South Africa refuses to give up cache of weapon-grade uranium

Published 19 March 2015

In the 1980s, White minority-ruled South Africa built six nuclear bombs. In 1990s the F. W. de Klerk government began planning the transformation of the country into a democracy. As part of the transition, the country’s nuclear weapons, and nuclear weapons-making infrastructure, were dismantled under IAEA supervision. TheWhite-minority regime and, since 1994, the democratically elected South African government, have both held to, and refused to give up, the 485 pounds of weapon-grade nuclear fuel – some of it extracted from the dismantled weapons and some of it already produced but not yet put in warheads. Despite pressure by successive U.S. administrations, South Africa says it is determined to keep its weapon-grade nuclear fuel.

In 1990 the South African government extracted its inventory of highly enriched uranium from its nuclear weapons, then melted the fuel before storing it in a former silver vault at the Pelindaba nuclear research center just thirty minutes away from Pretoria, the country’s administrative capital. President F. W. de Klerk was already planning the transformation of South Africa from a White minority-controlled state to a democracy – this would occur in 1994 — and he believed that South Africa no longer needed the six nuclear bombs it had built in the 1980s. The bombs, and South Africa’s nuclear weapons-making infrastructure, were dismantled under IAEA monitoring.

The South African White-minority regime and, since 1994, the democratically elected South African government, have both held to, and refused to give up, the nuclear fuel.

Over the years, some of the nuclear fuel has been used to make medical isotopes, but roughly 485 pounds remain.

The United States has expressed concerns over the safety of South Africa’s nuclear cache. In November 2007, the research center’s security was breached when two teams of raiders entered the fenced perimeter. One group eventually broke into the center’s central alarm station. Thankfully, both teams were caught when a watch officer summoned other security personnel, but the episode has been a source of contention between leaders in South Africa and U.S. officials.

South African president Jacob Zuma has rejected incentives from the Obama administration to get rid of his country’s nuclear-weapons fuel. In an August 2011 letter, Obama warned Zuma that a terrorist nuclear attack would be a “global catastrophe,” and proposed that South Africa transform its nuclear explosives into benign reactor fuel, with U.S. support. If Zuma agreed, the White House would announce the deal at a 2012 summit on nuclear security in South Korea.

Zuma rejected the proposal, along with other proposals from the Obama administration regarding nuclear fuel.

TheWashington Post reports that the United States is partially responsible for South Africa’s nuclear cache. Between 1956 and 1965 it helped the country build its first nuclear reactor under the Atoms for Peaceprogram. The United States also trained scientists to run the South African reactor with U.S.-supplied weapons-gradeuranium fuel.

In 1976, under the Ford administration, Washington cut off its fuel supply to South Africa after it concluded that the apartheid regime in South Africa had used nuclear research to create a clandestine bomb program.