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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Nuclear Weapons Program

South Africa Department of Minerals and Energy (DME) statistics indicate that South Africa is ranked fourth in world uranium reserves and tenth in uranium production. DME estimates that South Africa's recoverable reserves of uranium total 298,000 metric tons.

At the peak of world uranium demand in 1980, South Africa was the world's leading producer at 6,147 metric tons of contained uranium (i.e., uranium contained in oxide) per year, accounting for as much as 18% of global production. Since, South African production had fallen to just 12% of its historic peak and 3% of global production. By 2005, South Africa had no primary uranium mines. Uranium was mined only as a by-product of gold mining in the Witwatersrand Basin. As South African gold production had declined over the past ten years, so had South African uranium production. In 2004, all uranium production came from AngloGold Ashanti's Vaal River mine and dump treatment operations.

During the 1970's and 1980's, South Africa mined uranium to supply substantial but undisclosed quantities to its nuclear weapons and research programs. In 1983, South Africa boasted 21 uranium oxide concentration plants that produced 6,060 metric tons of uranium contained in oxide. This situation did not last long. In the late 1980's, South Africa abandoned its nuclear weapons program and, in 1994, the country became a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Since, uranium oxide production fell precipitously. By 2004, South Africa was producing only 890 metric tons of uranium oxide (or 750 metric tons of contained uranium).

Since 1968, all South African uranium oxide was concentrated and marketed by the Nuclear Fuels Corporation of South Africa (NUFCOR SA), a private company originally owned by gold producers, but wholly-owned by AngloGold Ashanti since 1998. In 1999, Anglo established NUFCOR International, a 50:50 partnership with Rand Merchant Bank based in London. NUFCOR SA is responsible for concentrating South African uranium oxide into "yellowcake," and NUFCOR International is responsible for the international marketing of this product.

The US helped South Africa build their first nuclear reactor under a program called Atoms for Peace in the mid-1960s, and trained scientists to run the system using uranium fuel that the United States supplied. Washington stopped the flow of uranium in 1976 when it believed that the South African government was secretly building nuclear bombs.

South Africa's quest for a nuclear deterrent began with research into peaceful nuclear explosives (PNEs) in 1969. Although Pretoria initially would not confirm it was developing, or possessed, nuclear weapons, it had large natural deposits of uranium, as well as uranium enrichment facilities and the necessary technological infrastructure. In addition, until the late 1980s, South Africa had the deeply entrenched fear of its adversaries and the insecurity about its borders that were important incentives in other nations' nuclear programs.

South Africa was isolated from interactions and activities with most of the developed countries for many years because of its nuclear weapons development program and the practice of apartheid. This isolation was especially true in the areas of nuclear energy and its applications. South Africa developed a complete nuclear fuel cycle, including advanced waste management techniques. South Africa operates two nuclear power reactors (built by the French, but based on a Westinghouse design) at Koeberg near Cape Town.

South Africa also acquired the technology to build nuclear weapons. South Africa developed at least six nuclear warheads, which it later acknowledged, along with a variety of missiles and other conventional weapons. These projects were undertaken with some cooperation from Israel -- another technologically advanced, militarily powerful, nuclear-capable nation surrounded by hostile neighbors.

Beginning in 1975, two test shafts over 250 meters deep for conducting nuclear tests were drilled at the Vastrap military base in the Kalahari Desert. A Soviet surveillance satellite detected these test preparationss in August 1977, and the Soviets notified the US of their discovery. South Africa was forced to cancel the tests in the face of diplomatic pressure from America, the Soviet Union, and France.

A flash over the Indian Ocean detected by an American satellite in September 1979 was suspected of being a nuclear test, possibly conducted by either Israel or South Africa, alone or in combination. The Carter administration assembled a panel of scientists from academia to review the data. After their review, the panel concluded that, lacking independent collaborative data to support a nuclear origin of the signals, the original interpretation of the satellite data could not be justified. The panel said the flash could have been caused by a combination of natural events, specifically a micrometeorite impact on the detector sunshade, followed by small particles ejected as a result of the impact.

The international fear of nuclear proliferation made South Africa the focus of intense concern during the 1980s. Cape Town academic Renfrew Christie was jailed for passing details of South Africa's nuclear power program to the African National Congress [ANC] in 1980.

In 1987, President Botha announced that South Africa was considering signing the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and would begin discussions with other countries toward that end. In September 1990, Pretoria agreed to sign the NPT, but only "in the context of an equal commitment by other states in the Southern African region." After intensive diplomatic efforts, especially by the United States and the Soviet Union, Tanzania and Zambia agreed to sign the treaty. South Africa signed the NPT on 10 July 1991. In addition, the government banned any further development, manufacture, marketing, import, or export of nuclear weapons or explosives, as required by the NPT.

Following South Africa's accession to the NPT, a Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement was signed with the IAEA on 16 September 1991. Safeguards Agreements assist Member States to show that they are complying with international obligations in preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Implementation under South Africa's NPT-related Safeguards Agreement with the Agency began in November 1991. The extensive nature of South Africa's nuclear fuel cycle required not only considerable inspection resources but also extensive co-operation on the part of the State authorities in providing access to defunct facilities and to historical accounting and operating records.

In March 1993, President de Klerk declared that South Africa had previously developed a limited nuclear capability which had been dismantled and destroyed before South Africa acceded to the NPT. The IAEA sent experts to visit the facilities involved in the abandoned program and to review historical data. It found no indication casting doubt on South Africa's statement that all the highly enriched uranium for weapons had been reported in its initial declaration. Also it has found no indication to suggest that there remain any sensitive components of the nuclear weapons programme which have not been either rendered useless or converted to commercial non-nuclear applications or peaceful nuclear usage. The IAEA declared it had completed its inspection in late 1994 and that South Africa's nuclear weapons facilities had been dismantled. In addition to periodic on-site technical inspections conducted by the Agency's safeguards inspectors, verification is carried out to ensure that nuclear materials and installations are used only for peaceful purposes and applications.

South Africa's nuclear parastatal, the Atomic Energy Corporation (AEC), which in 1990 changed its emphasis from nuclear deterrence to industrial and economic needs, assists in the marketing of more than 150 products and services in the mid-1990s. These products have applications in mining and aerospace development, food production, transportation, and environmental preservation. Some examples are air filters for motor vehicles, a measuring device for minerals industry flotation processes, radio-isotopes for medical and industrial use, and a biogas unit to recover methane from refuse for use as vehicle fuel. These sales generated more than US$28 million between March 1993 and March 1994, according to official reports.

A primary goal of South Africa's policy was to reinforce and promote the country's image as a responsible producer, possessor and trader of advanced technologies in this field. In this connection, South Africa has obtained membership from two important non-proliferation regimes. The Nuclear Suppliers Group [NSG] was established in 1975 to minimise the risk of diversion of nuclear technology and to regulate nuclear technology transfers, control the export of nuclear material, equipment and technology and monitor the transfer of dual-use materials. South Africa became a member of the NSG on 5 April 1995. The Zangger Committee defines and monitors trade in goods and equipment especially designed for nuclear uses. South Africa became a member of the Committee on 21 October 1993.

Although these developments represented a dramatic breakthrough in the international campaign to curb the spread of nuclear weapons, and a marked change in South Africa's own position, they did not permanently foreclose Pretoria's nuclear options. Pretoria could withdraw from its treaty obligations -- NPT signatories may do so on ninety days' notice simply by citing "supreme interests." Moreover, South Africa could resume the production of weapons-grade uranium, although this product would be under IAEA safeguards and could not be used for nuclear explosives as long as South Africa chose to abide by the NPT.

South Africa's Council for Nuclear Safety, a statutory body set up to safeguard citizens and property against nuclear hazards, announced on September 27, 1994, an agreement between South Africa and the United States to exchange information about nuclear safety. This agreement, the first of its kind for South Africa--the twenty-ninth for the United States--enables signatory governments to remain abreast of the latest research information in the field of nuclear safety.

On July 18, 2005, the Department of Minerals and Energy (DME) announced that the SAFARI-I nuclear research reactor of the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa) located at Pelindaba would be converted from using High Enriched Uranium (HEU) to Low Enriched Uranium (LEU). "This markes yet another milestone in our government's programme to ensure that the safety of nuclear materials is enhanced globally." the Minister said.

SAFARI-1 was commissioned in the 1960's as a Materials Test Reactor (MTR) and was later mainly utilised for the production of radioisotopes for nuclear medicine appications. The remaining HEU would generally be applied to the manufacturing of medical isotopes, mainly Molybdenum-99, used in nuclear medicine diagnostics. The conversion of SAFARI-1 ensured that the future of the South African medical isotope production can be guaranteed for a longer period. There is increased effort internationally to phase out the use of HEU in nuclear research reactors. This decision ensured that South Africa is in-step with the rest of the world.

South Africa released a new draft nuclear energy policy on 13 August 2007 for public comment. The draft policy reaffirmed SAG commitment to expanding nuclear power generation from the current 6 percent to 15 percent of electric power generation by 2025, lessening dependence on coal and taking advantage of significant uranium reserves. Targeting the long-term goal of self-sufficiency in aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle, the policy considered possible recycling of spent nuclear fuel and rebuilding South Africa's enrichment capacity. The SAG stressed that enrichment would solely be for peaceful purposes, with the aim of producing nuclear fuel for South Africa's own reactors and for the international market.

South Africa's nuclear energy policy, which was set forth in the June 2008 Nuclear Energy Policy, publicly reaffirmed South Africa,s commitment to expanding nuclear power in it energy mix, including ambitiously targeting 2020 for the next reactor of a potential fleet.

South Africa's power utility began rationing power since early 2008 when the country's grid nearly collapsed, forcing mines and smelters to shut for days, and costing South African economy billions of dollars. Due to a government policy of under-pricing power to attract industry into the country, South Africa had been cursed by one of the world's cheapest electricity rates.

In May 2009 new South African President Jacob Zuma split the minerals and energy portfolios as part of his cabinet expansion and restructuring. The old Department of Mineral and Energy's performance policies and slow bureaucracy allowed South Africa to miss out on much of the global commodity boom. The Energy Ministry's biggest task would be sorting out the country's energy policy and attracting private investment in new power generation.

South Africa retained enough nuclear fuel for about six bombs – each of them would wipe out Washington, DC, or large sections of New York City. After apartheid officially ended with the 1994 election of Nelson Mandela as president, South Africa started extracting the uranium from the apartheid government’s cache of nuclear weapons. Some of that has been used to make medical isotopes, but close to 485 pounds remained by 2015. That meant South Africa could conceivably develop nuclear weapons again, but Washington said it is most worried that the uranium could be stolen and used by militants or terrorists. In 2007, thieves managed to break into the site where the uranium is stored and got pretty far until they were finally stopped by a guard who called for reinforcements.

Pretoria called it nothing more than a minor robbery attempt, but US officials told the watchdog group Center for Public Integrity that the thieves appeared to know what they were doing and were after the uranium to make bombs. Plus, South Africa has a significant problem with crime, and this kind of attempted heist could happen again with dire consequences.

Since that attempted robbery, Washington had been quietly lobbying South Africa to get rid of what the US considered highly vulnerable uranium, but like previous leaders, South African president Jacob Zuma is not biting. President Obama has offered US help in changing the South African uranium into reactor fuel, but Zuma says South Africa needs its nuclear materials and can keep them secure.

South African officials also say that the US shouldn’t be “obsessing” about what amounts to a small amount of nuclear fuel when Washington is stockpiled to the teeth, and going after South Africa puts a damper on their plans to focus on peaceful and profitable nuclear technology in South Africa and the rest of the developing world.

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Page last modified: 27-03-2015 19:59:21 ZULU