A year ago this month, armed raiders broke into the Pelindaba nuclear research facility in South Africa, where that nation stores its weapons-grade nu
November 23, 2008

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.

Such bipartisan deals aren't enough, though. Obama has also made it clear that he would like to see the U.S. renew its Non-Proliferation Treaty commitment to ultimate nuclear disarmament even by the major powers. He will be under intense pressure from the military to walkback those words, as generals scrabble to keep their individual feifdoms fully funded during the economic crisis. Their fearmongering overlooks the fact that the NPT is one of the most successful treaties in history. It is that very success that could provide a jumping off point for a new treaty to move non-proliferation into this new century.

Every nation but three has signed on to it; only one has withdrawn. The number of nations possessing nuclear weapons has remained in the single digits, contrary to expectations when the treaty was proposed in the 1960s. It has done what it promised very well, even though there are some problems with it. It is a great jumping-off place for the next moves.

A new treaty will take time to develop and be ratified, but it will be able to move past entrenched difficulties. Amending the NPT is likely to flame out in old and nonproductive arguments.

Foreign policy luminaries like George Schultz, William Perry, Sam Nunn and Henry Kissinger have written that the goal of total disarmament is an attainable one. A follow-on to the NPT would be an excellent start and would contain commitments to downsize nuclear arsenals, a strengthening of the powers of the IAEA and promises of aid for peaceful nuclear energy uses in return for commitments to remain non-weapon states. It might also include an extension of any workable missile defense umbrella to all nations of the world. We could return to Reagan's original publicly stated vision. As Martin Hellman wrote in Newsday at the time:

If SDI is for global benefit, the work should not be Top Secret. If we really plan to share the technology with the Soviets, let us answer their mistrust by sharing the technology with them now, not at some indefinite point in the far future. Or, if we have no real intention of ever sharing with them, let us be honest and say so. We will not have fooled the Soviets, and the American public would then assess SDI in a very different light.

Let us be honest with ourselves and the world. Will the real SDI please stand up: a futile, “old-mode,” secret attempt at military superiority or an honest, “new-mode”, open effort to use technology for the benefit of all humankind?

Pelindaba underscores the danger, and Obama already has the background and previous policy work to see that a new, hopeful course for non-proliferation is doable in the current world climate. It's an area where I have great hopes for his administration, if only he doesn't succumb to the old-school and unimaginative hawks within his own administration or to the clamor of generals who wish to keep their expensive but useless toys.

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