South Africa's Nuclear Future

Read the full text of my paper, “Progress or Proliferation? South Africa’s Nuclear Future”, which was published in a volume as part of the Nuclear Scholars Initiative,Washington DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2008.

Excerpt from the Introduction: Progress or Proliferation?

The present and future of South Africa’s nuclear capabilities are inextricably bound up with the social and political history of apartheid. However, while South Africa is known as the only country in the world to have voluntarily given up a well-developed nuclear program, the history of uranium mining and the genesis of the nuclear program go back to the very beginning of the Cold War. In 1944, Winston Churchill asked South African Prime Minister Jan Smuts to survey South Africa's uranium deposits. The study, which included findings from geological papers from the 1920s, revealed the existence of large deposits of low-grade ore on the Witwatersrand, home of the rapidly growing South African gold mining industry. The Combined Development Agency (CDA) was established by the United States and the United Kingdom that same year to procure uranium for the US and UK nuclear weapons programs. This was the beginning of a bumpy relationship between South Africa and the West on nuclear issues. Viewed in the context of the current debate over nuclear fuel supply and domestic enrichment, South Africa’s dramatic turns as a pariah state, NPT signatory, and Non-Aligned Movement leader highlight the difficulties of using political criteria to designate privilege in the nuclear arena.

In 1951, the CDA established the South African firm Calcined Products (Pty) Limited (Calprods) to produce uranium as a by-product of the country's gold mining operations. The CDA financed Calprods and managed the firm in cooperation with South Africa's Chamber of Mines. The uranium produced was owned by the South African Atomic Energy Board (established in 1948 as the successor to a “Uranium Committee”), which approved the sales to the United States and the United Kingdom. In July 1957 under the "Atoms for Peace" program, South Africa and the United States signed a bilateral 50-year agreement for nuclear collaboration. Under the agreement, South Africa acquired the Safari-1 reactor and an assured supply of highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel for the reactor. South African scientists also studied physics in the United States, later becoming important players in the nuclear program that began in earnest in the 1970s. By June of 1985, the US House of Representatives had adopted an amendment to the Anti-Apartheid Bill that banned nuclear cooperation of any kind with South Africa.

After fifty years encompassing the rise and fall of apartheid, official United States sanctions against South Africa , and the changing landscape of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), there is growing domestic and international concern that the country has come full circle in its stated desire to restart a domestic uranium enrichment program. Although South Africa has been very careful to specify that any such program would take place commercially and respecting all international obligations, the suggestion of uranium enrichment in Africa is sensitive in the context of the current debate over Iran’s domestic centrifuge enrichment and a climate of conflict between nuclear “haves” and “have-nots” under the NPT.

South Africa values its principled voice in the international arena, but also its leadership position in the Non-Aligned Movement and as a strong advocate for disarmament and NPT Article IV “inalienable rights” to the peaceful uses of nuclear technology. These two positions have presented conflicting challenges during the United Nations Security Council’s debate over Iran’s nuclear program and the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group’s (NSG) consideration of the US-India nuclear deal. South Africa’s credibility in the non-proliferation regime is important because of its potential to influence the direction of the global non-proliferation for developing countries: either positively, by promoting a multilateral and responsible approach to nuclear technology and material, or negatively, if it chooses a defensive and nationalistic path towards domestic enrichment that threatens efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation.

This paper argues that attempting to enrich uranium through the development of domestic centrifuge technology would be neither cost effective nor well received in the international arena. South Africa should choose alternatives that promote multilateralism and transparency, such as collaborating with an established enrichment program or investing jointly in a potentially much more proliferation-resistant enrichment technology such as Argentina’s SIGMA. Additionally, South Africa should take a farsighted view towards supporting international institutions that would curb the proliferation of costly, inefficient, and risky domestic enrichment start-up programs. As the only economic and political powerhouse in Africa with deep nuclear experience, South Africa should be especially mindful of the costs involved with domestic centrifuge programs when the majority of South Africans do not have affordable access to electricity. Popular backlash against the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor has recently gained steam, with a South African television documentary presenting the issue as one of wasteful government spending. There are more efficient and equally secure ways to provide power to the continent while promoting a strong non-proliferation regime, including regionally through a revival of the 1996 Pelindaba Treaty for an African Nuclear-Weapons Free Zone.

Read the full paper.