Still no answers to 2007 incursion at Pelindaba
THREE-and-a-half years after the precinct of the nuclear reactor at Pelindaba near Pretoria was breached by “burglars”, there appears to be no progress on finding out why the assault on the facility took place.
While Public Enterprises Minister Malusi Gigaba said in reply to a parliamentary question from DA MP Manie van Dyk that no nuclear material or enriched uranium had gone missing from any plant, including Pelindaba, mystery still surrounds the silence over that break-in on November 7, 2007.
Department of Energy spokespeople were not available for comment, but Matthew Bunn, an academic at the Harvard Kennedy School, said that “just over a six-pack’s worth” of enriched uranium could be used to make an atomic bomb. According to a programme produced by CBS’s 60 Minutes, “Assault on Pelindaba”, there was about 450kg of it at Pelindaba.
The programme, produced shortly after the invasion, reported that two gangs had breached the security lines of the research centre, which during apartheid produced nuclear weapons that were dismantled prior to democracy.
Bunn told 60 Minutes that the explanation from the South African authorities at the time did not add up.
It is in the public interest that the people know what happened at Pelindaba that day.
One gang got through to the emergency control centre and shot Anton Gerber, chief of the centre, in the chest. That was after he managed to fight off three of four armed gunmen who had breached a 10 000 volt fence, passed security cameras before they walked about a kilometre to the control centre.
The gunmen, who fled after shooting Gerber, were never arrested. Gerber survived the attack. Initial reports were that they stole a laptop, but it was found on the property.
Both Robert Adam, who was the chief executive of the SA Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa), and SA diplomat Abdul Minty, on the programme argued that the invasion by the gang – a second gang breached a perimeter security fence and disabled an electric fence and alarm system on the same night – was simply a burglary.
Gerber, who was not normally on duty in the control room, was filling in for a colleague who was ill. He reported that his colleague Ria Meiring was assaulted and that she had phoned security to report the incident.
There was a 24-minute delay before they arrived. Adam could not explain to 60 Minutes the time delay, first claiming that it had taken only two minutes for security guards to get to the control room and then changing his story, claiming he had not expected the question. Three security staff members were subsequently dismissed.
Gerber did not respond to calls to make a comment on Friday. The implication was, however, that the security staff were in cahoots with the intruders and deliberately did not come to Gerber’s aid.
Four years ago intruders had gone straight to the control centre, Bunn said. “They knew what they were doing.” No one has been arrested in connection with this incident.
Minty said at the time: “So far the evidence we have is that it was a burglary.”
DA MP Pieter van Dalen, his party’s deputy public enterprises spokesman, argues that the matter should become an issue of debate in Parliament.
“It is in the public interest that the people know what happened there that day. We should accept the US’s offer to assist South Africa with converting weapons grade (highly enriched) uranium, of which there appears to be plenty at the plant, into something that is not dangerous,” he said.
Van Dalen asked Adam for a copy of Necsa’s five-year strategic plan. Necsa group executive for marketing and communications Chantal Janneker said: “Since the kind of document that you have requested is not in the public domain, I have been advised that your request should rather be submitted formally by way of a parliamentary question, in order that this matter be addressed through the Department of Energy and the appropriate parliamentary mechanisms.”
Necsa’s spokesman Elliot Mulane confirmed that the strategic plan was not in the public domain because the Public Finance Management Act did not require the parastatal to table it to Parliament.
Asked whether any followup measures were taken to secure Pelindaba after it was breached, Mulane said that considerable resources “were expended on upgrading the entire security system”.
Pressed on why security had taken so long to react to the attack on Gerber, he said the criminals “were technically sophisticated and it was clear that they had prior knowledge of the electronic security”.
“For security reasons these details cannot be disclosed.”
He noted that a damages case brought by Gerber, who was still in the employ of Pelindaba, was before court.