(CBS) The assault on Pelindaba would make quite a movie. But it's a thriller that is all too real, with consequences that might have threatened the world. It was a daring break-in at a heavily guarded nuclear plant that holds enough weapons grade uranium to build a dozen atomic bombs. The story is little known, but after months of reporting, 60 Minutes can tell the tale, for the first time, through the eyes of the one man who stopped the plot. What happened at Pelindaba is the kind of thing that keeps presidents awake at night.
Pelindaba is nestled in the African bush, not far from the capital of South Africa. It is where the former Apartheid regime secretly built nuclear weapons. In the 1990s, South Africa chose to disarm. The bombs were dismantled, but the highly enriched uranium, known as HEU - the fuel for the bombs - is still there. South Africa assures the world that Pelindaba is a fortress. But, last year, on the night of Nov. 7, it was the scene of the boldest raid ever attempted on a site holding bomb grade uranium.
"It happened just after one o’clock at night. We heard a sound inside the building," remembers Anton Gerber, who has worked at Pelindaba for 30 years and is the chief of the plant’s emergency control center.
He was in the control room when masked men broke in. "There's a crack in the door. And I looked through this and I saw this four armed gunmen entering the passages is coming straight to us in the control room."
Gerber says all four were armed.
The men had breached a 10,000 volt fence, passed security cameras, and walked three quarters of a mile to the control room that monitors alarms and responds to emergencies. Gerber called the security office, just three minutes away.
"I immediately said to them they must come and help us. We're under attack. There's four armed men inside our building. The first guy who stepped into the office, he said to me, 'Why do you phone?' He was shouting at me, 'Why do you phone? Why do you phone?'" Gerber remembers. "And I was still so surprised, you know. My first words to them, 'Is this a joke?'"
The only other employee in the control room was Ria Meiring. "And he grabbed me at my hair and pull me out. And he put a gun to my head while the other three guys were fighting with Anton," she remembers.
But the attack on the control room was just the start. A second group of gunmen, on the other side of the plant, was cutting through the fence and opened fire on a guard.
Asked if he thinks the gunmen were after the HEU, Matthew Bunn of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government tells correspondent Scott Pelley, "That's certainly the most valuable single thing that's at that site."
Bunn has studied the attack and has written a classified report for the government on atomic security. He says highly enriched uranium is extremely difficult to make, and would be worth millions of dollars on the black market. And if terrorists get a hold of it, it would not be hard to build a crude atomic bomb. "Making a nuclear bomb with highly enriched uranium basically involves slamming two pieces together at high speed. That's really all there is to it," he explains.
Asked how much highly enriched uranium a terrorist group would need to build a weapon, Bunn says, "The amount of highly enriched uranium metal would basically fit into the cans of a six pack."
And handling the material, according to Bunn, isn’t very dangerous. "Unfortunately not. Highly enriched uranium is only very weakly radioactive. You can handle it with your hands."
Pelindaba holds more than a thousand pounds of HEU, and it uses some of it to make medical products. South Africa calls the plant is a "national key point," a facility with the highest security.
"This is the first time that this has ever happened on site," says Ari Van Der Bijl, the general manager.
Van Der Bijl brought 60 Minutes to the place where the gunmen got through the electric fence.
(CBS) They picked a spot in the bottom of a ravine, far below the perimeter road where the security guards would be traveling. The guards couldn’t see them from up there. Once they got to the fence, one of the men used plastic clips to raise the bottom of the fence just several inches above the ground. He spent about 20 minutes shimmying under the electrical wire and once inside, he made straight for the box that controls the electricity, and shut the whole thing down.
"So the box has an alarm on it, they disabled that. It has a communications cable to warn the security office, they cut that. And then they shut the fence down. They knew what they were doing," Pelley remarks.
"They knew what they were doing. Definitely," Van Der Bijl acknowledges.
It was a fluke that the man who stopped the plot was in the control room at all. The attack came on the night of a plant holiday party. The employee who was supposed to be on duty is a paraplegic in a wheelchair, but he got drunk. Meiring filled in at the last moment. Anton Gerber is her fiancé and he decided to keep her company. That left him facing the intruders, who came at him with an iron bar.
Why did he decide to fight the four armed gunmen?
"I don't know," Gerber says. "For the first moment, I thought maybe I must just put hands in the air and said, 'Listen, what do you want?' But I think the moment they hit me with that piece of iron, it was all over. I start fighting."
Gerber says he knocked two of them down and turned to a third man. "I grabbed him. But the moment before I can take this guy he fired the shot, you know. And I was still fighting. I didn't know that there was, he shot me through the, through the chest."
"And after they shot him, it was terrible. They hit him over and over and over and over again," Meiring remembers. "After they shot, while he was lying on the floor."
Gerber was seriously wounded, waiting for the security force. He says it should have taken about three minutes for security to respond; instead, he says it took 24.
Meiring says she wondered the entire time where security was, while she was on her knees with a gun to her head.
After they shot Gerber, the gunmen fled and had plenty of time to get away. The second team of gunmen also vanished. And it seemed that South African officials wanted to make our questions disappear as well.
"After the first team got in, what was happening with the second team?" Pelley asks.
"You are talking about teams as if they are related. We don’t think they are related," Van Der Bijl says
"If these were sophisticated terrorists, Anton Gerber wouldn't be alive to tell his tale today," says Rob Adam, the CEO of the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa. He runs Pelindaba. "I think that it was a piece of random criminality, frankly, having looked at it."
Asked what he means by "random criminality," Adam tells Pelley, "Well, I don't think that there was any concerted attack of a nuclear nature. You had one technically sophisticated individual with some friends."
Adam says he doesn't know what the intruders were after.
(CBS) What does the South African government have to say? Pelley asked Ambassador Abdul Minty, one of South Africa's top officials on nuclear policy.
"So far, the evidence we have is that it was an attempt at burglary. People went to the one facility and tried to take, for example, a notebook computer which they left behind, subsequently," Minty says.
"You're not saying that the intrusion at Pelindaba was designed to take a laptop computer?" Pelley asks.
"No, no. I'm saying it was probably a burglary attempt from what evidence we have," Minty replies.
"Mr. Ambassador, the point is, what's valuable at Pelindaba? And the answer is the radiological materials. Nobody would break into a national key point in South Africa to steal office machines," Pelley points out.
"No, you know, the Pelindaba facility is off a main road. There's a lot of traffic on that road. So, if they felt that here is a facility that has gates, that has security, maybe there's something valuable," Minty says.
"Are you saying they attacked the plant not knowing what it was?" Pelley asks.
"No, I'm saying no one knows what the motivation is. So, we have to keep to the facts and the truth," Minty replies.
The facts that we know were recorded. A camera at the fence taped the intruders, but guards who were supposed to be watching the monitors didn’t report the men. A phone log that 60 Minutes has seen shows that 24 minutes passed between Gerber's call for help and the arrival of security. Gerber suspects someone in security was in on the plot. And he's suing Pelindaba.
CEO Rob Adam says it took security "a couple of minutes" to arrive, but that he doesn't have the exact figure.
"There's a lawsuit in this case, you may be aware of, that's been filed, that suggests that it was 24 minutes before the security arrived after that telephone call," Pelley points out.
"I'm aware of the allegation. We'll respond to it when we need to in court," Adam says.
"You've done an investigation. You're in charge of the plant. Did it take 24 minutes for them to get there?" Pelley asks.
"It took, in our calculation, somewhat less than that," Adam says.
"You initially said two minutes. Now we're talking 24 minutes," Pelley points out.
"I said a couple of minutes, but I understand from our analysis of the phone records that it took less than that," Adam says.
"There's a gap here, between two and 24. Can you help me narrow that gap a little bit?" Pelley asks.
"I didn't come prepared with that figure, Scott," Adam acknowledges.
(CBS) But Matthew Bunn thinks it is nonsense to think this was a third-rate burglary. "These people cut through a 10,000 volt security fence. They disable sophisticated electronic intrusion detectors. They went straight to the emergency control center of the site. These people knew what kind of site they were in and knew what they were doing."
"You know, the unknown that seems to me the most worrying is why these people had so much confidence that they could take that place down," Pelley remarks.
"It does suggest that they had someone inside who was going to help them make sure that the security alarms didn't go off. And that security forces didn't respond in time," Bunn says.
To get to the uranium would have required penetrating more layers of security: fences, cameras and locks. All we can be sure of is that the gunmen had no trouble with the first fence and didn't seem worried about the obvious camera there.
Rob Adam says it has crossed their minds that the intruders had inside help. "And we put out a reward. We haven't had any takers to this point."
There have been multiple investigations, but 60 Minutes was surprised to find out that the police didn’t talk to their prime eyewitness until we showed up.
Gerber says investigators didn't talk to him for ten months.
"Doesn't seem like they wanted to hear your story," Pelley remarks.
"Yeah, that is, it is strange for me as well," Gerber says.
The U.S. government is worried. It's offering to help secure Pelindaba and convert its highly enriched uranium into a form that won't explode.
Ambassador Abdul Minty, South Africa’s nuclear policy advisor, gave 60 Minutes his government’s answer: "Why should we get rid of it when others don’t? Why are we less secure than others?"
"Because these men got so far into the plant. They got into the emergency control center. They shot a man. There was a second team waiting outside that got…into a gunfight with your security people," Pelley says.
"No, no. It's how you interpret events," Minty replies. "So we are of course concerned about it that anyone gets into it, but we have taken steps to try and prevent that in future."
The two camera operators who missed the gunmen were fired. But the investigation is stalled, leaving no clue as to who was behind the assault on Pelindaba or whether their intent was to supply uranium for a nuclear bomb.