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Nuclear Weapons Program

South Africa's quest for a nuclear deterrent began with research into peaceful nuclear explosives (PNEs) in 1969. Although Pretoria initially would not confirm it was developing, or possessed, nuclear weapons, it had large natural deposits of uranium, as well as uranium enrichment facilities and the necessary technological infrastructure. In addition, until the late 1980s South Africa had the deeply entrenched fear of its adversaries and insecurity regarding its borders that were important incentives in other nations' nuclear programs.

South Africa was isolated from interactions and activities with most of the developed countries for many years because of its nuclear weapons development program and the practice of apartheid. This isolation was especially true in the areas of nuclear energy and its applications. South Africa developed a complete nuclear fuel cycle, including advanced waste management techniques. South Africa operates two nuclear power reactors (built by the French, but based on a Westinghouse design) at Koeberg near Cape Town.

South Africa also acquired the technology to build nuclear weapons. South Africa developed at least six nuclear warheads, which it later acknowledged, along with a variety of missiles and other conventional weapons. These projects were undertaken with some cooperation from Israel -- another technologically advanced, militarily powerful, nuclear-capable nation surrounded by hostile neighbors.

Beginning in 1975, two test shafts over 250 meters deep for conducting nuclear tests were drilled at the Vastrap military base in the Kalahari Desert. A Soviet surveillance satellite detected these test preparationss in August 1977, and the Soviets notified the United States of their discovery. South Africa was forced to cancel the tests in the face of diplomatic pressure from America, the Soviet Union, and France.

A flash over the Indian Ocean detected by an American satellite in September 1979 was suspected of being a nuclear test, possibly conducted by either Israel or South Africa, alone or in combination. The Carter administration assembled a panel of scientists from academia to review the data. After their review, the panel concluded that, lacking independent collaborative data to support a nuclear origin of the signals, the original interpretation of the satellite data could not be justified. The panel said the flash could have been caused by a combination of natural events, specifically a micrometeorite impact on the detector sunshade, followed by small particles ejected as a result of the impact.

The international fear of nuclear proliferation made South Africa the focus of intense concern during the 1980s. Cape Town academic Renfrew Christie was jailed for passing details of South Africa's nuclear power program to the African National Congress (ANC) in 1980.

In 1987, President Botha announced that South Africa was considering signing the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and would begin discussions with other countries toward that end. In September 1990, Pretoria agreed to sign the NPT, but only "in the context of an equal commitment by other states in the Southern African region." After intensive diplomatic efforts, especially by the United States and the Soviet Union, Tanzania and Zambia agreed to sign the treaty. South Africa signed the NPT on July 10, 1991. In addition, the government banned any further development, manufacture, marketing, import, or export of nuclear weapons or explosives, as required by the NPT.

Following South Africa's accession to the NPT, a Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement was signed with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on September 16, 1991. Safeguards Agreements assist Member States to show that they are complying with international obligations in preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Implementation under South Africa's NPT-related Safeguards Agreement with the Agency began in November 1991. The extensive nature of South Africa's nuclear fuel cycle required not only considerable inspection resources, but also extensive co-operation on the part of the State authorities in providing access to defunct facilities and to historical accounting and operating records.

In March 1993, President de Klerk declared that South Africa had previously developed a limited nuclear capability, which had been dismantled and destroyed before South Africa acceded to the NPT. The IAEA sent experts to visit the facilities involved in the abandoned program and to review historical data. It found no indication casting doubt on South Africa's statement that all the highly enriched uranium for weapons had been reported in its initial declaration. The IAEA also found no indication to suggest that there remain any sensitive components of the nuclear weapons program which have not been either rendered useless or converted to commercial non-nuclear applications or peaceful nuclear usage. The IAEA declared it had completed its inspection in late 1994 and that South Africa's nuclear weapons facilities had been dismantled. In addition to periodic on-site technical inspections conducted by the Agency's safeguards inspectors, verification is carried out to ensure that nuclear materials and installations are used only for peaceful purposes and applications.

South Africa's nuclear parastatal, the Atomic Energy Corporation (AEC), which in 1990 changed its emphasis from nuclear deterrence to industrial and economic needs, assists in the marketing of more than 150 products and services in the mid-1990s. These products have applications in mining and aerospace development, food production, transportation, and environmental preservation. Some examples are air filters for motor vehicles, a measuring device for minerals industry flotation processes, radio-isotopes for medical and industrial use, and a biogas unit to recover methane from refuse for use as vehicle fuel. These sales generated more than US $28 million between March 1993 and March 1994, according to official reports.

A primary goal of South Africa's policy is to reinforce and promote the country's image as a responsible producer, possessor, and trader of advanced technologies in this field. In this connection, South Africa has obtained membership from two important non-proliferation regimes. The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) was established in 1975 to minimize the risk of diversion of nuclear technology and to regulate nuclear technology transfers, control the export of nuclear material, equipment and technology, and monitor the transfer of dual-use materials. South Africa became a member of the NSG on April 5, 1995. The Zangger Committee defines and monitors trade in goods and equipment especially designed for nuclear uses. South Africa became a member of the Committee on October 21, 1993.

Although these developments represented a dramatic breakthrough in the international campaign to curb the spread of nuclear weapons, and a marked change in South Africa's own position, they did not permanently foreclose Pretoria's nuclear options. Pretoria could withdraw from its treaty obligations--NPT signatories may do so on ninety days' notice simply by citing "supreme interests." Moreover, South Africa could resume the production of weapons-grade uranium, although this product would be under IAEA safeguards and could not be used for nuclear explosives as long as South Africa chose to abide by the NPT.

South Africa's Council for Nuclear Safety, a statutory body set up to safeguard citizens and property against nuclear hazards, announced on September 27, 1994, an agreement between South Africa and the United States to exchange information about nuclear safety. This agreement, the first of its kind for South Africa--the twenty-ninth for the United States--enables signatory governments to remain abreast of the latest research information in the field of nuclear safety.

On April 11, 1996, South Africa joined many other African nations in signing the Treaty of Pelindaba, which called for the establishment of a nuclear-weapons free zone on the African continent. South Africa ratified the treaty on March 27, 1998. The Treaty of Pelindaba went into force in July 2009. South Africa also became a signatory to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) on September 24, 1996. South Africa was one of 44 countries listed in the text of the CTBT as a necessary signatory for the CTBT to go into force. The CTBT was ratified by the South African government on March 30, 1999.

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Updated Thursday, May 31, 2012 10:06:35 AM

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