclear materials are held in various states of security.

Shortly after midnight on Nov. 8, four armed men broke into the Pelindaba nuclear facility 18 miles west of Pretoria, a site where hundreds of kilograms of weapons-grade uranium are stored. According to the South African Nuclear Energy Corp., the state-owned entity that runs the Pelindaba facility, these four “technically sophisticated criminals” deactivated several layers of security, including a 10,000-volt electrical fence, suggesting insider knowledge of the system. Though their images were captured on closed-circuit television, they were not detected by security officers because nobody was monitoring the cameras at the time.

So, undetected, the four men spent 45 minutes inside one of South Africa’s most heavily guarded “national key points” — defined by the government as “any place or area that is so important that its loss, damage, disruption or immobilization may prejudice the Republic.”

Eventually, the attackers broke into the emergency control center in the middle of the facility, stole a computer (which was ultimately left behind) and breached an electronically sealed control room. After a brief struggle, they shot Anton Gerber, an off-duty emergency services officer. Gerber later explained that he was hanging around because he believed (reasonably, in retrospect) that his fiancee — a site supervisor — was not safe at work. Although badly injured, Gerber triggered the alarm, setting off sirens and lights and alerting police stationed a few miles away.

Nevertheless, the four escaped, leaving the facility the same way they broke in.

Amazingly, at the same time those four men entered Pelindaba from its eastern perimeter, a separate group of intruders failed in an attempt to break in from the west. The timing suggests a coordinated attack against a facility that contains an estimated 25 bombs’ worth of weapons-grade nuclear material. On Nov. 16, local police arrested three suspects, ranging in age from 17 to 28, in connection with this incident.

Washington Post

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