SOUTH AFRICAN WHO THWARTED AN ARMED ATTACK ON A NUCLEAR FACILITY CONTAINING BOMB-GRADE URANIUM SHEDS NEW LIGHT ON THE UNSOLVED CRIME -- "60 MINUTES" SUNDAY
In His First Television Interview, Anton Gerber Describes How Four Armed Men Made It All the Way to the Plant's Emergency Control Center
Anton Gerber fought off four armed men before he was shot in the chest and nearly died. But he may have prevented the unthinkable: bomb-grade uranium, enough to make a dozen nuclear weapons, in the hands of mysterious masked gunmen. In his first television interview, the burly South African tells Scott Pelley how he fought with armed attackers who infiltrated what should be a highly secured South African nuclear facility containing bomb-grade, highly enriched uranium, or HEU, and provides details that point to an inside job. The interview will be broadcast on 60 MINUTES Sunday, Nov. 23 (7:00-8:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network.
Gerber, a 30-year employee at the Pelindaba facility, was in the plant's Emergency Control Center at 1 a.m. last November when the attackers broke into the building. 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.
Gerber was shot through the chest, the bullet piercing his lung. The four attackers left him for dead and escaped cleanly. Days later, Pelindaba officials revealed that a second team of armed attackers was also at the fence line that night and fired shots at security. They also got away. Investigations by the local police, national intelligence and Pelindaba officials are stalled. No one has been arrested and there seem to be no leads.
Could it have been an inside job? "That did cross our minds and we put out a reward. We haven't had any takers at this point," says Rob Adam, CEO of the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa and the top executive of Pelindaba. He says the gunmen never made it near radioactive material and they would have had to get through more security measures to do so. In fact, Adam is not convinced that the attackers were after the HEU stored at the plant. "If these were sophisticated terrorists, Anton Gerber wouldn't be alive to tell his tale today... I think that it was a piece of random criminality, frankly," he tells Pelley.
That's "nonsense," says Matthew Bunn, an atomic security expert at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government who has studied the case. "These people cut through a 10,000-volt security fence. They disabled sophisticated electronic intrusion detectors. They went straight to the Emergency Control Center," says Bunn. "These people knew what kind of site they were in and knew what they were doing." Even a small amount of HEU - the size of six-pack - would be enough to make a small nuclear device and could fetch millions of dollars on the black market, he says. Al Qaeda has been trying to purchase such material for years.
The security breach worries the U.S. government, which has offered to help secure Pelindaba and convert its HEU into a form that won't explode. The South African government is not as concerned and believes they have matters under control. Ambassador Abdul Minty, a top South African official on nuclear policy, is also not convinced the attackers were after the HEU. "It was probably a burglary attempt from what evidence we have," he tells Pelley. "It's how you interpret events."
As for the offer of assistance from the U.S., Minty says simply, "Why should we get rid of it when others don't? Why are we less secure than others?" And about the break-in, Minty says, "Of course we are concerned about [the break in]...We have taken steps to try and prevent that in the future."