A year ago this month, armed raiders broke into the Pelindaba nuclear research facility in South Africa, where that nation stores its weapons-grade nuclear material, in circumstances that strongly suggest inside knowledge and even insider complicity in the raid. They shot an employee in the chest and made a clean escape from the supposedly high security facility, and still know one knows who they were and there aren't even any worthwhile leads to tracking them down.
Tonight, 60 Minutes talks to Anton Gerber, the shot employee, who only deepens the mystery.
The raiders had detailled knowledge of the security and layout of the plant.
They had breached and shut off a 10,000-volt barbed-wire fence and eluded security cameras and guards at one of the country’s most secure facilities.
As the attackers approached the door, Gerber called security and said they were under attack. "It shouldn't have taken more than three minutes to get there," says Gerber. He says it took 24 minutes to respond to his call. Gerber has filed suit against the Pelindaba facility for damages. Another fact he finds suspicious is that the police never questioned him until 60 Minutes began investigating the story. "It is strange," Gerber tells Pelley.
Theories have included a raid by terrorists, criminals and some kind of highly organised "lover's triangle" revenge attack on Gerber himself. But there have been no arrests, no suspects named, no clues. And what the 60 Minutes piece doesn't reveal is that the raiders almost got what they came for. The NYT, last year, reported:
when four gunmen burst into the room. Mr. Gerber pushed his fiancée under a desk. The attackers shot him in the chest, grabbed a computer and fled, but abandoned their booty as they came under assault by guards.
At no point did the raiders attempt to seize nuclear material - but that computer seems to have been important to their plans. They went right to it, grabbed it and ran. Perhaps it contained details of how South Africa built its nuclear weapons, perhaps incriminating details of their suspected partners in that bomb-building project.
But whatever the real motives and real identities of the raiders, Pelindaba underscored the harsh reality that in facilities across the globe nuclear material is secured, but not all that strongly. Plants in the former Soviet Union, in Pakistan and in South America are judged as especially vulnerable, and could hand a non-state actor - a terrorist group - the knowledge and materials for bomb making. It's a threat that the Nunn-Lugar Act of 1991 and the subsequent Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, focused on the former Soviet states, has tried to address even as the Bush administration has tried to underfund it and to use it as a bargaining piece in posturing over Georgia. It's a subject we know is close to Barrack Obama's heart, as he's seen for himself how loose the security at such facilities can be.
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