Posted by: B Gourley | November 16, 2007

Pelindaba Reactor Break-in: Fluke or Sign of Things to Come?

A little over a week ago, armed gunmen broke into the control room of South Africa’s nuclear reactor facility, shot the operator, and carted off a computer. This raises questions about what can be expected as nuclear energy expands into nations of the developing world. There is still little understanding of the means or motive of the attack. The attackers abandoned the computer to aid in their get away when confronted by the guard force.

While the New York Times story indicates that the small assault team was able to get past elaborate defenses, there are several questions of interest about how secure the facility might have been. For one, it is mentioned that the operator, Anton Gerber, was with his unnamed fiance’ in the control room. There is a possibility that they might have both been cleared employees, but it seems that this might also be one indication of the lack of security at the facility. While I don’t know about nuclear reactor facilities specifically, I know it would be unthinkable in the US and many other countries to bring a spouse, fiance, or significant other to work with you into a restricted area, and I would be shocked if this did not apply to nuclear power plants. (Of course, having said this, it has apparently not been true of small research reactors on university campuses in America, judging from a TV news expose’ from a couple years ago.)

Nuclear power is promising in many ways, not the least of which is the capacity to meet our energy needs with reduced greenhouse gas emissions. However, making sure that physical security of plants installed in the developing world is as advanced as the reactor technology itself, must be an important element of an energy strategy involving increased reliance on nuclear power. Security is a matter of strength being defined by the weakest link, and, it must be remembered, that the human element can easily be the weakest link. Biometrics, backscatter X-ray, and all the latest technologies do no good if the guard monitoring them lets anyone pass either due to incompetence or malicious intent.    


  1. When modern technologies spread into primitive cultures the dangers are immense. It’s a case of putting the cart before the horse as it were.

  2. I should be clear that I don’t want to imply that cutting edge technologies should be kept out of the hands of countries below a certain GDP / capita. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty makes it the right of new countries to pursue nuclear technologies for their peaceful purposes, and that is the sine qua non of the bargain. In fact attempts explicitly aimed at denying up-and-coming countries access probably harm non-proliferation efforts more than they help. My point was merely, that with the spread of these technologies it is important that their immense costs do not lead to skimping on things like security, and that whether the Pelindaba attack is a harbinger depends on it.

  3. vimdy,

    We’ve had a communication breakdown. I was not equating primitive cultures with Developing Nations. I meant any society that hadn’t developed some form of functioning consensus (direct or indirect) self rule.

    No matter the money levels involved, if the society isn’t reasonably stable and has a history of settling it’s regime changes in a modern civilized manner, advanced technology would be a risky acquisition for them.

    Security for those “primitive cultures” would be problematically. Tribal, clan, etc… loyalties would too easily override national ties and allow for the security force to be suborned.

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