Nuclear risksIn South Africa, bomber of apartheid era nuclear power plant is a hero, not a terrorist
In December 1982, Rodney Wilkinson planted four bombs that caused $519 million in damages at the Koeberg nuclear power plant north of Cape Town, South Africa. The attack, which many believe to be the most ambitious and successful terror attack against a nuclear facility, remains a symbol of African National Congress (ANC) war against South Africa’s then-apartheid government. The 1982 Koeberg assault, however, and a 2007 raidby two yet-to-be-identified armed groups on South Africa’s Pelindaba nuclear research site, are at the root of U.S. concerns about the safety of South Africa’s roughly 485 pounds stockpile of highly enriched uranium.
In December 1982, Rodney Wilkinson planted four bombs that caused $519 million in damages at the Koeberg nuclear power plant north of Cape Town, South Africa. The attack, which many believe to be the most ambitious and successful terror attack against a nuclear facility, remains a symbol of African National Concress (ANC) triumph against South Africa’s then-apartheid government.
The 1982 Koeberg assault, however, and a 2007 raid by two yet-to-be-identified armed groups on South Africa’s Pelindaba nuclear research site, are at the root of U.S. concerns about the safety of South Africa’s roughly 485 pounds stockpile of highly-enriched uranium. The Obama administration says that security at South Africa’s nuclear facilities, where the cou8ntry’s nuclear material is held, is lax, leaving the bomb-grade materials vulnerable to thieves and terrorists. South Africa president Jacob Zuma has insisted that the threat of nuclear terror are overplayed (see “South Africa refuses to give up cache of weapon-grade uranium,” HSNW, 19 March 2015).
Wilkinson, a white South African, was a collegiate fencing champion whose hopes of competing in the Olympic games in the 1970s were dashed by international sanctions against the South African government. After dropping out of college and serving briefly with the South African military in Angola, Wilkinson joined a commune near the construction site of the Koeberg nuclear power station. When he ran out of cash, he landed a job as a laborer, helping build the twin-reactor plant.
Supporters of the anti-apartheid movement and the ANC saw Koeberg as a symbol of a racist regime’s nuclear ambitions, and therefore a legitimate target for ANC saboteurs. Wilkinson became an active supporter of the ANC after he was inspired by the 1979 arrest of Renfrew Christie, an ANC figure with a doctorate from Oxford who spent seven years in prison for spying on South Africa’s nuclear program.
After working at Koeberg for a few months, Wilkinson managed to get his hands on a copy of the facility’s blueprints. He traveled to neighboring Zimbabwe and handed the copy to Sathyandranath “Mac” Maharaj, who was convicted in 1964 of more than fifty acts of sabotage against the apartheid government. After serving twelve years in prison, Maharaj became a senior ANC official in exile.
Upon verifying that the blueprints were authentic, Maharaj, who is now the official spokesman for South African president Jacob Zuma, suggested Wilkinson plant bombs at the facility before it was loaded with radioactive fuel. “The purpose was to make a political statement and to cause as much damage as possible,” Wilkinson said in an interview with the Center for Public Integrity. “We didn’t want to hurt anybody, and I completely didn’t want to get killed.”
Wilkinson took on the challenge, and through a series of maneuvers, which included getting a job that allowed him access to the facility’s most sensitive areas, he planted the last of four Soviet-made limpet mines on 17 December 1982 and set the timers to go off a day later. Wilkinson had announced months earlier that he would quit his job on that day, so when the explosion occurred, he was not considered a suspect. The ANC claimed credit for the attack, which caused no injuries, and Wilkinson was never caught or identified as a suspect.
“It was because I was white,” he said. Years later, Wilkinson told his story to the South African Mail and Guardian newspaper, and was granted amnesty by South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1999.
The Washington Post quotes Gabrielle Hecht, a University of Michigan historian who published Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade in 2012, as saying that the aphorism that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter is relevant to the longstanding disagreement between Washington and Pretoria. The difference in perspective, she said, makes nuclear security a lower priority for South Africa than the prospect of establishing energy and economic security from nuclear power. “It’s utterly unsurprising that the two nations would not be seeing eye to eye” on the threat of nuclear-related terror, Hecht said.