November 14, 2007Foreign AffairsSecurity

A raid on South Africa’s nuclear facility

Proliferation or counter-proliferation?

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

The details are sketchy because of alleged censorship by South African authorities. But a co-ordinated military style raid last week successfully penetrated the security of the country’s nuclear facility in Pelindaba, resulting in the loss of one computer. One security officer was shot in the chest. That facility was the site of South Africa’s now defunct nuclear weapons programme. It is also the site where enriched uranium and other bomb making components are stored. The raiders could have been after anything, but it might be that they got what they were looking for—data on the computer. [Related Link: Idaho Samizdat via Danger Room]

Now, a security breach—less a successful one—in a nuclear facility anywhere should be worrisome. But South Africa was also an important node in Pakistan’s illicit nuclear proliferation network. In addition to using the country as a trans-shipment point, A Q Khan’s accomplices had an entire centrifuge factory there. Given that Pakistan’s proliferation apparatus is still functional, and other cases of South Africans involved in the racket have come to light, the Pelindaba raid should alert counter-proliferation authorities around the world to the hitherto understated proliferation risks in this country.

We cannot, however, automatically connect the Pelindaba raids to nuclear smuggling rings. From the details available, it appears that the raid was surgical—the raiders had inside knowledge and likely knew exactly what to take. The organisations with this kind of capability includes special forces and intelligence agencies of rather respectable states, forced to choose rather unrespectable means to achieve their objectives. And what might these objectives be? Well anything from suppression of evidence to pre-emptive prevention of sensitive information from falling into the wrong hands.

Also, not all attacks are intended to steal something. Sometimes the purpose of the attack is simply to test whether an attack is possible or how best to carry out a similar attack elsewhere. Now that last bit is relevant in the context of happenings elsewhere. This is speculation of course, and we’ll only know for sure once the facts come out, if they come out at all.

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