Why SA’s nuclear stash worries US
The US is concerned about the security of a quarter-ton of uranium stored near Pretoria, which it fears could fall into the wrong hands, write Douglas Birch and R Jeffrey Smith.
Washington - Enough nuclear explosive to fuel half a dozen bombs, each powerful enough to obliterate central Washington or most of Lower Manhattan, is locked in a former silver vault at Pelindaba, the nuclear research centre near Pretoria.
Technicians extracted the highly enriched uranium from the apartheid regime’s nuclear weapons in 1990, then melted the fuel down and cast it into ingots.
Over the years, some of the cache has been used to make medical isotopes, but roughly 220kg remains, and South Africa is keeping a tight grip on it.
That gives this country – which has insisted that the US and other world powers destroy their nuclear arsenals – a theoretical ability to regain its former status as a nuclear-weapons state.
But what really worries the US is that the nuclear explosives could be stolen and used by militants to commit a catastrophic terrorist attack.
Senior current and former US officials say they have reason to be concerned.
On a cold night in November 2007, two teams of raiders breached the fences at Pelindaba, which is set in the rolling scrubland half an hour’s drive west of Pretoria.
One group penetrated deep into the site unchallenged and broke into the site’s central alarm station. They were stopped only when a substitute watch officer summoned help.
The episode remains a source of contention between Pretoria and Washington because no suspects were ever charged with the raid, and South African officials dismissed it as a minor, bungled burglary. US officials and experts – backed up by a confidential South African security report – say to the contrary that the assailants appeared to know what they were doing and what they wanted: the bomb-grade uranium. They also say the raid came perilously close to succeeding.
The episode still spooks Washington, which as a result has waged a discreet diplomatic campaign to persuade South Africa to get rid of its large and, by US reckoning, highly vulnerable stock of nuclear-weapons fuel.
But President Jacob Zuma, like his predecessors, has resisted the White House’s persistent entreaties and generous incentives to do so, for reasons that have baffled and enormously frustrated the Americans.
President Barack Obama, in a previously undisclosed private letter sent to Zuma in August 2011, went so far as to propose that South Africa transform its nuclear explosives into benign reactor fuel, with US help.
Zuma was allegedly unmoved, however, and in a letter of his own, is said to have insisted that South Africa needed its nuclear materials and was capable of keeping them secure.
He did not accept a related appeal from Obama two years later, current and former senior US officials said.
Over nine years ending in 1965, Washington helped South Africa build its first nuclear reactor under the Atoms for Peace programme and then trained scientists to run it with US-supplied, weapons-grade uranium fuel. Washington finally cut off the fuel supply in 1976, after becoming convinced the apartheid regime had used nuclear research to create a clandestine bomb programme, fuelled by its own highly enriched uranium.
By the end of the Cold War, apartheid leaders ordered the weapons destroyed and the production facilities dismantled, while holding on to the explosive fuel.
Raising the threat of nuclear terror, South African officials say, is an excuse to restrict the spread of peaceful and profitable nuclear technology to the developing world, and to South Africa in particular. But this demand for enrichment rights – which Tehran, too, wants enshrined in an agreement with six great powers – is hardly South Africa’s alone. Although the Obama administration has tried to discourage uranium enrichment everywhere, leaders in Brazil, Argentina, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Jordan and South Korea say they see nuclear power, along with the ability to enrich uranium, as their right.
Unlike Iran, however, South Africa already possesses highly enriched uranium – nearly a quarter-ton of it. That’s why current and former US officials say South Africa is now the world’s largest unco-operative holder of nuclear explosives, outside the nine existing nuclear powers.
Few outside the weapons states possess such a large stockpile of prime weapons material, and none has been as defiant of US pressure to give it up.
In response last week, the South African government reaffirmed its view that the November 2007 break-in was a run-of-the-mill burglary and asserted that the weapons uranium was safe.
“We are aware that there has been a concerted campaign to undermine us by turning the reported burglary into a major risk,” said Clayson Monyela, spokesman for the Department of International Relations and Co-operation.
He said the International Atomic Energy Agency had raised no concerns, and that “attempts by anyone to manufacture rumours … are rejected with the contempt they deserve”.
Highly enriched uranium is the terrorists’ nuclear explosive of choice. A bomb’s worth could fit in a five-pound sack and emit so little radiation that it could be carried around in a backpack with little hazard to the wearer.
Physicists say a sizeable nuclear blast could be readily achieved by slamming two shaped chunks of it together at high speed.
Just nine non-nuclear weapon states besides South Africa still have enough enriched uranium to build a nuclear weapon, although mostly not in a readily usable form.
For South Africa, though, maintaining a grip on its bomb fuel is tangled up with national pride, its suspicion of big power motivations and its anger over Washington’s past half-measures in opposing apartheid.
“It’s a technical issue with an emotional overhang,” said Donald Gips, the US ambassador to South Africa from 2009 to 2013.
Other South Africans have said that by refusing to let go of its uranium, the country retains the higher political and scientific stature of a country such as Japan, which is considered “nuclear weapons-capable” while possessing none.
Obama raised the nuclear issue again during a trip to Pretoria in June 2013. This time, he privately asked Zuma to relinquish the uranium trove in exchange for a free shipment of 350kg of fresh, non-weapons-usable reactor fuel, valued at $5 million (R60m).
Obama followed up with a three-page letter in December 2013, two days after he spoke to Zuma at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in Soweto. According to a copy of the letter, he urged Zuma to seal this new deal at a March 2014 nuclear summit in the Netherlands. Although technical experts held preliminary talks, Zuma never accepted the swop.
South Africa has used some of the former bomb fuel to make medical and industrial isotopes – generating more than R1 billion in income a year. But about six years ago, it started making the isotopes with low-enriched uranium that poses little proliferation risk – a development that removed its long-standing rationale for keeping the materials.
South Africa says it is retaining the weapons uranium partly because some day someone may find a new, as-yet-undiscovered, commercial application. If and when one was found, a senior South African diplomat said in an interview, “it’ll be like Opec to the power of 10” – states without the material would be at the mercy of a cartel of foreign suppliers.
Abdul Minty, who served for most of the past two decades as South Africa’s top nuclear policymaker and who is now South Africa's ambassador to UN agencies headquartered in Geneva, said rather it was the US that was recalcitrant.
Even as it campaigned to halt the spread of nuclear weapons, he said, it refused to part with its own.
Stocks of fissile materials held by countries outside the small club of nuclear-weapons states, he said, were just “not that important” a threat, compared with the thousands of nuclear weapons held by the bigger powers. “People who smoke can’t tell someone else not to smoke,” Minty said.
Waldo Stumpf, a long-time atomic energy official in South Africa who presided over the dismantling of the apartheid-era bomb programme, said in an interview that handing over the highly enriched uranium “was never part of the thinking here”.
“Not within Mr de Klerk’s government. Not afterwards, when the ANC took over,” he said.
“Why would we give away a commercially valuable material that has earned a lot of foreign exchange? Why would we do that?”
* This article comes from the Centre for Public Integrity, a non-partisan, non-profit investigative news organisation.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.Washington Post