In the early hours of 28 July 2012, three people, one of them an 82-year-old nun named Megan Rice, broke into the Y-12 Nuclear Security Complex near the city of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Y-12 is where all of America’s highly enriched uranium (HEU) – for making nuclear weapons – is made or stored: about 400 000 kg of it, according to The New Yorker magazine.
Rice and two others from the Plowshare anti-nuclear activist group managed to cut through three fences, paint slogans and splash blood on the football-field-sized building housing the Y-12 arsenal before a few of the 500-odd security guards finally arrived to arrest them. This demonstration by Plowshare – one of many over the last 35 years – was designed in part to show that America’s nuclear weapons were not secure from theft by terrorists. Which it did.
Five years earlier, in November 2007, two groups of intruders cut through the security fences surrounding South Africa’s 118-acre Pelindaba Nuclear Research Centre, west of Pretoria. They got as far as the emergency operations centre before a barking dog alerted a stand-in security officer, who called for back up. The intruders fled after shooting a security officer’s boyfriend, though not fatally.
The Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa (NECSA) ordered a secret probe of the break-in, according to a report by the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), a non-profit American investigative news organisation, which was published in the Washington Post this week. Seven years after the break-in, no one has been charged with a crime and no suspects have been identified.
Pelindaba houses South Africa’s stockpile of HEU, which was extracted in 1990 from the six or seven nuclear bombs that the old National Party government had built. According to the CPI report, the HEU was melted down and cast into ingots, which were stored at Pelindaba. Over the years, some of the HEU was used to make medical isotopes for sale. But in 2009, encouraged and helped by the United States (US), the South African government converted its Safari 1 nuclear reactor to run on low-enriched uranium, which can’t be used to make weapons.
Now, according to the CPI report, about 220 kg of the HEU remains, with no immediate purpose. This gives Pretoria the theoretical ability to make nuclear weapons again. But what really bothers the US officials who the CPI interviewed is that terrorists could steal the HEU and use it to make nuclear weapons. The report says Pelindaba contains enough weapons-grade uranium to fuel half a dozen bombs, each powerful enough to obliterate central Washington.
Rather than an attempt to steal the HEU as US officials might suspect, South African officials have insisted the break-in was ‘pure criminality.’ At the time, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) also said that ‘there was no evidence that sensitive nuclear areas were under any threat at any time during the incident.’
The CPI report discloses that US President Barack Obama has been trying very hard since 2011 to persuade President Jacob Zuma to relinquish the HEU stockpile, as part of his global effort to mop up such fissile material from nuclear states. Apparently Obama attempted this was on his state visit to South Africa in mid-2013, when he privately asked Zuma to exchange the HEU for a free shipment of about 350 kg of fresh, non-weapons-grade reactor fuel, valued at US$5 million.
He pressed Zuma further when he met him at Nelson Mandela’s funeral in December that year. But Zuma declined as he and his predecessor Thabo Mbeki had refused previous US entreaties, according to South African officials.
So why won’t South Africa give up its HEU stockpile? International Relations and Cooperation Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane told journalists at a press conference on Wednesday that ‘we are not a threat to anyone,’ and that the HEU was under constant surveillance by the IAEA. She insisted that ‘we are not about to be handing over any of our material to anybody for safekeeping,’ saying that this ‘would be an admission that we are unable to be a safe, not only producer, but [also a] custodian of the technology for peaceful means … [and that] we think we have all the safeguards.’
Nkoana-Mashabane added: ‘We want to make use of that energy for our own developmental needs. We are very transparent. We are regularly inspected,’ referring to the IAEA. Its inspectors monitor the HEU around the clock by camera from Vienna and make frequent, unannounced visits to Pelindaba to ensure that the explosive material is not being abused, according to Xolisa Mabhongo, formerly South Africa’s ambassador to the IAEA and now a senior executive at NECSA.
Mabhongo argued in an interview with Independent Newspapers that South Africa had demonstrated greater commitment to its non-proliferation obligations under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) than the nuclear weapons powers, like the US, had demonstrated to their own NPT nuclear disarmament commitments.
South Africa had been the first country to dismantle its nuclear weapons programme voluntarily, and the first to convert the fuel for its medical isotope production from highly enriched uranium to low-enriched uranium. None of its competitors had done so, which had cost South Africa considerable competitive advantage. South Africa was also the only country so far to have prosecuted members of the illegal Abdul Qadeer Khan nuclear weapons network. Abdul Qadeer Khan was a rogue Pakistani nuclear engineer who sold nuclear weaponry to illicit nuclear weapons producers such as North Korea.
These gestures had not been reciprocated by other nuclear states, Mabhongo said. But South Africa wanted to keep the HEU since it might discover a commercial application for it in the future. So what are America’s real concerns, suspicions and intentions?
Though the CPI report draws some comparisons with Iran, US officials privately say they don’t really suspect that Pretoria intends to make nuclear weapons. The real concern of security officials in Washington is indeed that the Pelindaba HEU could fall into terrorist hands. Yet some even acknowledge – with reference to incidents like that at the Y-12 complex – that Pelindaba is now probably more secure than most US nuclear facilities – especially after the US spent nearly US$10 million in helping South Africa to upgrade security there after the 2007 break-in.
Some officials also say they don’t believe that the Pelindaba intruders in 2007 were seeking the uranium – even though the Washington Post report alludes to a top-secret South Africa report which apparently suggests otherwise.
The US officials believe that there are different views in the South African government on the issue. Former US ambassador to South Africa, Donald Gips, is quoted in the CPI report as saying, ‘It’s a technical issue with an emotional overhang.’ Washington partly acknowledges the commercial reason for keeping the HEU – although it notes that Pretoria turned down that attractive US offer to swap it for US$5 million of low-enriched uranium.
US officials agree with Noel Stott, an expert on weapons of mass destruction at the Institute of Security Studies, that the main reason Pretoria wants to keep its HEU is because ‘it’s a stick they are using to beat up on the US for not dismantling its own nuclear weapons.’
The CPI report underscores that point, quoting South Africa’s veteran disarmament expert Abdul Minty (now South Africa’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva) as berating the US for doing very little to dismantle its own massive nuclear arsenal – as it is committed to doing under the NPT – while campaigning to make other countries like South Africa give up their nuclear material. From a purely practical point of view, if an 82-year-old nun can breach the security of America’s own immense arsenal of weapons-grade uranium, it’s rather difficult for Washington to make a case for taking care of South Africa’s mere 220 kg worth.
In the end though, the 220 kg of highly enriched uranium stored away in the depths of Pelindaba has much more than commercial or tactical value. As the heated reactions of Nkoana-Mashabane, Minty and Mabhongo make clear, the stockpile is a symbol of South Africa’s sovereignty, its power and its integrity: of its ability to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes – and even of its technical ability to construct an atomic weapon. But also of its firm moral determination never to do so.
In that sense, the 220 kg of highly enriched uranium ingots are more precious to the African National Congress government than all the gold bullion in the Reserve Bank. They aren’t going anywhere.
Written by Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa