An underreported attack on a South African nuclear facility last month demonstrates the high risk of theft of nuclear materials by terrorists or criminals. Such a crime could have grave national security implications for the United States or any of the dozens of countries where nuclear materials are held in various states of security.
Shortly after midnight on Nov. 8, four armed men broke into the Pelindaba nuclear facility 18 miles west of Pretoria, a site where hundreds of kilograms of weapons-grade uranium are stored. According to the South African Nuclear Energy Corp., the state-owned entity that runs the Pelindaba facility, these four "technically sophisticated criminals" deactivated several layers of security, including a 10,000-volt electrical fence, suggesting insider knowledge of the system. Though their images were captured on closed-circuit television, they were not detected by security officers because nobody was monitoring the cameras at the time.
So, undetected, the four men spent 45 minutes inside one of South Africa's most heavily guarded "national key points" -- defined by the government as "any place or area that is so important that its loss, damage, disruption or immobilization may prejudice the Republic."
Eventually, the attackers broke into the emergency control center in the middle of the facility, stole a computer (which was ultimately left behind) and breached an electronically sealed control room. After a brief struggle, they shot Anton Gerber, an off-duty emergency services officer. Gerber later explained that he was hanging around because he believed (reasonably, in retrospect) that his fiancée -- a site supervisor -- was not safe at work. Although badly injured, Gerber triggered the alarm, setting off sirens and lights and alerting police stationed a few miles away.
Nevertheless, the four escaped, leaving the facility the same way they broke in.
Amazingly, at the same time those four men entered Pelindaba from its eastern perimeter, a separate group of intruders failed in an attempt to break in from the west. The timing suggests a coordinated attack against a facility that contains an estimated 25 bombs' worth of weapons-grade nuclear material. On Nov. 16, local police arrested three suspects, ranging in age from 17 to 28, in connection with this incident.
In response to the successful attack, the South African Nuclear Energy Corp. suspended six Pelindaba security personnel, including the general manager of security, and promised an "internal investigation which will cover culpability, negligence and improvements of Security Systems." It should be noted that Pelindaba's security was considered to have been upgraded after a break-in there two years ago (one individual was detained shortly after breaching the security fence).
It is still unclear why the two groups of intruders sought to break into this particular facility. More important, however, is that had the armed attackers succeeded in penetrating the site's highly enriched uranium storage vault, where the weapons-grade nuclear material is believed to be held, they could have carried away the ingredients for the world's first terrorist nuclear bomb.
As this incident shows, nuclear terrorism is a global issue, extending far beyond the familiar policy talking points of U.S. cooperation with Russia over its nuclear stockpiles, the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal in the face of threats from Islamic extremists, and concerns that if Iran acquires nuclear capabilities it could provide a bomb to sympathetic terrorist organizations.
Indeed, the essential ingredients required for making a nuclear weapon exist in more than 40 countries, in facilities with differing levels of security. Unfortunately, there are still no binding global standards on how to secure nuclear weapons and weapons-grade nuclear material. In the absence of sustained political leadership from the world's nuclear powers to develop, agree to and implement effective nuclear security standards, armed attacks such as the one at Pelindaba could become commonplace.
Micah Zenko is a research associate in the project on Managing the Atom at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.