How a Nuclear Terrorist Became a National Hero
How a South African who bombed a nuclear plant near Capetown in 1982 became a post-apartheid national hero.
MENLYN, South Africa—Rodney Wilkinson is nervous, insisting on a seat near the door of the Mugg & Bean restaurant in a suburban Pretoria shopping mall, ordering a beer before lunch, rushing from the table at one point to calm himself with a cigarette by a window.
By the end of his two-hour interview with a foreign reporter, the sunburned citrus farmer holds out his trembling hand.
“I didn’t shake at the time,” he said. “Now, just the thought of what I did makes me shake.”
Wilkinson planted four bombs that caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to the Koeberg nuclear power plant north of Capetown in December 1982, in what is arguably one of the most ambitious and successful terror attacks against a nuclear facility anywhere.
But Wilkinson is not a pariah in his homeland. While the United States is haunted by the carnage of 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombing, many South Africans still revere anti-apartheid guerillas who bombed power plants, military targets and government offices as heroes, although some of the attacks caused civilian casualties.
This divergent history, some experts here say, partly explains why Pretoria and Washington don’t share the same level of concern about the threat of nuclear terror.
The difference of views is presently playing out in a dispute over whether South Africa should relinquish a stock of nuclear explosives that were created by the apartheid regime and are still stored in a vault outside Pretoria that Washington claims is not as secure as it should be.
U.S. officials and independent Western experts say they are worried that the stock of highly-enriched uranium—estimated by foreign experts to be around 485 pounds—could be stolen by terrorists, and so they have been quietly pressing Pretoria to convert the material into more benign nuclear reactor fuel. But South African President Jacob Zuma has refused, asserting that the material is valuable and adequately protected.
South African officials say that Washington overplays the threat of nuclear terror, and in doing so threatens to block access by smaller countries to uranium enrichment and other nuclear-related technologies. U.S. officials say in response that South Africa simply does not take seriously the risks created by these materials and technologies.
Gabrielle Hecht, a University of Michigan historian who published an award-winning book in 2012 about Africa’s nuclear programs, said the aphorism that one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter is relevant to the longstanding disagreement between Washington and Pretoria.
She said that difference in perspective, among other important factors, makes nuclear security a lower priority for South Africa than the prospect of establishing energy and economic security from nuclear power, which might involve the use of enriched uranium
“It’s utterly unsurprising that the two nations would not be seeing eye to eye” on the threat of nuclear-related terror, Hecht said.
Jo-Ansie Van Wyk, an expert on South Africa’s nuclear policy who teaches international politics at the University of South Africa, added separately that she has military officers in her classes who still refer to themselves proudly as “terrorists,” the term the apartheid government used for ANC guerrillas.
“It’s a badge of honor. So how can you fight something that is your badge of honor?” she says.
One reason the Koeberg assault succeeded, one of its planners told the Center for Public Integrity, was because Wilkinson had detailed inside knowledge of the site’s vulnerability and security procedures.
Likewise, several U.S. officials said that a 2007 raid by two armed groups on South Africa’s Pelindaba nuclear research site, where more than six bombs’ worth of nuclear explosives are stored, nearly succeeded because they, too, had help from one or more insiders.
Almost all known cases of theft of dangerous nuclear material involved an insider, according to a 2012 fact sheet issued by the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration. Plant managers can be reluctant to recognize the risk of theft or sabotage, the report said, which are difficult to prevent. Workers with specialized skills, knowledge, access or authority can hide their actions, it warned, and co-workers may hesitate to turn in a renegade colleague.
Roger Johnston, a security expert who worked from 1992 to January 2015 for the U.S. nuclear weapons laboratory at Los Alamos and another federal nuclear research center in Illinois, said that nuclear plant workers may have a hard time accepting that a colleague represents a threat. “It’s always the bad outside guys, it’s never my co-worker,” said Johnston, explaining the mindset. “It just doesn’t compute.”
Wilkinson, the insider who worked at Koeburg before blowing it up, told some of his story to South Africa’s Mail & Guardian newspaper in the 1990s, but it isn’t widely known outside the country. After agreeing reluctantly to revisit the episode, he spoke candidly about the attack he carried out with the help of current and former South African officials.
Wilkinson, who is white, said he was a collegiate fencing champion whose hopes of competing in the Olympic games in the 1970s were crushed by international sanctions against the whites-only government. “I would have won a medal, without doubt,” he said, telling his story over the clattering of dishes in the restaurant.
After dropping out of college and serving briefly in the military in Angola, he said, he joined a commune near the Koeberg nuclear power station, then under construction north of Capetown. When he and the others ran short of cash, he said, he landed a job as a laborer helping build the twin-reactor plant.
For the anti-apartheid movement, Koeberg was a symbol of the racist regime’s nuclear ambitions, and therefore a legitimate target for ANC saboteurs. The government was well aware of this, and the construction site facing the southern Atlantic Ocean was subject to some of the tightest security of any locale in South Africa.
Nuclear-related terrorism is comparatively rare. But the 1970s and 1980s saw a series of bombings of nuclear power plants that were under construction, mostly for political rather than environmental reasons. Fifteen guerrillas stormed the building site of the Atucha-1 reactor in Argentina in 1973, wounding two of the five guards and seizing their weapons. They left, with the weapons, after painting political slogans on the walls.
Basque separatists repeatedly attacked Spain’s Lemoniz nuclear power station during its construction, planting bombs in 1978 and 1979 that killed three workers and caused millions of dollars in damages. The Lemoniz project was ultimately abandoned.
A Swiss anti-nuclear activist in 1982 fired five rocket-propelled grenades at the not-yet-completed Superphenix commercial plutonium breeder reactor in Creys-Malville, in eastern France. Two hit the plant, causing minor damage but no injuries.
Wilkinson’s sympathies lay with the ANC from the start, he said, but he was inspired to act, in part, 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 Wilkinson worked for months to get his hands on a copy of the blueprints for Koeberg, he said, he took them to neighboring Zimbabwe and handed them over to Sathyandranath “Mac” Maharaj, who along with four others was convicted in 1964 of more than 50 acts of sabotage against the apartheid government.
After serving 12 years in prison, Maharaj became a senior ANC official in exile. He is now the official spokesman for South African President Jacob Zuma, and in a telephone interview with the Center for Public Integrity, confirmed Wilkinson’s account of his role in the Koeburg attack.
Maharaj first took steps to verify that the blueprints Wilkinson gave him were authentic. Then at a subsequent meeting, while sipping tea under a tree in a garden in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, he made a proposal that Wilkinson found startling.
The ANC wanted to bomb the plant before it was loaded with radioactive fuel, because after that an attack could release a plume of high-level radiation. “The purpose was to make a political statement and to cause as much damage as possible,” Wilkinson said. “We didn’t want to hurt anybody, and I completely didn’t want to get killed.”
Wilkinson said he assumed that the ANC would arrange for a saboteur to attack the plant, but he was mistaken. “Why don’t you do it?’” Maharaj asked Wilkinson, according to both of their accounts. “I nearly fell off my chair,” Wilkinson said. But he agreed.
Maharaj described the attack as a carefully planned “propaganda” operation designed to avoid casualties but meant to send the message to the apartheid regime that the ANC “had the capacity to strike anywhere in the country.”
He said he suggested that Wilkinson take on the task, rather than a trained guerilla, simply because the fencer had a better chance than anyone else of gaining access to Koeberg’s most vulnerable points.
“To attack Koeberg with a small rocket would have done very little damage,” Maharaj said, as similar assaults by militants in Europe had showed. But a saboteur armed with magnetic limpet mines and plans showing Koeberg’s most vulnerable areas, he said, could “do maximum damage.”
Likewise, insider help was critical to the teams of intruders who staged a November 2007 raid on Pelindaba.
The first team breached the fence at the site closest to the Emergency Operations Center, which served as the site’s central alarm station and repository for its keys. They showed expert knowledge of the site’s electronic security systems, and they were able to find a hidden latch securing a fire truck ladder, which they used to climb to the center’s second-floor landing.
The raiders arrived, moreover, on a night when they may have expected little resistance, because the normal emergency center supervisor was not present, as CBS’s 60 Minutes has reported. Pelindaba’s regular security forces never directly confronted the raiders, but a fireman who happened to be at the center struggled with them and they fled after shooting him.
Thirty-five years earlier, Wilkinson had much better luck.
He maneuvered himself into a job that called for mapping the plant’s miles of installed piping, allowing access to some of the most sensitive areas in the complex—without a background check. “They let me into the holy of holies without bothering to check me out,” he said. Officials at Eskom, the utility that built and still runs Koeberg, did not respond to requests for comment.
While conducting a detailed reconnaissance and receiving guidance from an ANC handler named Rashim about where and when to plant the bombs, Wilkinson said, he practiced smuggling bomb-sized objects—usually bottles of whiskey—past the power station’s three rings of security.
He tucked the bottles under the dashboard of his yellow Renault while driving into the site and stuffed them into the crotch of his overalls before sneaking them past the guards and dogs at the fence surrounding the reactors. He practiced bypassing a security checkpoint between the two reactors, he said, by pushing the bottles past a plastic dust shield in a basement tunnel.
Even while working at Koeberg he never made any secret of his contempt for the apartheid regime and its nuclear program, he said, occasionally denouncing both over drinks at the construction site’s whites-only recreation center and bar. But no alarms were sounded.
Finally in late 1982, he said, his handler told him he could find four Soviet-made limpet mines buried three feet deep under a tree facing a reservoir outside the complex. He dug them out, he said, and hauled them home in the Renault.
In mid-December, he said, he brought the mines to work—one a day—and placed two of them among bundles of electrical cables serving each of the twin reactors, he said, in order to destroy the plant’s electrical system. He also stuck the magnetic bombs to supports at the bottom of each of the two steel reactor vessels, he said.
Wilkinson said he planted the last bomb Friday, December 17, and set the timers on all four to go off a day later. Months earlier, he had announced he was quitting his job that day, and his co-workers threw a going-away party for him. He flew to Johannesburg that night, he said, where a relative drove him to a point close to the border with Swaziland.
As Wilkinson talked about his escape, almost 32 years after the fact, he wiped away a tear. He said he knew that if he was caught he could have been hanged.
Four blasts over the next two days made headlines around the world, caused $519 million in damages and postponed Koeberg’s opening by a year and a half. The ANC proudly claimed credit for the attack, which caused no injuries. Wilkinson was never caught or even identified as a suspect. The reason, he said, was simple: “It was because I was white.”
Wilkinson fled to Britain, where he lived for a time, but he later returned to help the ANC smuggle weapons into the country aboard tourist safari vehicles.
After the fall of apartheid, the activists who led the ANC—including its military wing— became top government officials.
Wilkinson was given a post with the government, and told his story to the Mail and Guardian newspaper. He was granted amnesty by South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1999.
Christie, who recently retired as dean of research at the University of the Western Cape, said in an interview that today most South Africans still see Wilkinson as a hero. “He did it with enormous bravery,” Christie said. “And the crucial thing was that nobody was hurt.”
Are Wilkinson’s actions still considered heroic by the South African government? Maharaj said the bombing of the nuclear reactors was “one of the most significant armed propaganda actions” undertaken by the ANC. Wilkinson, Maharaj said, “was a man of tremendous initiative.”
But he ducked the question. “What happened around the time of apartheid,” Maharaj said, “is past tense, it is history.” And he declined to comment further.
Discussions between the United States and South Africa on nuclear and terrorism matters remain highly fractious. After the Pelindaba break-in, Washington pressed Pretoria to relinquish the stockpile of highly-enriched, bomb-grade uranium it stores there, which U.S. officials say was the likely target of the assailants. It essentially concluded the country could not be trusted to safeguard the material effectively.
But South Africa refuses to give the material up. So Washington persuaded the government here to upgrade security at the site by offering to pay $8 million toward the cost while threatening to cancel shipments of nuclear fuel that South Africa uses to make medical isotopes.
The work was finished in 2014, but that didn’t satisfy the White House. Washington still sees the Pelindaba center as vulnerable to a security breach, a concern heightened by U.S. concerns South Africa could become a center for arms smuggling and terror groups. According to the State Department’s 2012 counterterrorism report, South African nationals have acted as al Qaida financiers and facilitators, and informal cash transfer businesses, called hawalas, widely used by South Africa’s large Muslim community, have likely transferred money to violent extremists in East Africa.
Meanwhile, the country’s security service has engaged in minimal cooperation with U.S. counterterrorism officials, according to the 2013 annual report, the most recent published.
“South Africa borders remain porous,” and terrorist groups have exploited the holes to move throughout the continent, the report said. “Due to allegations of corruption, attrition, the lack of receipt of timely intelligence requests, and bureaucracy within multiple South African law enforcement entities, [counterterrorism] challenges remain.”
This piece comes from the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative news organization. To follow their investigations into nuclear weapons, waste and explosive materials around the globe, go here or follow them on Twitter.