SA playing both sides of the nuclear coin

By Peter Fabricius Time of article published Mar 30, 2012

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Without heavily underlining the point, President Jacob Zuma evidently made a significant statement of SA nuclear independence at the nuclear security summit in Seoul this week.

Zuma first thanked the International Atomic Energy Agency and the US for their help in securing the 2010 World Cup stadiums from nuclear threat. The US evidently provided financial help in buying radiation sensors which could detect dirty bombs.

He also thanked the US for helping SA convert its Safari-1 nuclear research reactor so it could produce medical isotopes with low-enriched uranium (LEU) rather than highly enriched uranium (HEU).

Zuma noted that SA was now producing these isotopes “on a large scale”.

Last year, the US hailed its help to SA in converting Safari-1 to LEU as “another important step in the global efforts to minimise the use of HEU around the world, a vital part of implementing President Obama’s nuclear security agenda”. That is because HEU can be used to make atomic weapons, which LEU can’t.

After the Safari-1 conversion to LEU, SA returned 6.3kg of HEU spent fuel to the US. That was a small, but evidently important, part of the 3 091kg of HEU and plutonium that the US had by then helped other countries dispose of.

At the Seoul summit this week, Obama announced other countries had since added to the stockpile.

But after thanking the US for its help at Safari-1, Zuma went on, significantly, to say that SA’s technical achievement in now being able to generate medical isotopes through LEU was “ a welcome addition to the capability to produce such isotopes using highly enriched uranium”.

Note: a “welcome addition to”, not “a substitute for” making isotopes with HEU. Zuma went on to say that SA had agreed that HEU and separated plutonium required special precautions, but that SA “has taken such precautions”.

“Our international legally binding obligations on nuclear disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation allow for the enrichment of uranium for peaceful purposes only, irrespective of the enrichment level.”

The Presidency later underscored this last sentence, reinforcing the impression that this was his key message in Seoul. What he was saying, officials explained, is that there is nothing in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or any IAEA agreements which SA has signed that prevent it from producing HEU.

“In this connection, South Africa has adopted a policy on the beneficiation of our mineral resources, including uranium,” Zuma immediately continued. In other words SA has a policy of enriching uranium and does not want to limit it options by forswearing the production or use of HEU.

Officials further explained that Zuma was not only keeping SA’s options open for producing HEU in the future, but also defending its decision to hold on to its existing stock of HEU which it still has from the nuclear weapons programme of the old National Party government, which it abandoned and then publicly declared in 1991, just before ceding power to the ANC.

The US has been putting pressure on Pretoria to give up that HEU too. But Zuma’s message to Obama in Seoul this week seemed to be “Sorry, it’s not going to happen”; though he suggested it might happen if all countries, including the official nuclear weapons states like the US, submitted to the proposed, but long-delayed, fissile material treaty.

The big question about Zuma’s evident declaration of nuclear independence is whether it is worth it. SA officials insist that it does have an economic rationale because it is much cheaper to produce medical isotopes with HEU than LEU, and so it made an economic sacrifice by converting Safari-1 to LEU. And it might want to produce HEU isotopes in future.

But that would surely be a very expensive process.

This declaration of nuclear independence looked more political than economic.

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