South Africa refuses to let go of its nuclear explosives

 ·22 Mar 2015

The Centre for Public Integrity, a US-based non-profit investigative news organisation, has published a report which says that South Africa has enough nuclear explosives to fuel half-a-dozen bombs.

According to the report, the nuclear explosives are locked in a former silver vault at the Pelindaba Nuclear Research Centre close to the Hartbeespoort Dam.

Pelindaba is operated by The South African Nuclear Energy Corporation, and was were South Africa’s atomic weapons under apartheid were developed, built, and stored.

These explosives were created by the apartheid government as part of its nuclear weapons programme. According to a report by Marcus Duvenhage, South Africa had six nuclear devices, and was busy constructing a seventh, by the time the programme stopped.

South Africa ended its nuclear weapons programme in 1989, and these weapons were dismantled.

However, the highly-enriched uranium fuel was extracted, melted down, and cast into ingots.

The report states that roughly 220kg of this fuel remains, and that South Africa is “keeping a tight grip on it”.

This weapons-grade nuclear fuel means South Africa can easily become a nuclear state again. However, the biggest concern to the United States is that it will be stolen by militants and used in a terrorist attack.

According to U.S. officials and experts, South Africa’s nuclear explosives are among the most vulnerable in the world to theft by terrorists.

U.S. officials further argue that South Africa has no clear rationale for holding its nuclear explosive materials, because it no longer needs them to make medical isotopes.

The Centre for Public Integrity said that US President Barack Obama twice directly asked the South African president to relinquish this weapons-grade uranium. However, the SA president did not oblige.

The full report is available here: South Africa rebuffs repeated U.S. demands that it relinquish its nuclear explosives

Dismantling of SA’s atomic bombs

In a 2012 interview former SA president FW De Klerk said that soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall they decided to announce the dismantling of South Africa’s atomic bombs.

“We announced as soon as possible that we had broken those [nuclear] bombs down, [and] that we could account for every milli-milli-milli-milligram of material,” said de Klerk.

He added that they “would open all facilities to full inspection by the International Atomic Agency, and that is exactly what we did.”

Facts about South Africa’s nuclear weapons programme

While details about South Africa’s nuclear programme remains sketchy, there are some facts which are interesting.

Most of these are quoted from the Wikipedia article “South Africa and weapons of mass destruction”.

  • South Africa’s plans to develop nuclear weapons began in 1948 after giving commission to the South African Atomic Energy Corporation (SAAEC).
  • South Africa gained sufficient experience with the nuclear technology to capitalise on the promotion of the U.S. government’s Peaceful Nuclear Explosions (PNE) programme.
  • In 1971, South African minister of mines Carl de Wet gave approval of the country’s PNE programme. The date when the South African PNE programme transformed into a weapons programme is not known.
  • The South African Atomic Energy Board (AEB) selected a test site in the Kalahari Desert. Two test shafts were completed in 1976 and 1977. However, when the test site was exposed by Soviet and Western governments, its immediate shutdown was ordered.
  • In September 1979, a US satellite detected a double flash over the Indian Ocean that was suspected, but never confirmed, to be a nuclear test. In 1997, South African Deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahad stated that South Africa had conducted a test, but later retracted his statement.
  • The South African Defence Force (SADF) investigated aircraft and missile-based delivery systems. The missiles were to be based on the RSA-3 and RSA-4 launchers that had already been built and tested for the South African space programme.
  • South Africa ended its nuclear weapons programme in 1989. All the bombs – six constructed and one under construction – were dismantled.
  • On 19 August 1994, after completing its inspection, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that one partially completed and six fully completed nuclear weapons had been dismantled.

A full timeline of South Africa’s nuclear programme is provided below.

Timeline of South African nuclear weapons programme
Year Activity
1950s and 1960s Scientific work on the feasibility of peaceful nuclear explosives and support to nuclear power production efforts
1969 Atomic Energy Board forms group to evaluate technical and economic aspects of nuclear explosives
1970 Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) releases report identifying uses for nuclear explosives
1971 R&D approval granted for “peaceful use of nuclear explosives”
1973 AEC prioritises work on a gun-type design
1974 Work on a nuclear device and the Vastrap test site are authorised
1977 AEC completes bomb assembly for “cold” test
1978 First HEU produced; Armscor assumes control of weapons programme
1979 Vela Incident; First bomb with HEU core produced by AEC
1982 First deliverable bomb built; work on weapons safety
1985 Three-phase nuclear strategy reviewed
1987 First production bomb built
1988 Armscor prepares Vastrap for a nuclear test
1989 Nuclear weapons dismantled
1991 Accedes to NPT

Photos of South Africa’s nuclear progamme

Building 5000 at Pelindaba was the critical assembly facility, where the first experimental nuclear weapon designs were assembled.

Building 5000 at Pelindaba

Building 5000 at Pelindaba

A new dedicated Armscor facility for the development and manufacture of nuclear weapons was constructed 15km east of the Pelindaba facility near Pretoria. This new nuclear weapon development site was called the Kentron Circle facility, but was later renamed Advena.

Advena Central Laboratory

Advena Central Laboratory, Mungo Poore

Entrance to the bomb storage building at Advena.

Entrance to the bomb storage building at Advena, Mungo Poore

Nuclear weapons storage lockers

Nuclear weapons storage lockers, Mungo Poore

The weapon storage lockers used for storing the actual assembled nuclear weapons at Advena.

The weapon storage lockers used for storing the actual assembled nuclear weapons at Advena.

The following casings were made for the atomic bombs and stored at Advena.

These are probably unused casings for new bombs, since the Chicago Tribune reported on 2 May 1999 that pieces of the casings of the actual atomic bombs were beaten into miniature, ornamental plowshares, “suitable as gifts for inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency”.

Spare bomb casings from South Africa nuclear weapon programme

Spare bomb casings from South Africa nuclear weapon programme, Mungo Poore

Casings made for the atomic bombs

Casings made for the atomic bombs, Mungo Poore

RSA 3 3 stage LEO rocket

RSA-3 3 stage LEO rocket

From 1975 to 1977 two test shafts measuring 216 and 385 meters deep were drilled at the Vastrap testing range north of Upington in the Kalahari Desert for conducting nuclear tests.

A fully instrumented cold test of the feasibility demonstrator prototype with a depleted uranium core (basically a dry run for an actual nuclear test) was scheduled for August 1977.

Kalahari Vastrap nuclear test site

Kalahari Vastrap nuclear test site

Test shafts being filled in by Armscor under IAEA supervision July 1993

Test shafts being filled in by Armscor under IAEA supervision July 1993

Images and information courtesy of The Nuclear Weapon Archive.

More on nuclear energy in South Africa

South Africa’s top secret nuclear plan

South Africa’s nuclear power stations plan reaches milestone

Radical change needed in energy sector, says Zuma

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