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Another Infiltration Reported at South African Atomic Site

South Africa's Pelindaba nuclear facility in April sustained an unspecified violation of its protective measures, marking the third such case at the site in seven years, the Johannesburg Times reported on Thursday (see GSN, Nov. 24, 2008).

Plant operator South African Nuclear Energy on May 7 informed the "relevant" official agency of the incident, which Business Day this week said happened on April 28. South Africa's National Nuclear Regulator, which received notice of the case on June 1, has reportedly played down the event's significance.

South Africa's former apartheid government decades ago conducted nuclear arms research and production at Pelindaba, which now is employed in preparing medical isotopes, the newspaper reported.

South African Nuclear Energy and the National Nuclear Regulation both refused to provide details on the recent infiltration or describe protections at the facility. They also declined to specify if the site contains highly enriched uranium or outline findings from a 2007 incident in which trespassers shot one site employee (see GSN, Nov. 14, 2007).

Pelindaba is believed to hold hundreds of pounds of highly enriched uranium, according to the Washington-based Nuclear Threat Initiative.

The April infiltration ended in failure for the perpetrator, said Van Zyl de Villiers, strategy and performance group executive for South African Nuclear Energy.

"No security systems were disarmed, no shootings occurred and no arrests were made," De Villiers stated.

Addressing the time lag prior to the start of a probe of the incident, he said "The issue of deadlines is subject to mutual engagements between the regulator and the operator. The regulator is satisfied with a comprehensive response."

In 2005, an individual seized a portable computer from the Pelindaba site. Another worrying incident took place previously at South Africa's Koeberg atomic energy site.

The particular motivation behind the most recent incident at Pelindaba is not a matter of concern, Council on Foreign Relations conflict prevention specialist Micah Zenko said.

"Even if it is common criminality, there should be concern, especially as the facility has (weapons-grade uranium)," he said. "Though the level of sophistication of breaking into a facility by common criminals, and the breaking into a vault and removing (the uranium) by sophisticated criminals, is very different, it is incredibly problematic. The international community should be very concerned."

The analyst called for a probe into security breaks at the Pelindaba facility.

"Even though the (weapons-grade uranium) at Pelindaba is 'locked down', the number of breaches suggests vigilance is needed," Zenko added.

South Africa's nuclear facilities enjoy a "high level of security," though a "few security incidents" have taken place at Koeberg and Pelindaba, National Nuclear Regulator spokesman Gino Moonsamy said .

"These have not exceeded four and are not severe. Due to adequate physical protection, no nuclear or radioactive material was accessed, lost or stolen," the official stated (Graeme Hosken, Johannesburg Times I, July 12).

A recent independent assessment, though, says the government has so far failed to officially ensure compliance with rules intended to help protect South African atomic facilities, the newspaper reported.

The nation has not pledged to rid itself of hundreds of pounds of bomb-usable uranium, the document states. In addition, it has not adopted a 2005 amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (see GSN, June 29; Graeme Hosken, Johannesburg Times II, July 12).

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