The Pelindaba Break-In of 2007

Ramona Greene
February 25, 2019

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2019


Fig. 1: Pelindaba Nuclear Power Plant, South Africa. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

From 1977-1990 South Africa worked to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) at the Pelindaba nuclear center located near Pretoria (see Fig. 1). [1] Following the Cold War, President F.W. de Klerk ordered the dismantling of the stored weapons and thereby forcing the site to seize production. [2] Despite the Pelindaba site halting production of HEU in 1990 they still continued to house the uranium they developed in the facility. [1] The site experienced security issues for the first time in 2005 with a break-in and following the break-in Pelindabas security was thought to be upgraded to defend against another attack. [3] However, two years following the break-in Pelindaba would see another security breach.

The Incident

On November 8, 2007, four armed-men broke into South Africa's Pelindaba nuclear facility pictured in Fig. 1. [3] At the time, Pelindaba housed hundreds of kilograms of weapons-grade uranium, enough to construct an estimated 25 nuclear bombs. [3] The South African Nuclear Energy Corp., the state-owned entity that runs the Pelindaba facility, reported that the four "technically sophisticated criminals" deactivated several layers of security, including a 10,000-volt electrical fence, suggesting insider knowledge of the system. [3] Though their images had been captured on closed-circuit television, they were not detected by security officers because the cameras were not being monitored at the time of the theft. [3]

The four men spent 45 minutes, undetected, inside of the facility. [3] Eventually, the attackers broke into the emergency control center in the middle of the facility, nearly stole a computer and breached an electronically sealed control room. [3] After a brief struggle, they shot Anton Gerber, an off-duty emergency services officer. Although badly injured, Gerber triggered the alarm which alerted the police stationed a few miles away. [3] Still, the four men escaped, exiting the site the same way they broke in. [3] Simultaneously as these men were carrying out the attack from the eastern perimeter of the site, a separate group of intruders was carrying out a failed attempt to break in from the west. [3] The timing suggests that both of the attacks were coordinated. [3]

The Aftermath

Ultimately, the group did not successfully steal the computer they were after nor they did escape with any HEU. [3] In response to the successful attack, the South African Nuclear Energy Corp. suspended six Pelindaba security personnel and launched an investigation that included improving their security systems. [3] On November 16, local police arrested three suspects, ranging in age from 17 to 28, in connection with this incident. [3]

Final Remarks

The security breaches at a nuclear facility of this caliber pose grave security concerns for the world. Had the attempt been successful in stealing weapons-grade uranium or HEU, the world could have seen its first terrorist nuclear attack. More than 40 countries possess the tools for constructing a nuclear weapon, in facilities with differing levels of security and there are still no formally agreed upon global standards for how to secure nuclear weapons and weapons-grade nuclear material. [3] This security breach illustrates the necessity for many more security measures to be carried out to guarantee the safety of the worlds nuclear materials.

© Ramona Greene. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] D. Albright, "Highly Enriched Uranium Inventories in South Africa: Status as of End of 2014," Institute for Science and International Security, November 2015.

[2] P. Baxevanis, "The Nuclear Weapons Program of South Africa," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2013.

[3] M. Zenko, "A Nuclear Site Is Breached," Washington Post, 20 Dec 07.