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August 27, 2018
Shoring Up a Crucial Bridge: South Africa’s Pressing Nuclear Choices

Jack Boureston and Jennifer Lacey

Taking advantage of an unusual nuclear history; an innovative, domestic nuclear power industry; and strong ties with other strategic countries, South Africa is emerging as a crucial bridge between developed and developing countries on nuclear issues. South Africa’s outspoken support for “all” country’s rights to develop nuclear technologies for peaceful purposes and its renewed interest in developing its own nuclear fuel cycle puts it at center stage in nonproliferation debates.

At the same time, its record as the only country to develop its own nuclear weapons and then renounce them has allowed it to challenge the nuclear-weapon states to meet their disarmament commitments under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

South Africa has long played a prominent role in the Nonaligned Movement (NAM), which brings together developing countries. Moreover, it has forged close ties with Brazil and India on nuclear issues, and the three together yield considerable influence on nuclear issues as members of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors.[1] In the next few months, it will also gain new power in the UN Security Council and as the next chair of the Nuclear Suppliers Group.[2] More than ever, therefore, South Africa’s nuclear policy can have significant implications in shaping the future of the nuclear nonproliferation regime. It has the potential to be a responsible model for other developing nations to follow or could prove to be a new problem by backing some states that have questionable motives.

Unique Past, Unique Present

South Africa once had the infrastructure to assemble a number of nuclear weapons. In 1989, however, the government gave up that path, admitted its nuclear weapons development, and disassembled the devices. Subsequently, South Africa joined the NPT and became an important voice in the nonproliferation regime, particularly as a representative of developing nations, including those in the NAM. In addition, South Africa is part of the New Agenda Coalition, an eight-state grouping that demands “the speedy, final and total elimination” of all nuclear weapons. These fora provide South Africa with an opportunity to convey its commitment to nonproliferation and disarmament efforts.

To this end, South Africa was one of the few countries recently to criticize the United Kingdom’s decision to build a new class of ballistic missile-capable submarines. In an official statement, the South African Department of Foreign Affairs called on the British government to honor its “unequivocal undertaking” toward nuclear disarmament made during the 2000 NPT review conference.[3]

South Africa’s long nuclear history has also laid the basis for a domestic nuclear industry of a size and sophistication unusual for developing countries, and it continues to develop new nuclear technologies that will equate to larger markets and increased revenue in the future.

South Africa’s nuclear industry is one of the most innovative in the world. It includes projects such as the pebble-bed modular reactor slated for construction beginning in 2007, which puts South Africa at the forefront of nuclear energy technologies. The pebble-bed reactor will be pioneering in its cost, safety (it avoids the complexities and low efficiencies of the steam cycle), design, and quality control. It will eventually provide 4,000-5,000 megawatts of power following module completion in 2013. The reactor will use down-blended weapons-grade uranium from former Russian nuclear warheads.[4]

The country also has the world’s fourth-largest uranium reserves[5] and significant experience in fuel production. South African officials are exploring the potential construction of new nuclear plants and re-invigorating South Africa’s nuclear fuel cycle.[6] Its strong web of bilateral and multilateral relationships could allow South Africa to grow as a major global supplier of nuclear technologies.[7]

Not surprisingly, South Africa has been a proponent of nuclear energy for all, arguing that all states adhering to the NPT have the basic and inalienable right to develop research and production capabilities for the peaceful use of nuclear energy without discrimination.[8] In particular, South Africa had resisted efforts to curb the spread of uranium-enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing technologies even though they can either provide fuel for nuclear reactors or fissile materials for nuclear weapons. This has brought it into conflict with some of the nuclear-weapon states that argue that Iran has used loopholes in their safeguards obligations under the NPT to develop nuclear weapons capabilities.

Additionally, since 2005, South Africa has been persistent in its effort to use highly enriched uranium in its currently operating Safari research reactor. It openly rejects efforts by the United States and other nuclear-weapon states to phase out the use of this weapons-ready material in civilian nuclear reactors, claiming that this approach undermines the right of states who have already committed to nonproliferation. In 2005, South African ambassador to the IAEA Abdul Minty affirmed “the need to guard against the imposition of any arrangement that may infringe on the inalienable right of states to the peaceful application of nuclear energy.”[9]

Moreover, South Africa’s brand of diplomacy also has raised concerns. South Africa is a strong advocate for the NAM, which it joined in 1994 and which provides it with an opportunity to strengthen nuclear ties with other developing countries. Its advocacy raises concerns for the United States, given that the organization also includes among its members such countries of proliferation concern as Iran and Syria.

In September 2006, during the 14th NAM summit in Havana, member states supported the rights of developing countries to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes.[10] The final document, pointing to Article IV of the NPT, affirmed “the basic inalienable right of all states to develop research, production, and use of atomic energy for peaceful purposes without any discrimination and in conformity with their respective legal obligations.”[11]

Relations With Iran

South Africa has been a staunch supporter of Iran’s right to develop its nuclear infrastructure.[12] In December 2006, for example, South African ambassador to Iran Yusuf Saloojee said that “ Iran is a signatory to the NPT and is thus entitled to use peaceful nuclear technology.” South African officials seem to have paid less attention to the agreement reached during the 2000 NPT review conference in which states-parties agreed that the inalienable right should only include those parties that are also in compliance with Article III of the treaty, related to a country’s safeguards obligations.

Western countries argue that Iran forfeited its right to nuclear technologies because it was not in compliance with its safeguard obligations. Countering that argument, in August 2006 South African Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Aziz Pahad asserted that the Iranian problem has been brought about “primarily due to the unequal implementation of the delicately balanced rights and obligations contained in the NPT itself.”[13] Pahad argued, “Few states doubt the inherent discriminatory nature of the treaty, which created two distinct groups: the haves and the have-nots.”[14] Many of those have-nots are developing countries.

In May 2006, South African officials and the foreign ministers of Nigeria, Pakistan, South Africa, Syria, and Venezuela met with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki. Afterward, South African Deputy Foreign Minister Sue van der Merwe spoke of stronger ties to Iran, particularly within the NAM framework, adding that Iran has been instrumental in providing regional stability.[15] After the meeting, Mottaki stated that, “[g]iven that today NAM member states more than ever have commonalities in the international scene, their coordination and close cooperation can create a powerful movement in the world.”[16] In August 2006, bilateral cooperation was strengthened when Mottaki met with a number of South African government officials, including Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry Buyelwa Sonjica, Minister of Trade and Industry Mandisi Mpahlwa, and Minister of Science and Technology Mosibudi Mangena.[17] South Africa may have also offered to transfer natural uranium to Iran for use in its program, although there is no indication that any such deal has been concluded.[18]

Additionally, Iran and South Africa have made other overtures to strengthen their nuclear cooperation. During the 61st annual session of the UN General Assembly in September 2006, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mbeki discussed points for strengthening bilateral relations in various fields, including the nuclear field.[19] This and other activities appeared to cause considerable concern in the international community. The United States sent Gregory Schulte, its ambassador to the IAEA, to South Africa to urge it to take a stricter stance on Iran’s nuclear issue.[20]

Nor has South Africa always been a responsible actor in nuclear trade. Since 2004, it has become apparent that some individuals and companies in South Africa supplied nuclear-related equipment to Libya as part of Abdul Qadeer Khan’s nuclear network.[21] The investigation and criminal proceedings continue at this time. They focus on Gerhard Wisser, a German engineer who was CEO of the South African-based Krisch Engineering, and Daniel Geiges, a Swiss mechanical engineer who served as managing director of Krisch Engineering in South Africa. Wisser and Geiges were allegedly involved in arranging the fabrication of gas-feed and withdrawal systems in the plans for a centrifuge-enrichment plant in Libya. Johan Meyer, a South African mechanical engineer also was arrested for his alleged involvement in Khan’s network. Meyer’s company, TradeFin Engineering, imported vacuum pumps from Spain and pressure sensors from German companies.[22]

In January 2004, Asher Karni, a naturalized South African resident and a salesman for the military and aviation electronics company Top-Cape Technology, was arrested for his involvement in the Khan network. Gotthard Lerch faces charges for his involvement in the nuclear smuggling network to obtain piping from South Africa and autoclave technology using blueprints from the 1980s from the nuclear industry leader Urenco.[23]

Subsequently, the South African government has put forth significant effort to arrest those involved in illicit transactions and deter others through stricter guidelines and stronger controls.


South Africa appears to have a nuclear policy with opposing objectives and points of view. Although it promotes the development of nuclear technologies almost to the detriment of the nonproliferation regime, it has been taking a more public leadership role in nonproliferation and disarmament efforts. To serve as a responsible voice, however, South Africa’s policy should have clarity, consistency, and equity. As it stands now, South Africa’s support for some countries and its stated interest to increase its own nuclear activities could prove damaging to its laudable nonproliferation and disarmament efforts.

South Africa is committed to the future of nuclear energy and has made clear that its program to develop its civilian nuclear program will focus on peaceful purposes. Sharing of its pebble-bed modular reactor technology, however, could prove threatening to the nonproliferation regime unless it closely monitors the exchange of this technology and imposes stricter controls on its own imports and exports.

South Africa should also work to promote a more multilateral, farsighted approach to nuclear technologies and material, as suggested by IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei.[24]

In short, South Africa must continue to strike a balance between supporting states’ rights to develop nuclear technologies for peaceful purposes and working to stop the progress of those that would use these technologies for the development of nuclear weapons. Through its unique position and leadership role in prominent international organizations, South Africa has an opportunity to steer the direction of the nuclear industry and the global nonproliferation regime in a positive direction. It should take it.

South Africa’s Unique Nuclear Past

South Africa’s unique role in global nonproliferation and disarmament debates partly reflects its unique nuclear history: it is the only country to have abandoned its nuclear weapons program voluntarily after having developed such arms.[1]

In 1967, South Africa began a program to build peaceful nuclear explosives. In 1970 the South African government established the Y-plant, the state’s first uranium-enrichment plant. In 1971, Minister of Mines Carl de Wet secretly approved exploration into nuclear explosive production.[2]

When exactly it became a nuclear weapons program is still under debate, but the military program eventually included designs for gun-type, implosion-type, boosted fission, and thermonuclear weapons. During the 1970s, South Africa’s Atomic Energy Board (AEB) directed research into a nuclear weapons program. AEB and a specialized enrichment program, the Uranium Enrichment Corporation, were merged into South Africa’s Atomic Energy Corporation in the 1980s. Much of the information they used was from open sources, such as declassified documents from the Manhattan Project.

In 1975, after two years of searching for a nuclear test site, two test shafts more than 250 meters deep were drilled at the Vastrap military base in the Kalahari Desert. In 1977, South Africa completed its first full-scale nuclear device based on a gun-type design. However, the device did not have enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) to be fully operational.[3] Later that year in August, the Soviet Union, using one of its satellites, discovered nuclear test preparations in the Kalahari Desert. In response to international pressure, particularly from France, the Soviet Union, and the United States, South Africa provisionally canceled testing plans.[4]

In 1979 the Armaments Corp. of South Africa (Armscor) took over the development of nuclear weaponry at the Building 5000 complex, the Kentron Circle facility, and the Somchem facility. The three main components of the South African program at this point, included:

(1) development of deliverable gun-type devices using HEU;

(2) exploration of implosion and thermonuclear technology, including “boosted” devices; and

(3) research and development regarding production of and recovery of plutonium and tritium, and production of lithium 6.[5]

On September 22, 1979, a U.S. Vela satellite detected a double flash of light in the South Atlantic Ocean consistent with a nuclear test.[6] South Africa immediately denied that it had conducted a nuclear test. Yet, it seems quite possible that it did so, given South Africa’s known nuclear developments and its cooperation with nuclear-armed Israel.[7] By 1982, South Africa developed its first complete nuclear explosive device. By 1989, South Africa had manufactured six gun-type devices, each containing 55 kilograms of HEU. The Y-plant also had produced considerable HEU for a seventh device and had produced one training device without HEU.[8] Although the government shut down the weapons program and dismantled all weapons-dedicated facilities, South Africa’s nuclear infrastructure remained intact, albeit possibly not at its full capacity.

The 1989 election of President F. W. de Klerk marked an end to the nuclear weaponry program. The departure of Cuban forces from Angola, the decline of the Soviet Union, and Namibia’s independence led to a shift in South Africa’s nuclear policy.[9] Some also believe that de Klerk may have dismantled South Africa’s nuclear arsenal to prevent any future African National Congress (ANC) government from inheriting it, fearing the irrational use of the weapons or the possible transfer of the technology to ANC allies.[10]

In 1991, South Africa joined the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. By 1994 the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that the Y-plant at Pelindaba East was shut down and the weapons manufacturing plant, Advena, was also closed.[11] In 1993 the country became a member of the Zangger Committee, and domestically, the South African parliament passed the Nonproliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction Act, which restricted nuclear weapons development. Nelson Mandela, taking power in April 1994 as the head of the first majority black government, also maintained a firm stance against nuclear weaponry.


1. Pretoria Department of Foreign Affairs, “Text of Address by RSA’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Chief Abdul Minty at Nuclear Safeguards Symposium,” October 17, 2006.

2. Lt. Col. Roy E. Horton III, “Out of (South) Africa: Pretoria’s Nuclear Weapons Experience,” USAF Institute for National Security Studies, August 1999.

3. This was due to the slow production rate of highly enriched uranium at the Y-plant at that time.

4. J.W. De-Villiers, Roger Jardine, and Mitchell Reiss, “Why South Africa Gave Up the Bomb,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 72, No. 6 (November/December 1993).

5. David Albright, “ South Africa and the Affordable Bomb,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 50, No. 4 (July/August 1994).

6. David Albright and Corey Gay, “Proliferation: A Flash From the Past,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 53, No. 6 (November/December 1997).

7. Horton, “Out of (South) Africa.”

8. David Albright, “South Africa’s Nuclear Weapons Program,” Institute for Science and International Security, March 14, 2001; Horton, “Out of (South) Africa.”

9. Maria Babbage “White Elephants: Why South Africa Gave Up the Bomb and the Implications for Nuclear Nonproliferation Policy,” Journal of Public and International Affairs, Vol. 15 (Spring 2004).

10. Albright, “ South Africa’s Nuclear Weapons Program.”

11. Waldo Stumpf, “ South Africa’s Nuclear Weapons Program: From Deterrence to Dismantlement,” Arms Control Today, December 1995/January 1996, pp 3-8; “IAEA Report by the Director General: The Agency’s Verification Activities in South Africa,” September 8, 1993.

Jack Boureston is managing director of FirstWatch International (FWI), a research group that conducts studies on the nuclear developments of countries. He has worked as a safeguards information analyst at the International Atomic Energy Agency and a researcher at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California. Jennifer Lacey is a research associate at FWI.


1. On September 13, 2006, during the first India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA) Dialogue Forum, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Brazilian President Luis Ignacio Lula da Silva, and South African President Thabo Mbeki met in Brasilia to discuss their collective support of nuclear energy and cooperation, among other matters. In addition, Mbeki and da Silva backed India’s pursuit of civil nuclear energy. This alliance is of particular importance as all three are enhancing their civilian nuclear capabilities.

2. In October 2006, South Africa was unanimously confirmed as the rotating annual chair of the Nuclear Suppliers Group beginning in 2007.

3. South African Department of Foreign Affairs, “Statement on the Announcement by the UK Regarding the Development of a New Class of Submarines,” December 5, 2006.

4. “South African Reactors to Use Uranium From Former Russian Nuclear Warheads,” NTI Global Security Newswire, December 7, 2006.

5. Jennifer Megan Lacey, “Country Profile 12: South Africa,” Countries of Strategic Nuclear Concern, Firstwatch International/Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

6. Linda Ensor, “ South Africa Poised to Embark on Nuclear Route for Power,” Johannesburg Business Day, November 28, 2006.

7. Carli Lourens, “ South Africa Flirts With Plan to Enrich Own Uranium,” Johannesburg Business Daily, August 28, 2006.

8. Aziz Pahad, “A Balance of Rights and Obligations,” Umrabulo, No. 26 (August 2006).

9. “South African Perspectives on Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU),” Speech by Abdul Minty at the IAEA Board of Governors at the IAEA Symposium on HEU, Oslo, June 19-20, 2006.

10. Stuart Williams, “ Iran Seeks Relief From U.S. Threats at Cuba Summit,” Agence France-Presse, September 14, 2006.

11. 14th Summit Conference of Heads of State of Government of the NAM Final Document, September 16, 2006.

12. “Opening Remarks by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, at the 9th Joint Bilateral Commission Between South Africa and Iran, Pretoria,” South African Government Information, August 21, 2006.

13. Ibid.

14. Pahad, “A Balance of Rights and Obligations.”

15. “Iranian Foreign Minister Confers With NAM Member State Counterparts,” IRNA, May 30, 2006.

16. Ibid.

17. “ Iran’s Foreign Minister to Meet S-A Gov., Sasol,” Mail and Guardian, August 20, 2006.

18. See “ South Africa Proposes Nuclear Cooperation With Iran,” Iranian Students News Agency, November 7, 2005.

19. “Iranian, South African Presidents Hold Talks at UNGA, Stress Expansion of Ties,” IRNA, September 22, 2006.

20. Lourens, “ South Africa Flirts With Plan to Enrich Own Uranium.”

21. “UN: Libya Nuke Suppliers Spanned Globe,” Associated Press, May 29, 2004; Douglas Frant and William Rempel, “Complete Nuclear Bomb Plant Earmarked for Libya Found,” Los Angeles Times, November 29, 2004.

22. Ibid.

23. Mark Hibbs, “German Probe Zeroing In on Cascade Piping for Libya,” Nucleonics Week, September 2, 2004.

24. See “Multilateral Nuclear Approaches to the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Expert Group Report to the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency,” February 2005.