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November 11, 2007

Gunmen storm South African nuclear facility

Armed men broke into a nuclear facility in South Africa on Thursday morning. An off-duty employee managed to repel the intruders, but sustained a gunshot wound to the chest in the process:

A brazen attack by four gunmen on the Pelindaba nuclear facility has left a senior emergency officer seriously injured.

Anton Gerber, Necsa emergency services operational officer spoke to the Pretoria News from his hospital bed hours after the attack.

He was shot in the chest when the gunmen stormed the facility's emergency response control room in the early hours of Thursday morning.

The shooting comes four months after Necsa's newly appointed services general manager Eric Lerata, 43, was gunned down in front of his Montana home after returning from a business trip in France. [Pretoria News]

The story only gets weirder from there.

Gerber told the Pretoria News that he had been keeping his fiancee company while she worked the night shift as a control room supervisor:

Gerber said he kept Meiring company. "I do not like it when she is at work at night and I go with her to keep her company and ensure that she is safe," he said.

Describing the attack Gerber said they were inside the electronically sealed control room when they heard a loud bang. [Pretoria News]

No doubt anxiety was running high after the murder of the general manager--but what kind of nuclear facility isn't secure enough to work the night shift in an electronically sealed room?

Now lawyers for the Nesca are trying to muzzle the Pretoria News.

Just days before the plant invasion, two suspects were arrested in connection with the murder of the Nesca general manager

What the hell is going on? Is a gang waging war against a South African nuclear facility, and if so, why?

Correction: I incorrectly described the facility as a "power plant," in fact, it's a nuclear research facility.


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Nitpick: It's not a power plant, it's a nuclear research center. There is a small reactor on-site---20MW from what I can find on the Web---but it's listed as a research reactor and I doubt it makes any electricity. Doesn't change the security issues.

Thanks, Ben. I fixed the post and appended a correction.

With all the hoo-hah about terror and "dirty bombs", etc., you'd think this story would get a bit more coverage.

There's plenty to be worried about not the least of which is a South African smuggling case involving high speed switches needed to detonate nuclear bombs. Where did the switches come from?

Chances are that it was some gangsters who saw a nice big facility and thought there had to be some payroll money inside.

I agree that the security ought to be better. (Necsa was commercialised in 1999, according to their website, although they're still government-owned.)

MFB, you may be right. Maybe it was just an attempted payroll heist--but that wouldn't explain the murder of the general manager in his own driveway. Maybe the two incidents are unconnected, or linked by way of a more conventional monetary scam of some sort. Impossible to say at present. It will be interesting to see what details emerge.

I'm so glad that we spent all those resources promoting nuclear power around the world. Not only did we start South Africa's nuclear program, but Iran's as well. Aren't you glad we didn't waste too much effort on developing solar and wind power instead?

Yo... just some thugs... probably looking for left-overs... (what gordo said) Amen to that. ^..^

The New York Times had coverage on Wednesday 11/14. There remain unanswered questions which are unlikely to be answered by the South African gov't.

Thanks, djysrv.

'Research Reactors', until quite recently, often had highly enriched Uranium. A world-wide program to replace these with low-enriched U has been underway. Is Pelindaba High or Low enriched?

a quick google [try SAFARI-1 HEU]
nuclear attack reactor/
nuclear research center. There is a small reactor on-site---20MW
Pelindaba Nuclear Research Center
This AEC site includes the Safari-1 research reactor,

The SAFARI-1 reactor is supported by a comprehensive infrastructure, including -

* a large inventory of highly enriched uranium
In July 2005, the South African Department of Minerals and Energy authorised the conversion to Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) of the South African Research Reactor (SAFARI-1) and the associated fuel manufacturing at Pelindaba. At that stage the proposed scheduling allowed approximately three years for the full conversion of the reactor..Delays ... ..Delays
Its not clear if the switch to LEU has happened. Nor if the HEU has been removed.
The reactor was initially fuelled with Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) sourced from the USA and elements manufactured either in the USA or the UK. In later years (post 1981), the reactor has been fuelled solely with HEU allocated from the South African HEU inventory (45 and/or 93%).

Its unlikely a few guys could extract HEU from a swimming pool, but its not great having crooks with guns around bomb-grade uranium.

Two successful similtaneous incursions doesnt sound like a lovers tiff

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