Sat, Nov 17, 2007 - Page 6 News List

S Africa mum on nuclear facility break-ins

INSIDE JOB? The Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa hinted that two attacks by gunmen would have required intimate knowledge of the compound's defenses


This much is known: Just after midnight on Nov. 8, Anton Gerber was sitting with his fiancee in the control room of South Africa's most secretive nuclear facility, where this nation's apartheid government conceived and delivered six atomic bombs, when four gunmen burst into the room. Gerber pushed his fiancee 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.

One week after the assault -- the most serious on a nuclear installation in recent memory -- the government is largely mum about who was behind it, how they broke in or why.

Already, the attack is raising questions among advocates and analysts about the wisdom of plans by South Africa and other African states to embrace nuclear energy as a solution to chronic power shortages and the looming problems of climate change.

The assault on the Pelindaba nuclear reactor and research center, one of the country's most zealously guarded properties, is a severe embarrassment to the government.

The four gunmen escaped cleanly, neither caught by guards nor identified on surveillance cameras. Gerber is recovering.

On Tuesday, officials belatedly acknowledged that the Pelindaba reactor had come under attack that same night by a second team of gunmen who were also repelled -- and also escaped -- after guards sounded an alarm.

The Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa, the government-created heir to the apartheid nuclear program, said it suspended six security officials after the assaults and hinted that the break-ins were inside jobs, made possible only by intimate knowledge of the elaborate defenses.

But no one has offered a plausible explanation for the assaults.

A Pretoria News report, withdrawn under government pressure, suggested a love triangle involving Gerber and his fiancee, a plant supervisor. Others have raised the specter of terrorism.

South Africa's anti-nuclear movement called the break-ins evidence of the government's lackadaisical approach to nuclear power.

"They've failed to control activities there; they've failed to protect the people," said Mashile Phalane of Earthlife Africa, an environmental and social justice advocacy group.

Pelindaba is vital to the government's efforts to build a high-tech infrastructure.

It researches advanced scientific issues, and, some experts say, holds bomb-grade enriched uranium. It was at Pelindaba that South Africa's apartheid government devised and built as many as seven atomic bombs in the 1970s and 1980s.

The government renounced its nuclear bomb program late in the apartheid era and democratic South Africa has said it has obliterated most of the technology.

Critics are skeptical, but it is unclear if bomb making information would be so casually stored as to be available to burglars.

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