US President Barack Obama has praised South Africa for voluntarily dismantling its nuclear weapons programme during a meeting with South African President Jacob Zuma on the eve of a major summit on nuclear terrorism.
Last night’s meeting in Washington DC was the first between the two leaders since Zuma was elected SA president a year ago, news agencies DPA and AFP report. Obama used the opportunity to outline the goals of the summit today and tomorrow, which will be attended by leaders from 38 nations and top officials from another nine.
“The single biggest threat to US security, both short term, medium term and long term, would be the possibility of a terrorist organisation obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Obama said. “If there was ever a detonation in New York City, or London, or Johannesburg, the ramifications economically, politically and from a security perspective would be devastating.”
White House officials say the central focus of the summit is to get commitments from the top levels of government to recognise nuclear terrorism as a major global threat, to get commitments to current conventions on nuclear terrorism and to develop a work plan.
SA commissioned its first nuclear reactor, a 20 megawatt highly enriched uranium reactor acquired from the US under the latter’s “Atoms for Peace” programme in March 1965 at Pelindaba, west of Pretoria under the name SAFARI-1 or SA Fundamental Atomic Research Installation 1. Published research indicate that at this stage SA’s interest in nuclear technology was still peaceful, concentrated as it was in the SAFARI programme and an interest in “peaceful nuclear explosives” (PNE), perhaps for use by the mining industry. Author Al J Venter in his 2008 book “How SA built six atom bombs – and then abandoned its nuclear programme” notes PNE research was encouraged by the West under such schemes the American “Plowshare Programme [sic]” and that “considerable amounts of nuclear data and technology were transferred to SA under its auspices. According to a subsequently declassified Central Intelligence Agency report at least one SA scientist studied the application of PNE in the US.
An early mention of nuclear weapons came in late 1968 when then SA Army Chief of Staff Lt General HJ Martin was quoted as saying that SA was ready to make its own nuclear weapons. “Martin’s statement was repudiated by the then Minister of Defence, PW Botha, but the point had been made, namely the difference between a peaceful nuclear explosion and a military one consisted costly of the fact that the latter had fins at the back,” Venter said.
According to David Albright, formerly president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, the then-Atomic Energy Board (AEB) received permission in 1971 from the Minister of Mines to do research and development work on PNE. In 1974 Prime Minister John Vorster “approved the development of a limited nuclear explosive capability and the construction of an underground test site” at Vastrap, north of Upington. The AEB produced its first nuclear device in mid-1977. A “cold test” (no HEU) was scheduled for that August but was cancelled after international intervention: Soviet spy satellites spotted the test site, Moscow realised the implications and revealed the information to the US, who then placed great public and other pressure on Vorster. Nevertheless, a second device, codenamed “Melba” was built in 1978 and was “designed to be rapidly deployed for a fully instrumented underground nuclear test at the Kalahari site.”
Armscor took responsibility for the project in 1979 (Project Kerktoring, belfry) and built a facility known as the “Kenton Circle” within the grounds of its Gerotek vehicle testing facility between Pelindaba and Pretoria. Albright notes Armscor “considered the AEB’s November 1979 device to be an unqualified design that could not meet the rigid safety, security and reliability specifications then under development by Circle engineers.” Armscor built its device, a “pre-qualification model” in April 1982.
Then-President PW Botha decided in September 1985 to limit the scope of the programme as he recognised that costs “could escalate significantly.” Production was thus limited to six gun-type weapons and all work was stopped on plutonium devices and tritium boosters. “But implosion development and theoretical wok on more advanced devices continued.
Each bomb contained 55kg of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and the country had sufficient of the metal for a seventh weapon. According to Albright the weight of the completed devices was about one metric ton and the expected yield was 10 to 18 kilotons (kT) using weapons grade (90%+ enriched) uranium. The gun-type design placed the SA weapons in the same class as “Little Boy,” the device dropped on Hiroshima in August 1945 with a yield of 12.5kT. Some theoretical work was done to boost the yield to roughly 100kT using tritium, but as the “purpose of the bomb programme was to demonstrate capability, why would yield matter” asked one official.
Armscor completed its first “qualified” device in August 1987 and this could be be delivered by a modified Blackburn Buccaneer S.50 strike aircraft, Albright avers. Shortly before President FW de Klerk cancelled the programme, a new facility, the Advena Central Laboratories, was completed at Gerotek at a cost of R36 million to build a new generation of weapons “deliverable by aircraft and most likely also by ballistic missile.” Albright notes De Klerk halted production in November 1989 and issued “written instructions to terminate the … programme and dismantle all existing weapons” on February 26, 1990, just days after the unbanning of the African National Congress and the release of its long-imprisoned international face, Nelson Mandela. Dismantling started that July and by September the HEU had been removed from the weapons and returned to the AEB’ successor, the Atomic Energy Corporation.
Non-nuclear components, design drawing and plans were destroyed in 1992. By then SA had joined the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (in July 1991) and inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) were underway from November 1991. De Klerk announced the programme on March 24, 1993, by which time “most of the classified documents had been shredded and the sensitive weapons components destroyed or damaged beyond repair. Destruction of less important components continued into 1994.” The Circle and Advena were cleansed and decommissioned.
South Africa was the first country in the world to voluntarily give up nuclear weapons. Kazakhstan followed suit after the break-up of the Soviet Union. “South Africa has special standing in being a moral leader on this issue,” Obama says. “South Africa is singular in having had a nuclear weapon program, had moved forward on it, and then decided this was not the right path,” Obama said, noting how South African had since been a leader on non-proliferation.
“South Africa has special standing in being a moral leader on this issue. And I wanted to publicly compliment President Zuma and his administration for the leadership they’ve shown,” Obama said. “And we are looking forward toward the possibility of them helping to guide other countries down a similar direction of non-proliferation.” The move brought South Africa “greater security and prosperity” in the international community, noted Ben Rhodes, a White House official who talked to reporters.
On the specifics of the programme, Venter recorded that something that “surprised IAEA inspectors … was how much of the equipment was distinctly low-tech.” This, it seems was as much to maintain secrecy as save on costs and circumvent sanctions. “They were very creative,” a US participant commented. One example mentioned was the modification of two-axis machine tools, normally used for simple manufacturing, to create complex three-dimensional shapes.
Another noteworthy aspect was the tiny workforce involved. Albright puts it at about 100 in the early 1980s of whom “only about 40 were directly involved in the weapons programme and only 20 actual built the devices. The rest were involved in administrative support and security”. By 1989 the labour pool had grown to 300 of whom “about half” were directly involved with weapons work. Venter avered that these aspects made the SA programme an interesting case study for both al Qaeda and for those seeking to prevent them acquiring such a weapon.