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 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 coworker,” said Johnston, explaining the mindset. “It just doesn’t compute.”