Waldo Stumpf, Atomic Energy Corporation of South Africa Ltd,
P 0 Box 582, Pretoria, 0001
Presentation given at the conference "50 YEARS AFTER HIROSHIMA", organised by USPID (Unione Scienziati per il Disarmo) and held in Castiglioncello, Italy, 28 September to 2 October 1995.
With this admission, South Africa put to rest speculation over many years of the true status of its suspected nuclear deterrent programme. The public invitation to the IAEA for full access to details of the past programme and facilities that had already been converted to non-nuclear commercial activities before accession to the NPT, was also given in accordance with South Africa's stated policy of full transparency after accession to the NPT.
South Africa occupies a unique position in the history of the NPT in being the only country with a nuclear weapons capability that has willingly turned itself into a country without this capability and has then acceded to the NPT(2). Drawing up a balance sheet of this programme in South Africa's history, should give some insight into thepoiitical forces that may lead a country into a nuclear deterrent capability and also those forces that may reverse that decision(3). Furthermore, many lessons concerning non-proliferation and the future of the NPT may be gained from'a closer examination of South Africa's past nuclear deterrent programme(4).
After encouraging laboratory results were achieved in 1969 with an indigenous uranium enrichment process based on a stationary wall vortex tube, approval was given for the further development of the process on an industrial scale and the construction of a pilot plant to prove the process. The Prime Minister at the time, Mr B J Vorster, thus informed Parliament on 20 July 1970 of this development and he stressed the peaceful application of this technology and declared South Africa's willingness to accept international safeguards, subject to certain conditions. This work was undertaken within the newly created (1970) Uranium Enrichment Corporation on the Valindaba site adjacent to Pelindaba. (Later, in 1982, the Uranium Enrichment Corporation was again incorporated with the Atomic Energy Board, into a single State Corporation, the present Atomic Energy Corporation (AEC).)
Construction of the Pilot Enrichment Plant (the Y Plant), commenced in 1971 and the first stages at the lower end of the cascade were commissioned by the end of 1974 and full cascade operation of the entire plant commenced in March 1977.
Due to the long equilibrium time of the plant (the time necessary to establish the full enrichment gradient) the first and relatively small quantity of high enriched UF6 was withdrawn from the plant only in January 1978. During the whole of 1978 and most of 1979, further high enriched UF6 was withdrawn from the plant and converted to HEU in the metal form. This material was still of relatively low enrichment (about 80 % U-235).
In August 1979 the Y Plant operations came to an abrupt end due to a massive catalytic in-process gas reaction between the UF6 and the carrier gas, hydrogen, and the plant was out of operation until April 1980 when it resumed operation, although withdrawal of high enriched product commenced once again, only in July 1981. In the period of June to December 1986, the plant was also utilised to produce 3,25 % U-235 material for the first four locally produced Lead Test Assemblies for the 1920 MW twin Koeberg Nuclear Power Station, of PWR design. Thereafter, the Y Plant resumed production of high enriched UF6 until it ceased operation in February 1990. This plant is now being dismantled fully under the supervision of the IAEA. The high enrichment part of the cascade has already been fully decommissioned, the building cleared and construction of a prototype demonstration module of the AEC's MLIS (Molecular Laser Isotope Separation) project is being carried out in this building. This project is under full IAEA Safeguards and is designed for only commercial low enrichment of UF6 in a single step.
Apart from the one incident of a massive gas loss, the plant operated very smoothly during its life time. Apart from providing HEU for the nuclear deterrent programme, the plant also provided 45 % enriched material for fuel elements for the AEC's SAFARI research reactor after termination of suppiies from the US in 1976. The plant also served as a technology test bed for the later construction of a much larger (300 000 SWU/a) semi-commercial enrichment plant for the Koeberg power station's need of 3,25 % enriched material. The latter plant was constructed in the later 1970's and early 1980's and commissioning commenced in 1984 and full production in 1988. This plant has recently ceased production on 31 March 1995 due to its relatively high production costs in a heavily oversupplied world market.
A very modest investigation was also launched within South Africa, which has a significant mining industry, into the feasibility of employing nuclear explosives for future construction purposes. A very modest investigation, confined to literature studies, was started but when the future availability of enriched uranium appeared to become certain, the Minister of Mines approved a programme in 1971 on preliminary investigations into the feasibility of producing nuclear explosives for peaceful applications. In 1974, a report was prepared that concluded that this was feasible. The Head of Government then approved a programme for the development of a nuclear explosive capability for peaceful applications which also included the development of a testing site for an underground test.
Although the programme, at this point, was still aimed solely at the peaceful exploitation of this technology, it was nevertheless treated as a top secret project, mainly due to the expected sensitivity surrounding the enrichment project but also because the world was fast turning against the use of nuclear explosives for civil applications. The latter became very clear after the adverse world reaction to the detonation of a nuclear device by India in 1974.
During the 1970's and especially during the latter half of that decade, the international security situation around South Africa, deteriorated markedly. This was mainly due to its own racially based internal policies but was also exacerbated by Portugal's withdrawal from its African colonies of Mozambique and Angola and the uncertainties about the true intentions of the Warsaw Pact countries and especially the Soviet Union, in the light of their openly declared expansionist policies in Southern Africa. The strong build-up of Cuban surrogate forces in Angola from 1975 onwards and which eventually peaked at 50 000 foreign soldiers, reinforced a strong perception within the Government of international isolation should South African territory be under threat.
Increasing international restrictions on the supply of conventional arms against South Africa, primarily due to its internal policies, also made the argument that the country virtually had no alternative but to develop its own nuclear deterrent to counter an external threat, probably convincing to the Government of the time.
4.2 The Nuclear Isolation of South Africa
Coupled to the real political isolation of South Africa, increasing nuclear isolation of the country also occurred in this period. During the 1970's, some of the nuclear weapon states and in particular the USA, increasingly started to apply unilateral restrictions on nuclear trade or exchange of information and technology with South Africa.
In 1976, the US Government unilaterally refused further exports, under a long standing contract between the USA and South Africa, of fuel elements for the SAFARI research reactor which had been under safeguards of the IAEA since its commissioning in 1965. South Africa's pre-paid payment for the cancelled consignment was, furthermore, also retained by the Carter Administration and its return was approved only in 1981 by the Reagan Administration.
In 1978 the US Congress enacted the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act (NNPA) which precluded the transfer of nuclear technology to countries not party to the NPT. This act was applied retroactively on all previous agreements and contracts and directly led to the refusal of export permits to South Africa for the shipment to France of its own uranium already enriched by USDOE for the Koeberg Nuclear Power station. This contract was concluded between ESKOM (the South African national utility) and USDOE soon after the conclusion of a reactor supply contract between FRAMATOME of France and ESKOM in 1974. This contract, furthermore, prescribed the full application of safeguards by the IAEA to the power plant at all times.
An ironic twist concerning the ESKOM USDOE enrichment contract, strained relationships even further. In spite of the fact that the US Administration had refused ESKOM an export permit for the transfer of its own enriched uranium to France for fuel fabrication and thereby held ESKOM's enriched uranium virtually hostage, USDOE, also an institution of the US Government, held ESKOM fully liable for payment for enrichment work carried out. This "catch-22" situation was only partially resolved after President Reagan assumed office in 1981 and the US Government agreed that France could manufacture and deliver fuel for Koeberg should ESKOM succeed in providing enriched uranium to France from a source outside the USA. Eventually, only in 1984 was the impasse finally resolved when the US Administration allowed ESKOM to sell its unenriched UF6 feed material and enriched product material at USDOE to an NPT country, subject to US approval. A substantial financial loss was eventually suffered by ESKOM.
This pressure by the USA, was viewed very negatively by South Africa as both SAFARI and Koeberg were subject to type INFCIRC/66 safeguards by the IAEA. These actions strained US-South African relations in the nuclear field severely at that time.
Furthermore, on the international nuclear front, South Africa was also denied its designated seat on the IAEA Board of Governors in 1977 as the "most advanced nuclear country in Africa" and its seat was occupied by Egypt. In 1979 South Africa was, furthermore, also denied participation in the General Conference of the IAEA, held in India, by an adopted resolution which also urged South Africa to join the NPT and to subject its nuclear activities to international safeguards.
In contrast, no such action was taken against India itself, after its test of a nuclear explosive device in 1974 and today, India still remains outside the NPT whereas South Africa is a full and constructive member of the NPT.
These events convinced the South African Government at the time that these sanctions were clearly politically inspired and that accession to the NPT without fundamental political reform of its domestic policies towards full international acceptance, would be worthless. Accession to the NPT was, therefore, not seriously contemplated at the time.
One further international event of the 1970's in the nuclear area, should be noted. In August 1977 the preparations of the Kalahari site for an underground test, came to the notice of the superpowers through, supposedly, their surveillance satellites and intense diplomatic pressure was brought to bear on the South African Government. Upon direct instruction of the Head of Government, the site was abandoned in August 1977 and was not revisited until 1987 when the test shafts were inspected and a galvanized corrugated iron shed constructed over one of the two shafts.
4.3 The Development of a Nuclear Deterrent
Although the security situation around South Africa's borders and the international isolation in the political and nuclear arenas became increasingly more severe from the middle 1970's onwards, the nuclear explosives programme was officially still aimed at peaceful uses until about 1977 when the emphasis changed officially to a strategic deterrent capability. In April 1978, the Head of Government approved a deterrent strategy based on the following three phases:
Phase 1: Strategic uncertainty in which the nuclear deterrent capability will not be acknowledged or denied.
Phase 2: Should South African territory be threatened, for example, by the Warsaw Pact countries through the surrogate Cuban forces in Angola, covert acknowledgement to certain international powers, e.g. the USA, would be contemplated.
Phase 3: Should this partial disclosure of South Africa's capability not bring about international intervention to remove the threat, public acknowledgement or demonstration by an underground test of South Africa's capability, would be considered.
No offensive tactical application was ever foreseen or intended as it was fully recognised that such an act would bring about international retaliation on a massive scale. In practice, the strategy never advanced beyond Phase 1.
In 1979 it was decided that the main task of designing and building the gun type devices, would be assigned to ARMSCOR (the State owned Armaments Corporation) with the AEC providing the HEU and also providing theoretical and neutron physics support, such as criticality calculations and tests and health physics surveillance. For this purpose, a new ARMSCOR facility was constructed near Pretoria and commissioned in 1981 and all previously manufactured hardware was transferred to this facility from the AEC facilities. The first full-scale device, but without HEU, had been completed by the AEC in 1977 and was intended for a fully instrumented test with depleted uranium at the Kalahari site. After the abandonment of this site, this cold test of a relatively crude first-off device, was never carried out.
A second, smaller device was then built in 1978 for rapid deployment and an instrumented test at the Kalahari site in support the three-phase deterrent strategy, should it become necessary. This device was the first to be provided, in November 1979, with the first HEU from the Y plant, with relatively low enrichment of about 80 % U-235.
The above history should also put to rest the speculation of whether South Africa was responsible for the "double flash" over the South Atlantic ocean on 22 September 1979.
No fall-out was measured at any of the South African measuring stations after this incident. (During atmospheric testing in the 1960's in the Northern Hemisphere, fall-out could be measured in South Africa within 2 weeks after the test.) To have given South Africa the credit for designing a "clean" device without any prior testing, with a gun type device without a neutron initiator and fitted with HEU of relatively low enrichment, goes beyond the bounds of reasonableness. Furthermore, South Africa was a signatory of the 1963 Moscow treaty banning atmospheric testing and such a test, had it been a nuclear test, would have been in breach of this treaty. South Africa was certainly not responsible and was also not involved with anybody else, in this incident.
The first device built at the new ARMSCOR facility, was completed in December 1982 and thereafter the further devices followed at an orderly pace of less than one per year, matching the production schedule of the enrichment plant.
Although the political situation surrounding South Africa, had not improved noticeably by 1985, the entire programme was reviewed once more in September of that year and it was clearly reconfirmed by the Head of Government that the extent of the programme would be limited to 7 fission gun-type devices. (In the end, only 6 were ever completed.) Furthermore, only very limited work, mainly of a theoretical nature, was allowed to continue on more advanced concepts, such as implosion devices, Li-6 production etc. Finally, it was reconfirmed, once again, that the devices would not be employed for offensive tactical purposes and that the 3 phase deterrent strategy would be maintained. It was precisely for the latter reason that the Kalahari test site was revisited in 1987 to inspect the test shafts as an underground test was still a fundamental part of Phase 3 of the strategy.
This confirmation of the limits to the programme in September 1985, had a marked retarding effect on the programme and was, in retrospect, possibly the first sign of an eventual turnaround of the nuclear deterrent capability. It also put an end to some earlier studies for the possible production of plutonium and tritium in a planned PWR fuel test reactor for the development of fuel for Koeberg. Although replanning of this reactor project was subsequently undertaken in an attempt to redefine it as a purely commercial PWR demonstration reactor, economic realities put an end to even this concept by 1989 and the small group involved with this project was disbanded soon after.
Although it was fully recognised in the 1980's that accession of South Africa to the NPT without substantial political reform of domestic policies, would not result in any meaningful benefits to South Africa in the nuclear area, sporadic discussions with the USA and later also with the UK and the Soviet Union as the other two depository states, on South Africa's accession to the NPT, took place throughout this period.
Towards the end of the 1980's some significant events occurred that started to ease the security situation around South Africa.
With the removal of the external threat, it became obvious that South Africa's nuclear deterrent capability was superfluous and could, in fact, become a liability. Furthermore, as the progress of domestic political reform became better understood abroad, accession to the NPT assumed distinct advantages for South Africa internationally and especially within the African continent.
5.2 The Decision to Dismantle the Capability
Shortly after his assumption of office in September 1989, the former State President, therefore, instructed that an investigation be carried out to dismantle the nuclear deterrent completely with the aim of acceding to the NPT as a state without a nuclear weapons capability. This first report was submitted to him in November 1989 and was approved in principle. In the light of internal and external political factors, it was also decided that an announcement of South Africa's past nuclear deterrent capability, would not take place before accession to the NPT and that the dismantling project would, therefore, for the time being, also be classified as top secret.
A steering committee of senior officials of the AEC, ARMSCOR and the SA Defence Force and under the chairmanship of the author, was appointed by the State President, with the following brief:
Although the Y Plant was actually closed down on 1 February 1990, actual written confirmation of these instructions was received from the former State President on 26 February 1990 and this date should, therefore, stand as the official date of implementation of termination of South Africa's nuclear deterrent capability.
5.3 The Dismantling Process and Accession to the NPT
Dismantling of the high enrichment end of the cascade of the Y Plant started without delay. Extensive operational procedures for the safety and security requirements of the dismantling process of the nuclear devices, were drawn up before actual dismantling of the first device could start in July 1990. The former State President also appointed an independent auditor, an eminent retired academic, to independently audit the entire process.
The entire dismantling process proceeded without incident and was essentially complete towards the end of June 1991 with the last HEU returned to the AEC during the night of 5 to 6 September 1991. Accession to the NPT occurred on 10 July 1991 and, within 7 weeks, a Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement was signed with the IAEA on 16 September 1991 and came into effect immediately. On 30 October 1991 South Africa submitted its initial inventory of nuclear materials and facilities to the IAEA and the first verification team from the Agency arrived on site in November 1991.
It is also noteworthy that at the General Conference of the IAEA in September 1991, the Director-General of the IAEA was instructed to "... report back on the completeness of South Africa's declaration of nuclear material and facilities."
The question has often been asked whether public acknowledgement of the past nuclear deterrent capability should not have been made at the time of accession to the NPT. Although this is a valid question, it should be understood that this is not required by the NPT as this treaty only looks forward from the date of accession. Secondly, the "completeness" instruction to the IAEA, covered only nuclear materials and facilities and did not include projects or programmes of the past which had been fully terminated before accession to the NPT. South Africa was, therefore, under no obligation to reveal the existence of the already dismantled nuclear deterrent capability(4). Nevertheless, public acknowledgement at the time of accession to the NPT was very carefully considered by South Africa but was rejected, mainly for two reasons:
Experience in both Iraq and North Korea have shown, however, that this procedure very easily becomes confrontational and that an open and transparent policy by the party acceding to the NPT should be far more conducive to the aims and the spirit of the NPT. This was accepted by South Africa even before accession to the NPT and did result in a stated policy of full transparency with the IAEA and a standing invitation to the IAEA of visits "anywhere, any time, any place - within reason".
In spite of this open policy, verification of the completeness of South Africa's inventory of nuclear material and facilities by the IAEA, was no easy task as the exercise had to go back 20 years or even more, in history. Especially the verification of the HEU output of the pilot enrichment plant against the natural uranium inputs, depleted uranium outputs and in-process gas losses posed a particularly difficult problem as far more U-235 is present in the more than 270 depleted UF6 cylinders than in the HEU. Because of the low value normally placed on depleted UF6, the tails cylinders had not been homogenised and had also not been analysed to a proper degree of accuracy required for later safeguards verification. Extensive correlation between the operating records of the plant and the declared outputs took place by the IAEA over a period of 21 months and finally culminated in a positive verdict by the General Conference of the IAEA in September 1993. Likewise, was a positive verdict also given as to the completeness of the dismantling and destruction of the hardware of the nuclear devices and the reassignment of dual-use equipment and facilities to non-nuclear or peaceful nuclear work as well as the destruction, under IAEA supervision, of the two underground test shafts.
This, therefore, practically brought to an end the special investigations by the IAEA after accession of South Africa to the NPT and both the IAEA and South Africa have, since then, experienced a less arduous normal process of safeguards application on an on-going basis.
The South African Government has on numerous occasions committed itself to a transparent policy on the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. This commitment stems from its obligation to promote democracy, human rights, sustainable development, social justice and environmental protection. It determined the Cabinet's decision on 31 August 1994 to implement a policy on non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and has been publicly expressed by senior Government representatives in international fora, e.g. by President Mandela during the 1994 OAU Heads of State Summit and at the opening of the 49th Session of the UN General Assembly, by Foreign Minister Nzo during the 1994 OAU Annual Ministers Meeting and more recently, at the 1995 Review and Extension Conference of the Treaty on Nuclear Non-Proliferation (NPT).
One of the corner stones of total transformation, entails South Africa's firm resolve to make a meaningful contribution in Africa, together with the easing of tensions in the world at large, towards a more peaceful place for the inhabitants of this globe. The dismantling of South Africa's nuclear deterrent and accession to the NPT, should be seen in the light of this fundamental reappraisal of South Africa's constructive role in promoting international non-proliferation as was much in evidence at the recent NPT-Review Conference in New York where South Africa could play a meaningful role as facilitator or "bridge-builder".
South Africa, with a well developed industrial strength and a significant nuclear know-how, also has a vital role to play in the world in furthering the objectives of the Zangger Committee and the Nuclear Suppliers Group. South Africa is a member of both bodies in which the very difficult subject of export controls of proliferating technology, is dealt with. On 16 August 1993, the Act on the Control of Non-proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction, was promulgated after having been passed earlier by the South African Parliament. This Act makes it a criminal offence for any South African citizen to develop or assist in the development, of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons as well as missile delivery systems for such weapons. This act, therefore, also effectively addresses national control overtheuse of or import or export of dual-use equipment, relevant materials or purpose-built equipment.
A revised Nuclear Energy Act was passed by Parliament in 1993 to embody obligations brought about by South Africa's accession to the NPT and the signature of a Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA. In particular, this Act prohibits the export of nuclear materials or related equipment or facilities to:
A South African safeguards specialist is also represented, since early 1992, on the Standing Advisory Group on Safeguards Implementation (SAGSI), which advises the Director-General of the IAEA on more effective safeguards procedures to meet the challenges of the future.
Finally, the long held ideal of declaring the continent of Africa a nuclear weapons free zone, is now a reality and negotiations on finalising the draft text of this treaty, were concluded at Pelindaba, the AEC's head quarters near Pretoria, on 2 June 1995. After submission and acceptance of this draft text by the OAU, submission to the UN would open the path for implementation of the treaty. South Africa's nuclear deterrent turnaround, its open admission of all details of its past programme as well as its pro-active involvement in Africa on the peaceful application of nuclear technology, has led to many calls from the UN/OAU specialists who drafted the treaty, to have the future treaty called "The Pelindaba Treaty". This was given added support by the indigenous meaning of the word Pelindaba, which means "We have concluded discussions".
i) Although the technology of uranium enrichment and unsophisticated nuclear weapons is of a very high level, it is still within the bounds of a reasonably advanced industrialised country and is, therefore, not in itself an insurmountable barrier. This is particularly so where the technical goals are relatively modest as with South Africa's gun-type devices without neutron initiators.
ii) Although the vast Iraqi nuclear weapons programme and the huge financial and human resources it required, may leave the impression of a self-limiting constraint, the South African experience proved otherwise. At a total cost of less than R680 million (about US$200 million at today's exchange rate) over its 10 year life time(2), this appears to be a fraction of the reported costs of the Iraqi programme.
iii) Although international political isolation may be an instrument to contain individual cases of nuclear proliferation, a point in such an isolation campaign may be reached where it actually becomes counter-productive and really pushes the would-be proliferator towards full proliferation. In the case of South Africa, this point was probably reached at the cut-off by the US of contractual supplies of fuel to both the SAFARI and Koeberg reactors together with the punitive financial measures applied by the US Administration at the time. The little leverage the US had over the South African nuclear programme, was lost(2).
iv) Where proliferation has occurred due to a real or perceived political threat, a reversal towards de-proliferation may occur upon removal or neutralisation of the threat, whether it was real or perceived(3). This means that international pressure by a superpower from outside the region on a would-be proliferator, can be helpful but only up to a point. In the final instance, regional tensions must be resolved before the cause of non-proliferation can be fully realised. This was the case with South Africa and is probably the case in the Middle East, South Asia and the Korean peninsula.
v) The reversal from a position of nuclear proliferation to a truly and permanent status of non-proliferation within the NPT, will probably not be achieved by technical or military/strategic decisions but requires a fundamental political decision by the political leader(s) of the country.
vi) The "roll-back" option for a so-called threshold non-nuclear weapon state, is not an easy path to follow as the NPT and its associated instruments were not designed to deal with such an eventuality(4). The international community should, therefore, take care in its application of pressure on the process of normalisation where a threshold state already has taken the fundamental decision to embark on this road. South Africa experienced a lot of unnecessary international pressure during the "completeness investigation" by the IAEA which could have, under different circumstances, even derailed the process.
vii) For a "threshold state" that has taken the political decision to "roll-back" and then to achieve international credibility and acceptance within the NPT, is also not an easy process. This process can be eased considerably, however, by a sustained policy of full openness and transparency with the IAEA(). This is, once more, a political decision that must be taken.
viii) Valuable lessons were learnt between South Africa and the IAEA in the so-called "completeness investigation" that may be of great help in forthcoming treaties such as the "Special Nuclear Weapons Materials Cut-off Convention"(5), the roll-back of further "threshold states" and eventually, even the complete nuclear disarmament of the five nuclear weapons states.
South Africa is looking forward to a future of peaceful co-existence and prosperity in a part of the world that is possibly now free from the internal threat of nuclear weapons and soon, after the treaty on an African Nuclear Weapons Free Zone has become effective, also free from the existence of nuclear weapons from the nuclear weapons states, on its soil.
2 Stumpf, W E: "South Africa's Nuclear Weapons Programme", published in the proceedings of a conference Weapons of Mass Destruction: Costs versus Benefits, New Delhi, 8 and 9 November 1993 and published by Manohar Publishers and Distributors, New Delhi, India. ISBN 81-7304-099-0.
3 Stumpf, W E: "Political, strategic and technical considerations and incentives governing pathways to proliferation: The South African experience". Contribution presented to the Conference on The Dynamics of Proliferation: Developing Weapons of Mass Destruction Capabilities, organised by the Matthew B Ridgeway Center for International Security Studies of the University of Pittsburgh and held in Pittsburg on 16 and 17 March 1994.
4 Stumpf, W E: "The accession of a "threshold state" to the NPT: The South African experience". Presentation given at the Conference on Nuclear Non-Proliferation: The Challenges of a New Era, organised by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 17 to 18 November 1993 in Washington DC.
5 Stumpf, W E: "Effects of a Special Nuclear Weapon Materials Cut-off Convention" published in the Director's Series on Proliferation, dated 17 October 1994 and printed in UCRL-LR-114070-6 by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, California, US.