The swordsman and the bomb
Wilkinson had to undergo a farewell party on the premises with his fellow engineers, all the while mentally praying that the fuses were not defective
IT must have been the most audacious act of sabotage carried out by one man. And yet the Truth and Reconciliation Commission devoted just 14 words to it in its seven-volume final report.
Even the ANC shows a reluctance, when evoking the glories of the struggle, to make much of the day it bombed the Koeberg nuclear power plant outside Cape Town. It is almost as if it is too shocked by its audacity to acknowledge the act.
The attack was carried out by a swordsman — South Africa’s one-time national fencing champion — who dropped out of university and joined a commune near Koeberg in the late ’70s. In other words, he was a hippy.
The operation was born of chance. When the community ran out of money, Rodney Wilkinson, who had studied building science and politics, reluctantly took a job at the plant then under construction. He worked there for 18 months.
Encouraged by his girlfriend, Heather Gray, a speech therapist, he stole a set of the building plans. The couple took them to newly independent Zimbabwe with the idea that they could be used by the ANC to attack the French-built nuclear installation.
It was suspected at the time that the plant would be used by the nationalist government to produce plutonium for the construction of atomic bombs.
The ANC, which had recently had one of its agents jailed on charges of nuclear espionage, was initially suspicious of the white South African who pitched up on its doorstep, claiming to have penetrated what was assumed to be the most secure installation in the country.
After lengthy delays, during which the stolen plans were authenticated by Soviet and Western nuclear scientists, and Wilkinson was vetted, the ANC invited him to carry out the attack himself. He was taken aback by the request, but agreed and returned to South Africa.
To his surprise, he gained fresh employment at Koeberg, with the task of mapping pipes and valves at the installation for use in case of emergency.
The ANC appointed a guerrilla commander in Swaziland to act as Wilkinson’s handler. Once a month he visited the mountain kingdom — a favourite resort for whites in search of illicit pleasures not available in puritanical South Africa — under the pretence of enjoying a “dirty weekend”.
There he and his handler thrashed out strategy, designed to maximise embarrassment to the South African authorities while ensuring the minimum risk to human life. They honed down possible targets to the two reactor heads, another section of the containment building, and a concentration of electric cables under the main control room.
The choice of the reactor heads, which would be used to control the nuclear reaction, was to maximise the propaganda impact. Made of 110 tons of steel, they were unlikely to be seriously affected by the blasts, but they would demonstrate the ANC’s capacity to hit at the heart of the plant.
The other two targets were chosen to cause as much damage as possible.
Wilkinson established that nuclear fuel had been moved into the plant, ready for loading into the reactors, but it was in dormant storage which minimised any risk of radioactive fallout.
The date for the attack was set for December 16. White South Africans marked the day each year with a public holiday celebrating the battle of Blood River, a 19th-century victory by the Boers over the Zulus.
But the date had another significance: the ANC commemorated it as MK Day, in honour of the founding of its guerrilla army, Umkhonto weSizwe.
Wilkinson and Gray dug up four limpet mines from a roadside arms cache in the Karoo. Placing them in winebox decanters in their car, a Renault 5, they drove back to their home in the Cape Town suburb of Claremont, where they hid the devices in holes conveniently dug by their puppy, Gaby.
From there Wilkinson smuggled the mines, one by one, in a hidden compartment of the Renault, through the perimeter security fence at the nuclear installation, depositing them in a desk drawer in his prefabricated office. He then carried them, hidden in his overalls, through a security gate into the main building.
The build-up to the attack was marked by a series of near mishaps. At one stage an accidental short circuit started a cable fire. The incident was reported in the press and the ANC’s president in exile, Oliver Tambo — who was privy to the planned operation but not to details such as timing — released a statement claiming it as an ANC attack.
The claim prompted a security scare that ended, amid much derision towards the ANC, when the true cause of the blaze was confirmed by investigators.
In November the firm hiring Wilkinson told him it was laying him off at the end of the month, but later asked him to stay for another month. He turned this to his advantage, telling the company that in the interim he had taken another job and would have to leave on 17 December, obtaining cover for his planned disappearance.
As it transpired, Wilkinson did not make the target date of December 16, but finished planting the bombs the following day, a Friday.
Setting the fuses to a 24-hour delay so that they would explode on the Saturday, when he knew the target areas would be deserted, he was then forced to undergo a farewell party on the premises with his fellow engineers, mentally praying that the time-delayed fuses were not defective.
That afternoon he flew to Johannesburg and was taken, with a borrowed bicycle, to a point near the Swaziland border, where he rode into exile.
The bombs detonated, but not quite as planned: the springs on the firing mechanism proved brittle and the devices exploded over a period of several hours instead of simultaneously. But the damage was devastating. The authorities put the cost at R500-million and the commissioning of the plant was delayed for 18 months.
The attack was a chilling demonstration of the vulnerability of an atomic installation to sabotage, as well as a reflection on the incompetence of South African security.
The authorities at Koeberg have since made the extraordinary claim that they not only anticipated the attack but had pinpointed the date. In a book on the history of the plant, a former executive, Paul Semark, is quoted as saying: “We knew the ANC would not target Koeberg once nuclear fuel was there, and that they would try to attack at a time which would ensure the least loss of life. We even pinpointed 16 December 1982, which was a public holiday, as the likely date.”
Their inability to counter the threat is not explained, however. The apparent helplessness of the authorities is even more astonishing in the light of Wilkinson’s background. Twice he joined the workforce at the plant — on both occasions he was granted access to the most sensitive sectors of nuclear installation — but was never subjected to security vetting.
Had they checked his background they could have discovered that he was a military deserter and was involved in the anti-nuclear campaign. Six years earlier, while doing his national service, Wilkinson had been admitted to hospital after wrecking an armoured truck while going Awol with 12 colleagues during the South African invasion of Angola. Military police took statements but, apparently because of the illegality of the Angolan invasion, did not prosecute him.
He was also caught breaching security at the nuclear plant, but nothing was done about it. Alcohol was banned in the plant. Testing security by smuggling in a bottle of vodka — roughly the shape of a limpet mine — he was caught in possession of it while wandering, hiccuping, around the main control room.
“I wanted to have a look; you see it in all the films — this great big room with all these banks of computers. But the tension must have been too much for me; I drank the vodka,” he recounts wryly. Detained in the guardroom, he was released after being given a warning by a security officer whom he knew from the local squash club.
Wilkinson says his worst moment was when he was on his way to plant the second mine in the Reactor One containment building and spotted a guard watching him with apparent suspicion.
“My legs were like jelly and I could feel beads of perspiration on my face.” He detoured and placed the device at an alternative target the ANC had identified — in another concentration of cables under the second control room.
A seemingly impossible obstacle he had to overcome was carrying mines into the “clean” area surrounding the reactors, access to which was gained through an airlock where he had to strip and don protective clothing.
But he discovered that pipes leading into the clean area had plastic diaphragms to keep the air clean, and he was able to simply push the bombs through them, pass through the airlock himself, and collect them on the other side.
“When I thought of that I was on cloud nine. I had been having sleepless nights about it,” Wilkinson recalls.
A pivotal figure in the operation was Mac Maharaj, an underground leader of the ANC in South Africa and subsequently minister of transport, after whom the project, Operation Mac, was named.
“They never got to know how it was done; until now they have not known the identity of this couple,” Maharaj said.
South African security forces were expected to retaliate after the blasts and Wilkinson and Gray were placed under deep cover. A couple was later badly injured in an attack, which is believed to have been a misdirected act.
Wilkinson flew from Swaziland to Maputo, where he met Tambo in the ANC leader’s office, the two men crying in each other’s arms at their triumph. Gray, who had flown out of South Africa a week before the attack, joined Wilkinson there and they flew to Britain, where they were married in Woodbridge, Suffolk. Truth is a Strange Fruit: A personal journey through the Apartheid War is published by Jacana Media