AFRIKAANS DIVISION FOR EKP (English second language)
NUCLEAR WEAPON ATTRACTIONS
A break-in at a South African nuclear complex alarms Washington and strains relations years later ….
WHAT HAPPENED? IS THIS REALLY NORMAL CRIME SITUATIONS: NO IT IS NOT A FARM ATTACK, BUT AT PELINDABA
Shortly after midnight, four armed men sliced through a chain-link fence, slipped past electrified wire, then turned off electricity and some alarms. Intruders stormed the Emergency Operations Center holding one employee atgunpoint and shooting another. Intruders fled after employees fought backand summoned help…………. READ WHAT HAPPENED
South Africa is one of ten countries in the world that don’t have nuclear arsenals, but possess the roughly 33 pounds of highly-enriched uranium needed to build an atom bomb.
How serious is this situation, later described a a normal crime situation?
Nine countries in the world have nuclear weapons. South AfTericn countries that do not have nuclear weapons possess at least 33 pounds of highly enriched uranium, the amount needed to build an atom bomb.
U.S. unease about nuclear-weapons fuel takes aim at a South African vault
Enough nuclear explosive to fuel half a dozen bombs, each powerful enough to obliterate central Washington or most of Lower Manhattan, is locked in a former silver vault at a nuclear research center near the South African capital.
Enough nuclear explosive to fuel half a dozen bombs, each powerful enough to obliterate central Washington or most of Lower Manhattan, is locked in a former silver vault at a nuclear research center near the South African capital.
Technicians extracted the highly enriched uranium from the apartheid regime’s nuclear weapons in 1990, then melted the fuel down and cast it into ingots. Over the years, some of the cache has been used to make medical isotopes, but roughly 485 pounds remains, and South Africa is keeping a tight grip on it.
That gives this country — which has insisted that the United States and other world powers destroy their nuclear arsenals — a theoretical ability to regain its former status as a nuclear-weapons state. But what really worries the United States is that the nuclear explosives here could be stolen and used by militants to commit the worst terror attack in history.
Senior current and former U.S. officials say they have reason to be concerned. On a cold night in November 2007, two teams of raiders breached the fences here at the Pelindaba research center, set in the rolling scrubland a half-hour’s drive west of Pretoria, the country’s administrative capital. One group penetrated deep into the site unchallenged and broke into the site’s central alarm station. They were stopped only because a substitute watch officer summoned others.
The episode remains a source of contention between Pretoria and Washington because no suspects were ever charged with the assault, and officials here have dismissed it as a minor, bungled burglary. U.S. officials and experts — backed up by a confidential South African security report — say to the contrary that the assailants appeared to know what they were doing and what they wanted: the bomb-grade uranium. They also say the raid came perilously close to succeeding.
The episode still spooks Washington, which as a result has waged a discreet diplomatic campaign to persuade South Africa to get rid of its large and, by U.S. reckoning, highly vulnerable stock of nuclear-weapons fuel.
But South African President Jacob Zuma, like his predecessors, has resisted the White House’s persistent entreaties and generous incentives to do so, for reasons that have partly baffled and enormously frustrated the Americans.
President Obama, in a previously undisclosed private letter sent to Zuma in August 2011, went so far as to warn Zuma that a terrorist nuclear attack would be a “global catastrophe.” He proposed that South Africa transform its nuclear explosives into benign reactor fuel, with U.S. help.
If Zuma agreed, the White House would trumpet their deal at a 2012 summit on nuclear security in South Korea, Obama wrote, according to a copy of the letter. Together, he said, the two nations could “better protect people around the world.”
Zuma was unmoved, however, and in a letter of his own, he insisted that South Africa needs its nuclear materials and was capable of keeping them secure. He did not accept a related appeal from Obama two years later, current and former senior U.S. officials said.
Washington may bear a special responsibility for ensuring that South Africa’s materials do not wind up in the wrong hands.
Over nine years ending in 1965, it helped South Africa build its first nuclear reactor under the Atoms for Peace program and then trained scientists to run it with U.S.-supplied, weapons-grade uranium fuel. Washington finally cut off the fuel supply in 1976, after becoming convinced the apartheid regime had used nuclear research to create a clandestine bomb program, fueled by its own highly enriched uranium.
The apartheid regime hatched the bomb program at a time when it faced sabotage at home, wars on its borders and increasing international isolation. But by the end of the Cold War, the government realized that its whites-only rule would have to be scrapped, and so its leaders ordered the weapons destroyed and the production facilities dismantled, while holding onto the explosive fuel.
In interviews, top officials in both countries made clear that they see the issue through different prisms. Zuma’s appointees assert that it is absurd for the United States to obsess over the security of the country’s small stockpile while downplaying the starker threat posed by the big powers’ nuclear arsenals.
Raising the threat of nuclear terror, officials here say, is an excuse to restrict the spread of peaceful and profitable nuclear technology to the developing world, and to South Africa in particular.
This claim of being singled out is similar to that made by another emerging nuclear power: Iran. And for good reason: Both countries defiantly constructed facilities to enrich uranium in the past, over foreign opposition, and want the rest of the world to agree they have a right to do it in the future. They have long been diplomatic friends and trading partners and have discussed helping one another’s nuclear research.
But this demand for enrichment rights — which Tehran wants enshrined in an agreement with six great powers — is hardly theirs alone. Although the Obama administration has tried to discourage uranium enrichment everywhere, leaders in Brazil, Argentina, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Jordan and South Korea say they see nuclear power, along with the ability to enrich uranium, as their right.
By most accounts, Iran doesn’t have significant amounts of weapons uranium, only the means to make it. But it stands accused by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) — and behind it, by the United Nations Security Council — with failing to come clean about past nuclear work with weapons applications. That’s why Iran has been hit with sanctions.
South Africa, in contrast, was praised by the IAEA in 1995 for “transparency and openness” in discussing its weapons program. The agency also declared it had no reason to suspect that South Africa’s inventory of fissile materials was incomplete or that the program had not been completely stopped and dismantled.
Unlike Iran, however, South Africa already possesses highly enriched uranium — nearly a quarter-ton of it, which the United States has tried but failed to pry loose. That’s why current and former U.S. officials say that South Africa is now the world’s largest uncooperative holder of nuclear explosives, outside of the nine existing nuclear powers.
Few outside the weapons states possess such a large stockpile of prime weapons material, and none has been as defiant of U.S. pressure to give it up.
Told what this story would say, the South African government responded Friday with a statement reaffirming its view that the November 2007 break-in was a run-of-the-mill burglary and asserting that the weapons uranium is safe.
“We are aware that there has been a concerted campaign to undermine us by turning the reported burglary into a major risk,” said Clayson Monyela, spokesperson for the country’s foreign ministry, called the Department of International Relations and Cooperation. He said the IAEA had raised no concerns, and that “attempts by anyone to manufacture rumors and conspiracy theories laced with innuendo are rejected with the contempt they deserve.”
Experts consider highly enriched uranium the terrorists’ nuclear explosive of choice. A bomb’s worth could fit in a five-pound sack and emit so little radiation that it could be carried around in a backpack with little hazard to the wearer. Physicists say a sizable nuclear blast could be readily achieved by slamming two shaped chunks of it together at high speed.Several months before becoming responsible for White House nonproliferation policies last year, arms control expert Jon Wolfsthal told the Center for Public Integrity in an interview that the U.S. motives for seeking to clean out South Africa’s weapons uranium were straightforward and that they focused on the stockpile held at Pelindaba.The bottom line is that South Africa has a crime problem,” Wolfsthal said. “They have a facility that is holding onto material that they don’t need and a political chip on their shoulder about giving up that material. That has rightly concerned the United States, which is trying to get rid of any cache of HEU [highly enriched uranium] that is still out there.”Thanks in part to U.S. efforts, just nine nonnuclear-weapon states besides South Africa still have enough enriched uranium to build a nuclear weapon, although mostly not in a readily usable form, according to Miles Pomper, senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies: Germany, Japan, Canada, Belgium, Kazakhstan, Poland, Italy, the Netherlands and Belarus.Each has been similarly asked by Washington and its allies to reduce or eliminate their stocks of highly enriched uranium. Canada, Japan, Kazakhstan, Italy and Poland promised publicly at the 2014 White House nuclear security summit to reduce their holdings in the next few years. Belgium said it would eliminate its stocks “in time.”For South Africa, maintaining a grip on its bomb fuel is tangled up with its national pride, its suspicion of big power motivations and its anger over Washington’s past half-measures in opposing apartheid. “It’s a technical issue with an emotional overhang,” said Donald Gips, the U.S. ambassador to South Africa from 2009 to 2013.
Some of its top officials complained privately, Gips said, that Washington’s pressure stems from a conviction that Africans “cannot be trusted to keep nuclear materials.”
Other South Africans have said that by refusing to let go of its uranium, the country retains the higher political and scientific stature of a country such as Japan, which is considered “nuclear weapons-capable” while possessing none.
The chief obstacle to achieving one of the White House’s top arms control priorities, according to U.S. officials, is Zuma, the president since May 2009. He led the ruling African National Congress (ANC) to another victory last year with 62 percent of the vote and could serve at least through 2019.
Zuma, a former ANC intelligence chief, is a shrewd populist and one of the most influential figures in the Non-Aligned Movement representing 120 mostly developing nations. That’s why Washington thought swift action by Zuma could set a valuable precedent.
Obama’s election was celebrated here, and the two presidents seemed to forge a personal bond at their first meeting in July 2009, raising White House hopes for progress. A team of senior Energy and State department officials traveled to Pretoria a month later to sell the idea of relinquishing the explosive materials.
Obama invited Zuma to a series of White House summits on nuclear security and dispatched scientists from U.S. nuclear-weapons labs and FBI antiterrorist experts to help protect the 2010 World Cup in Johannesburg against nuclear-related threats.
After Zuma nonetheless rejected Obama’s 2011 plea, Obama raised the issue again, during a trip to Pretoria in June 2013.
This time, he privately asked Zuma to relinquish a different trove of weapons-usable uranium — still embedded in older reactor fuel that by U.S. accounts is lightly guarded — in exchange for a free shipment of 772 pounds of fresh, non-weapons-usable reactor fuel, valued at $5 million.
Obama followed up with a three-page letter in December 2013, two days after he spoke with Zuma at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in Soweto. According to a copy of the letter, he urged Zuma to seal this new deal at a March 2014 nuclear summit in the Netherlands.
Although technical experts held preliminary talks, Zuma never accepted the swap and didn’t bother to attend that summit, sending Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane in his place.
There, the South African emissary told reporters that the summits should “wrap up” their work and leave nuclear security to the IAEA, which considers the expansion of civilian nuclear power a key mission.
Fear of “what could go wrong” with nuclear technology, she said, should not violate the “inalienable rights” of countries to use enriched uranium for peaceful purposes. “We have no ambition for building a bomb again. That is past history,” Nkoana-Mashabane said. “But we want to use this resource.”
South Africa has used some of the former bomb fuel to make medical and industrial isotopes — generating $85 million in income a year. But about six years ago, South Africa started making the isotopes with low-enriched uranium that poses little proliferation risk — a decision that robbed it of its long-standing rationale for keeping the materials.
Now officials here say they’re retaining their weapons uranium partly because someday someone may find a new, as-yet-undiscovered, commercial application. If and when one is found, a senior South African diplomat said in an interview, “it’ll be like OPEC to the power of 10,” where states without the material would be at the mercy of a cartel of foreign suppliers.
Pretoria’s determination to keep its weapons uranium dates to the apartheid era, but the most vocal advocate in democratic South Africa has been Abdul Samad Minty, who served for most of the past two decades as his country’s top nuclear policymaker.
Gary Samore, the White House coordinator on weapons of mass destruction from 2009 to 2013, called Minty “a worthy adversary for me in all of the nuclear security summits,” who was “deeply, emotionally opposed to giving up their HEU.”
Minty, 75, now South Africa’s ambassador to U.N. agencies headquartered in Geneva, sipped green tea in his office as he explained that it is the United States that is recalcitrant. Even as it campaigns to halt the spread of nuclear weapons, he says, it refuses to part with its own.
“The problem is you can’t have nuclear-weapons states who feel they can have nuclear weapons and have as many as they want,” he said.
Stocks of fissile materials held by countries outside the small club of nuclear-weapons states, he said, are just “not that important” a threat, compared with the thousands of nuclear weapons held by the bigger powers.
As an ANC activist for 30 years, Minty successfully pushed to have the regime expelled from the IAEA’s Board of Governors. Named South Africa’s top representative to the IAEA in 1995, Minty became a regular thorn in the side of the West. He abstained in 2005 and 2006 on resolutions referring Iran’s nuclear program to the U.N. Security Council, arguing the resolutions were procedurally flawed or premature.
The IAEA, the 75-year-old diplomat said, cannot be used as a tool to undermine the “basic right” of nonnuclear countries to develop their own nuclear industries, by setting expensive and restrictive security standards.
He also harshly criticized the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty — in which the members of the U.N. Security Council agreed to get rid of their nuclear arsenals if the rest of the world promised not to acquire them — for not pressuring the major powers to disarm.
“Yes they are reducing, not disarming,” Minty said. “Now if you say you need nuclear weapons for your security, what stops another country from saying at another time, in another situation, I also need nuclear weapons for my security?”
“People who smoke can’t tell someone else not to smoke,” Minty said.
U.S. officials reject this reasoning. “Nuclear disarmament is not going to happen,” Samore said he told Minty, and waiting for it is a dangerous excuse for inaction. “It’s a fantasy. We need our weapons for our safety, and we’re not going to give them up.”
According to U.S. officials and experts, South Africa uses only about 16.5 pounds of its remaining stock of weapons uranium to make isotopes annually, out of a total stockpile estimated by foreign experts at around 485 pounds. And it need not use it at all.
Some American officials say they think Minty still bears a grudge from vigorous U.S. opposition to his bid to replace Mohamed ElBaradei as director general of the IAEA in 2009. Minty fought hard, but he had angered U.S. officials by making supportive comments about Iran, including an assertion early in 2008 that “there is increasing confidence in the Iranian enrichment program.”
Waldo Stumpf, a longtime atomic energy official in South Africa who presided over the dismantlement of the apartheid-era bomb program, said in an interview that handing over the highly enriched uranium “was never part of the thinking here. Not within Mr. [Frederik W.] de Klerk’s government. Not afterwards, when the ANC took over. Why would we give away a commercially valuable material that has earned a lot of foreign exchange? Why would we do that?”
In fact, South Africa intends not only to keep its existing enriched uranium, officials here say, but also insists on the right to make or acquire more. “Our international legally binding obligations . . . allow for the enrichment of uranium for peaceful purposes only, irrespective of the enrichment level,” Zuma said at the 2012 nuclear security summit in Seoul.
Asked about South Africa’s policy, a former senior Obama administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities said that after U.S. officials pressed their arguments “at every level possible,” he became convinced that South Africa would not give up its nuclear explosives so long as Zuma remains in power.
Xolisa Mabhongo, who served from 2010 to 2014 as South Africa’s ambassador to the IAEA and last year moved to a senior executive post at the South African Nuclear Energy Corp., confirmed this assessment.
“I don’t think there is any incentive that can be offered” that South Africa would trade for its weapons uranium, Mabhongo said. “It’s our property. We do not see the need to give it to anybody else. [President Thabo] Mbeki explained this to Bush, and Zuma explained this to Obama. So I don’t think this position is ever going to change.”
Washington remains spooked by a break-in at Pelindaba, the South African storage site for nuclear explosives, eight years ago.
No one was ever prosecuted for the Pelindaba break-in, even though a nonpublic South African report concluded in 2009 it posed a serious security threat.
South Africa’s government claims the break-in was a petty burglary, but U.S. officials and independent experts worry that the attackers were after nuclear explosives.
The nonpublic South African report described how at every step, the attackers displayed a detailed knowledge of Pelindaba’s layout and security systems, as well as the expertise needed to overcome the site’s defenses.
The incident led to unpublicized collaboration between a U.S. nuclear weapons laboratory and the nuclear site on stronger security measures, but White House officials are convinced more needs to be done at Pelindaba.
To gain access to South Africa’s main nuclear research center here, where nearly a quarter-ton of nuclear explosives are stored, approved visitors are supposed to be checked by fingerprint scanners at the three main entrances, installed as part of an American-financed security upgrade.
Unless, of course, the scanners are not working, in which case the guard may just wave a visitor through a vehicle entrance several steps away – as happened with a reporter, twice, during visits a few days apart to this remote, scrubland site last year.
Pelindaba, situated west of the capital of Pretoria, is considered a “national key point” by the South African government, a highly-sensitive facility that is a potential target for sabotage. It was once the center of South Africa’s clandestine nuclear weapons program, which built 6 bombs and left behind a reservoir of weapons-usable fuel.
Whether that stockpile — enough highly-enriched uranium (HEU) for more bombs like the one that devastated Hiroshima — is adequately guarded from theft has been a recurrent source of friction between Washington and Pretoria, according to officials in both capitals.
A break-in at Pelindaba by two armed groups more than seven years ago convinced senior U.S. officials and some independent security experts that the vault holding the fuel lacks adequate counter-terror protections. As a result, Washington has been waging a quiet, but unsuccessful, diplomatic campaign to convince South Africa to relinquish the vault’s HEU.
Government officials here depict the break-in as a routine burglary, and complain that Washington is needlessly obsessed about Pelindaba’s security. The nuclear arsenals of the world’s militaries pose far greater dangers than the highly-enriched uranium located here, senior South African diplomats say.
In two private letters, President Barack Obama has asked South African president Jacob Zuma to transform the South Africa’s weapons-usable uranium into a more benign form with U.S. help. But Zuma has not accepted either suggestion, and current and former U.S. officials have said that they worry that the security upgrades made at Pelindaba are insufficient or poorly maintained – as suggested by the malfunctioning fingerprint scanner.
A confidential South African report, moreover, backs up the U.S. account of the gravity of the break-in and the risks of another assault, according to persons familiar with its contents.
The author of the report, who formerly worked for Kroll Inc., an international intelligence and investigations firm, concluded that the raid was a carefully planned operation, that it relied on inside help, that those involved had special training, and that it probably targeted the nuclear explosives, these sources say.
The 98-page document, which was written for the national utility that runs Pelindaba, pointed to suspects that were never arrested or questioned, they add. It has never been released — or even acknowledged — in South Africa, but was obtained by foreign intelligence agencies and described to the Center for Public Integrity by multiple sources.
Asked for comment about this story, Clayson Monyela, a spokesman for South Africa’s foreign ministry said “we are aware that there has been a concerted campaign to undermine us by turning the reported burglary into a major risk. Attempts by anyone to manufacture rumours and conspiracy theories laced with innuendo are rejected with the contempt they deserve.”
Seizing the security control center
Experts consider HEU the terrorists’ nuclear explosive of choice. Physicists say a sizable nuclear blast could be readily achieved by slamming two shaped chunks of it together at high speed. Foreign experts say about 485 pounds of the HEU, initially packed inside South Africa’s nuclear bombs, are stored in Pelindaba’s vault now.
Although Pelindaba, located a half-hour’s drive west of Pretoria, is named after Zulu words that mean “the discussion is finished,” it has long been a magnet for controversy. Its nuclear scientists learned their craft working on a civilian reactor built there by the United States in the 1960s and fueled by U.S.-supplied. highly-enriched uranium at a time when Washington was less attentive to the associated risks.
Still the country’s main nuclear research center, Pelindaba employs about 2,000 workers and consists of dozens of brown concrete research labs, production facilities, and narrow cooling towers, all flanked by grasslands and spreading acacia trees where monkeys, warthogs and other wildlife roam.
The structures are clustered on a series of hilltops, dotted with acacia trees and circled by a 6.8-mile-long, electrified fence. Tucked in the basement of one is a special vault originally built to hold silver intended for reactor fuel rods. After the apartheid government’s six bombs were dismantled and their explosive cores melted down and cast into ingots, the vault was repurposed as their storage site.
According to the confidential South African report, the 2007 raid began shortly after midnight on a cold Thursday morning when four armed men sliced through the fence, peeled it back, and secured the flaps with locking plastic straps, and then one-by-one slowly crawled underneath. Around the same time, a second group of intruders breached another section of the fence about a mile away.
The spot chosen by the first group was at the edge of video coverage, close to a control box and at the nearest point to the vital Emergency Control Center. The second team’s breach came when nearby cameras were pointed elsewhere.
The first of the raiders to get inside went straight to the electrical box, where he circumvented a magnetic anti-tampering mechanism, disabled the alarms, cut the communications cable, and shut down power to a portion of the fence and to alarms on a gate 250 feet away– opening a path for a vehicle to exit.
This was not simply a matter of pulling a switch, a source familiar with the report said, but required electrical skills and knowledge of the security systems. Those who participated, the report said, had special training.
Once inside, the gang walked three-quarters of a mile uphill toward the fire station next to the emergency center. Working swiftly, the assailants broke in, found a hidden latch securing a fire truck ladder, and used the ladder to climb to the Center’s second-floor landing.
The raiders arrived, moreover, on a night when they may have expected little resistance. The Emergency Center supervisor scheduled to be on duty then used a wheelchair. But as it happened, he wanted to attend a party that night, and arranged for a colleague to take his place. She brought along her dog and her fiancé, Frans Antonie Gerber, an off-duty firefighter.
Security forces never directly confronted the raiders. But the dogs’ barking – which led Gerber to spy the intruders and his girlfriend to pick up the phone and call for help just as they burst in — thwarted the intrusion. Three intruders attacked Gerber, one with a pipe. Gerber resisted, and was shot in the chest, with the bullet narrowly missing his spine. (Gerber, who is still employed at Pelindaba, did not respond to interview requests.)
Frightened off by the fracas and the phone call, the first team of raiders fled. The second team did not go far before they left, prompting the investigator to speculate they had communicated with the first team.
Two guards who were supposed to monitor video cameras were fired; a manager was also suspended. But eight years later, no one has been charged with a crime and no suspects have been identified. One person was arrested: a Malawian man using a SIM card from a cellphone stolen during the raid. But police concluded he found it on the ground outside Pelindaba’s fence, and he was simply deported.
The private investigator tracked down some of the cellphone records of calls made in the Pelindaba area the night of the raid, which in combination with interviews and polygraph tests led him to two South Africans he ultimately suspected of having participated, as well as several others who may have been accomplices.
But the suspects were never arrested or even questioned by police, according to two South African sources.
One major cellphone provider in the area, the MTN group, refused to turn over its records, despite a police subpoena. “MTN is obliged to respond to a subpoena that has been secured by a member of the South African Police Services and not a private investigator,” said Graham de Vries, a spokesman for the company’s chief corporate services office.
A South African expert who read the report said he concluded that the raiders most likely targeted the nuclear explosives, perhaps to sell them on the black market, where they could have fetched millions of dollars. He based his conclusion, he said, on the expertise the raid required, the risk the raiders faced, and the difficulty of planning simultaneous assaults by two different teams.
Having the run of the place
William H. Tobey, the deputy administrator of the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration at the time of the break-in, is among many current and former U.S. officials that share these concerns. While he remains uncertain of the raiders’ objectives, he mentioned the groups’ ability to use the hidden ladder latch as a reason he became “convinced … there was insider participation.”
Rather than face the implications of the assault, Tobey said, South African officials are in denial about it.
Whatever the raider’s intent, a former U.S. intelligence official said on condition he not be named, they “had the run of the place. The more we learned, the more horrifying it was …. They could have gotten the stuff” if they had been more determined to do so.
Matthew Bunn, a Clinton White House science official who also advised the Bush administration on nuclear security matters, called the South African government’s view that the raiders were common criminals “utterly nonsensical.”
“Nobody breaks through a 10,000-volt security fence to steal someone’s cellphone,” he said. “The obvious question is, What else at the site justifies having two well-trained, knowledgeable teams at the site at the same time? The assumption … to be disproved is that they were … after the highly-enriched uranium.”
South African Police Service officials didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment. Ronnie Kasrils, South Africa’s minister of intelligence services at the time of the raid, said in a brief email that he had ordered a thorough investigation and that “from reports it did indeed appear to be a routine burglary.” Suyabonga Cwele, his successor in 2009, declined to be interviewed.
South African opposition parties have demanded a more concerted inquiry, but the ruling African National Congress has brushed the issue aside. Then-Defense Minister Mosiuoa Lekota told lawmakers in 2008 that the break-in was “a clear criminal act” and a matter for police to pursue.
Bismark Tyobeka, a U.S.-trained engineer who is now chief executive of South Africa’s National Nuclear Regulator, said he believes the chances of a repeat of the 2007 assault on Pelindaba are “very low” but expressed concern about the lack of progress in answering questions raised by the incident.
“If it happened to my installation I would be bugging the state or the police to want to know what is happening,” he said. “It leaves everybody worried because to date none of the perpetrators has been apprehended.”
“Either the perpetrators were very sophisticated in the operation, or the investigations have not been very effective,” Tyobeka said. “We hope very shortly that the perpetrators will be brought to book, we will have closure on this, because as a regulator we can never rest until we know what exactly happened there so that it does not happen again.”
Asked if he planned to pressure the police and Pelindaba’s managers to close the case, Tyobeka said that not his responsibility. “I say we would not really be interested to be chasing the case with the SAPS,” he said, referring to the South African Police Service.
Washington insists on security upgrades
After the raid, the Bush administration offered to help tighten security at Pelindaba, but the Pretoria government refused, according to officials and documents. South Africans chose instead to seek a special IAEA review of the site, and in January 2008, an IAEA team issued a 74-word statement that a security upgrade plan set by the government a year before the raid provided an “appropriate basis” for protecting the site.
The statement — which under IAEA rules had to be cleared by the South African government — said further there was “no evidence that sensitive nuclear areas were under any threat at any time” during the raid.
For many South African officials, the report was vindication. Abdul Minty, who at the time served as South Africa’s representative on the IAEA board, said he asked his American colleagues, “Don’t you trust the IAEA? This is the organization you created. They come here, they inspect, they report, the stuff is under 24-hour surveillance, it’s in a vault. What’s your problem?”
U.S. experts say instead that the report illustrates the challenge of ensuring sound security practices are used at nuclear explosive storage sites when no international standards exist and no country is obligated to report details about its handling of specific incidents to others. Roger Johnston, a physicist who from 1992 until early this year led a team of Energy Department scientists studying nuclear security, calls this approach “security by obscurity.”
Officials at the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation, which runs Pelindaba, were less sanguine than the ministry officials and sought help from U.S. government nonproliferation experts, according to a September 2009 State Department diplomatic cable.
The cable, released by Wikileaks, said Joseph Shayi, NECSA’s top security manager, told the Americans he needed additional motion sensors as well as new video cameras, fencing and training for Pelindaba. Shayi declined a request for an interview.
But other South African officials said at the time that the upgrades weren’t required, and worried that spending money on security would sap funds needed for other nuclear work, according to U.S. officials involved in the negotiations. The South Africans also raised charges of U.S. hypocrisy on nuclear security, pointing to the July 2012 break-in at the U.S. weapons-grade uranium storage site outside Knoxville, Tennessee, by an 82-year old nun and two other peace activists.
That break-in — which prompted bruising internal security reviews and eventual upgrades — did “affect our credibility” overseas as a secure guardian of nuclear explosives, Steven C. Erhart, the head of the U.S. nuclear weapons production office testified in May 2013 at the trial of those arrested.
In the end, Pretoria agreed to install the upgrades only after Washington offered to pay $8 million toward the cost and threatened to withhold fuel shipments for South Africa’s U.S.-built research reactor, which profitably produces medical isotopes.
NECSA says it spent another $1.4 million to build a new perimeter fence designed with help from experts at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, and to harden defenses at the site’s Emergency Operations Center, which the 2007 raiders so easily commandeered.
But the government refused to buy security system software suggested by Washington, fearing that it might contain “trap doors” that could be exploited by the Americans. Two sources familiar with the security arrangements also say that the vault building still has no special guard force deployed full-time at its perimeter, unlike similar repositories in the United States.
Waldo Stumpf, a senior official in South Africa’s nuclear programs under both the apartheid and democratic governments until 2001, said in an interview that due to various security upgrades made at the site, “there’s no way” that unauthorized parties could get into the vault.
But Johnston, the former Energy Department security expert, said that “as far as I can tell nothing is impregnable.”
The author of more than 115 technical papers and winner of numerous awards for his work, Johnston is best known for his study of seals, including the kind used by the IAEA to detect the diversion of nuclear explosives. After testing 850 seals over the last two decades, he and his team concluded that all of them could be defeated, meaning opened and resealed without leaving a trace — some by one person working alone for two hours or less.
Johnston, who recently formed his own security consulting firm, emphasized that he has only read about and discussed the Pelindaba raid with colleagues. But in general, he said, anyone who says any vault couldn’t be broken into “hasn’t really thought through the security issues. Because, if they had, they would be sweating bullets.”
The break-in at Pelindaba, he explained, was a “classic” failure of what’s known as “layered” security, meaning that authorities felt complacent behind layers of guns, guards, alarms and fences.
“It’s just not a business where you should ever be confident,” Johnston said.
Some of Washington’s enduring concerns are delineated in its recent counterterrorism reports. South African nationals have acted as al Qaida financiers and facilitators, the State Department’s 2012 report said, and a South African nonprofit was suspected of funneling money to Bangladeshi militant groups. Informal cash transfer businesses, called hawalas, widely used by South Africa’s large Muslim community, have likely transferred money to violent extremists in East Africa, it added.
Meanwhile, the country’s security service has engaged in minimal cooperation with U.S. counterterrorism officials, according to the 2013 annual report, the most recent published. “South Africa borders remain porous,” and terrorist groups have exploited the holes to move throughout the continent, the report said. “Due to allegations of corruption, attrition, the lack of receipt of timely intelligence requests, and bureaucracy within multiple South African law enforcement entities, [counterterrorism] challenges remain.”
“The feeling in the White House was: Who is better at protecting this material? Us or them?” said Donald Gips, President Obama’s ambassador to South Africa from 2009 to 2013. “If a real terrorist organization tried to break in there, they’re going to get in.”
No matter how much security gear the South Africans added, Gips said it was his impression that “we were not going to be happy. No matter what country, we wanted that stuff out of everywhere, all over the world.”
Gary Samore, who served as President Obama’s principal advisor on nuclear terrorism until 2013, said government experts during his tenure regarded Pelindaba as one of the “most vulnerable” stockpiles of weapons uranium in the world. The 2007 assault on Pelindaba, Samore said, “was certainly one of the main reasons South Africa would be on that list, because that really freaked people out.”
(to be continued)….
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