Nuclear Last updated: February, 2013
South Africa was the first and only country to build nuclear weapons and then voluntarily dismantle them. In the 1980s, South Africa constructed six gun-type nuclear weapons and had started building a seventh. Less than a decade after assembling its first nuclear weapon, South Africa abandoned its nuclear weapons program, joined the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) as a non-nuclear weapon state, and allowed international inspections of its former nuclear weapons program. In 1993, South African President F. W. de Klerk announced publicly that South African had pursued a nuclear weapons program from 1974 through 1990 as a deterrent to counter a perceived Soviet threat in the region. Since abandoning its nuclear weapons program, South Africa has emerged as a champion of both global nuclear nonproliferation and equal access to peaceful nuclear energy. However, South Africa's remaining dual-use nuclear capabilities have made it both a possible exporter of nuclear technology and know-how, and a target for state and non-state actors seeking nuclear materials.
In 1948, South Africa established the Atomic Energy Board, the forerunner to the Atomic Energy Corporation, to oversee the development of the nation's uranium mining and trade industry. Under the umbrella of the "Atoms for Peace" program, South Africa signed a 50-year nuclear collaboration agreement with the United States in 1957 that resulted in South Africa's acquisition of a nuclear reactor and an accompanying supply of highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel. In 1965, the U.S. firm Allis Chalmers Corporation delivered the 20MW SAFARI-1 (South African Fundamental Atomic Research Installation) nuclear reactor and 90% HEU fuel to South Africa. Located in Pelindaba, near Pretoria, SAFARI-1 was commissioned that same year.
By 1967, South Africa had constructed its own reactor as part of a plan to produce plutonium, the SAFARI-2 (also known as Pelinduna or Pelindaba-Zero) also located at Pelindaba. This reactor went critical using 606kg of 2% enriched uranium and 5.4 metric tons of heavy water, both supplied by the United States. SAFARI-2 was part of a project to develop a reactor moderated by heavy water, fueled by natural uranium, and cooled by sodium. However, only a few years later in 1969, South Africa abandoned the critical assembly at Pelindaba and the heavy water reactor project because it was draining resources from the uranium enrichment program initiated in 1967. 
South Africa had sufficient experience with nuclear technology to capitalize on the Ploughshares Peaceful Nuclear Explosion (PNE) program when the U.S. government, and particularly Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, began promoting it. South African Minister of Mines Carl de Wet approved a research program on PNEs in 1971, with the publicly stated objective of using PNEs in the mining industry.  The date when the PNE program transformed into a weapons program is a matter of some dispute. A 1983 U.S. intelligence report stated that South Africa formally began its nuclear weapons program in 1973, with scientists instructed to develop gun-type, implosion, and thermonuclear weapon designs. The report also concluded that South Africa had conducted research projects on a gun-type device using two modified naval guns, and on the firing system of an implosion device at the Somerset West explosives installation near Cape Town.
Other sources provide different initiation dates for the nuclear weapons program. According to F.W. de Klerk, president of South Africa from 1989 to 1994, the government made the decision to "develop a limited nuclear deterrent capability" as early as 1974. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards officials charged with verifying South Africa's past nuclear activities likewise corroborated the 1974 date, citing authorization of the program change by then Prime Minister John Vorster. Dr. Waldo Stumpf, former head of the state-controlled Atomic Energy Corporation, stated that the objective of South Africa's PNE program did not officially change from peaceful to military purposes until 1977. Alternatively, officials from Armaments Corporation (Armscor), South Africa's state-owned arms manufacturer, maintained that in October 1978, Prime Minister P.W. Botha decided to shift the emphasis of the program to military purposes just one month after taking office. The exact date of the program's transition aside, Pretoria had begun amassing HEU for weaponization purposes.
South Africa started a uranium enrichment plant at Valindaba, known as the "Y-plant," in 1974, though Stumpf put the operational date for the full cascade at March 1977. In 1976, the Soviet Union apparently became sufficiently alarmed at the progress of the South African nuclear program to discuss it with the United States. Deiter Gerhardt, a German national living in South Africa who spied for the Soviet Union, recalled that Soviet officials asked for U.S. cooperation in halting the program. The Soviets allegedly considered a preemptive strike on the Y-plant, an option that U.S. officials reportedly rejected. 
In 1977, the Atomic Energy Board completed manufacture of South Africa's first full-scale nuclear explosive device based on a gun-type design. Because the Y-plant had not yet produced sufficient HEU, this maiden device was loaded with a depleted uranium core and slated for a "cold" test in August 1977. A device with an HEU core was to be tested in 1978. As early as 1975, South Africa began preparing two test shafts at the Valstrap military base in the Kalahari Desert. Discovery of the Kalahari test site in August 1977 by Soviet surveillance satellites preempted these tests. After the Soviet Union informed the United States of the situation, South Africa bowed to international pressure, covering the test shafts with concrete slabs and abandoning the site.
On 22 September 1979, a U.S. Vela surveillance satellite detected a distinct light event off of Africa's southern coast. U.S. officials believe that a nuclear test with a yield of 2 to 4 kilotons created this fleeting, intense, double flash of light. South Africa emerged as the prime suspect, but the Pretorian government denied conducting a nuclear test. Stumpf later asserted that South Africa could not have been responsible for the double-flash event since it did not possess a complete nuclear device with HEU until November 1979. Other experts speculated that Israel had tested a nuclear device, either alone or with South Africa. 
Sometime in the late-1970s, South Africa tested a gun-type device at Building 5000 at the Pelindaba facility. South African nuclear experts considered the test a successful demonstration that the device would operate as projected because the HEU briefly went critical. Afterward, South Africa did not load any nuclear devices with HEU.
Drawing on U.S. nuclear safeguards practices, Armscor stored the nuclear and delivery components of South Africa's nuclear weapons separately. Safeguards protocol allowed the mating of the two components only after four approvals, with one of the authorization codes in the hands of the president. Also, unless taken to a certain altitude onboard a delivery aircraft, South Africa's nuclear devices would not arm. To deliver the nuclear bombs, South Africa planned to use British Buccaneer bombers, low-level strike aircraft with a general deployment range of approximately 2,000 miles. The range limitations of the Buccaneers spurred South Africa to develop ballistic missiles.
Depending on the source consulted, the date when South Africa produced its first complete nuclear explosive device is variously given as April or December 1982. The South African nuclear arsenal subsequently increased at the rate of one device approximately every 18 months. By 1989, South Africa possessed six warheads, each containing 55kg. of HEU.
After reviewing the nuclear weapons program in September 1985, President Botha decided to limit the program to seven fission devices. The government then halted all work related to the development of plutonium devices, ceased efforts to produce plutonium and tritium for nuclear weapons, and began to curtail HEU production.
Several factors explain Pretoria's successful acquisition of nuclear arms. First, South Africa quickly mastered the uranium production and enrichment process, developing a complete nuclear fuel cycle with advanced waste management techniques. Second, South Africa's defense industry was sufficiently advanced to be able to manufacture the necessary delivery components. Third, the nuclear program benefitted from knowledgeable personnel and a well-established foreign procurement network. Finally, South Africa was not overly ambitious, opting for simple, low-cost weapons designs.
Motivations and Strategy
An October 1977 U.S. Special National Intelligence Estimate attributed South Africa's decision to pursue nuclear weapons to the country's "growing feeling of isolation and helplessness, perceptions of major military threat, and desires for regional prestige" but did not conclude that any country neighboring South Africa posed a serious military threat to Pretoria during the 1970s. With South Africa's acknowledgment of the program came a more nuanced understanding of its motivations to obtain nuclear weapons and its nuclear doctrine.
By the late 1970s, South Africa's security environment had deteriorated considerably. The introduction of Cuban forces into Angola and the imposition of a United Nations military embargo intensified South African security concerns. South Africa's leaders were driven to develop weapons of mass destruction by border insecurity, strong distrust of neighboring countries, doubts about the true intentions of Western powers, and the country's increasing isolation from the international community because of apartheid and nuclear weapons aspirations. 
Fearing a direct invasion, or an invasion of South African-controlled Namibia by Soviet-backed forces, Pretoria developed a multi-stage nuclear deterrence strategy. The first stage called for South Africa to keep its nuclear capabilities secret or ambiguous in the absence of hostilities. If the invasion threat elevated, Pretoria would initiate a second stage, first confidently indicating its nuclear deterrent capability to one or more of the major powers—such as the United States—in an effort to persuade them to intervene. If this proved unsuccessful, South Africa would publicly declare its nuclear capability. The third stage of the strategy also included, if necessary, a nuclear detonation in an underground or open ocean test to demonstrate the capability. As a last resort, South Africa would threaten the battlefield use of nuclear weapons.
A cease-fire between South Africa, Cuba, and Angola in August 1988, and the withdrawal of South African troops from Angola, led to a tripartite agreement between these nations, the withdrawal of 50,000 Cuban troops from Angola, and the independence of Namibia. The improved security of South Africa's borders proved pivotal to South Africa's decision to dismantle the nuclear weapons program.
As these developments were unfolding, South African officials publicly alluded to the country's nuclear weapons capability. In August 1988, Roelof Frederik "Pik" Botha, the South African foreign minister, announced that his nation had "the capability to make one [a nuclear weapon]" should it want to do so. When reporters asked if South Africa already possessed such a device, Botha refused to elaborate on his statement.
A month later, in September 1988, the South African government sent a letter to IAEA Director General Hans Blix expressing a willingness to accede to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) if certain conditions were met, primarily that South Africa be allowed to market its uranium subject to IAEA safeguards. Less than two years later, the de Klerk government terminated the nuclear weapons program. All nuclear devices were dismantled and destroyed. The nuclear materials in Armscor's possession were returned to the Atomic Energy Corporation, where they were stored according to internationally accepted procedures. Armscor's facilities were decontaminated and dedicated to non-nuclear commercial purposes. According to Stumpf, by June 1991, South Africa's nuclear weapons program was essentially dismantled.
On 10 July 1991, South Africa joined the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state. The IAEA subsequently began inspections of South Africa's nuclear facilities to verify the scope and history of the program and its dismantlement. In a March 1993 speech before the South African parliament, de Klerk announced that South Africa had possessed a nuclear weapons program from as early as 1974 until 1990, during which time it constructed six of seven planned nuclear weapons. The seventh was dismantled before completion. He cited historical, international, and political reasons such as the Soviet expansionist threat in Southern Africa and Cuban forces in Angola to justify South Africa's decision to obtain nuclear weapons. 
Current Status: South Africa and Nuclear Nonproliferation
Since dismantling its nuclear weapons program, South Africa has become a champion of nuclear nonproliferation efforts. In May 1993, the South African Parliament passed the Non-Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction Act, which committed South Africa to abstain from the development of nuclear weapons.At the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, South African diplomats built consensus among member states to adopt a set of "Principles and Objectives for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament" and to extend the NPT indefinitely.
On 11 April 1996, South Africa and 42 other African states signed the African Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zone Treaty (Treaty of Pelindaba); this treaty entered into force in June 2009. In June 1996, South Africa was admitted to the UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, and in September South Africa signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. South Africa, one of 44 countries that must ratify the treaty for it to take legal force, did so on 30 March 1999. South Africa is a producer, possessor, and trader of nuclear materials and technologies. Eskom, the South African energy utility, operates two nuclear power reactors, Koeberg 1 and 2, which together produce 1,800 MWe.  To relieve its own energy deficit and to better position itself as a major global nuclear supplier, South Africa continues to develop new nuclear technologies, and has considered re-activating its nuclear fuel cycle in recent years to relieve its own energy deficits.  In September 2009, South Africa signed a bilateral agreement with the United States on cooperation regarding advanced nuclear energy systems and reactor technology.
However, in September 2010 the South African government halted Eskom's efforts to develop a Pebble Bed Modular Reactor after 17 years of work and an investment of $1.3 billion. Eskom and its partners, including U.S. companies, had hoped the reactor would be safer, more cost-effective, and more proliferation resistant than older generation reactors.
While the South African government adopted strict controls on nuclear trade and joined the Nuclear Suppliers Group, South African companies and individuals were important suppliers in A.Q. Khan's illicit nuclear network.  In 2004, South African investigators revealed that the Krisch Engineering Firm had provided nuclear equipment to Pakistan from 1986 to 1995, and that this firm along with Tradefin Engineering had provided equipment used in uranium centrifuge equipment to Libya's nuclear weapons program between 1999 and 2003 (when Libya's nuclear program was exposed).  South Africa successfully prosecuted some members of the smuggling ring, while others cooperated with authorities to avoid or reduce criminal penalties. 
In addition to concerns about illicit transfers on controlled dual-use technologies, South Africa faces questions about the safety and security of its nuclear facilities. In November 2007, four armed intruders broke into the Pelindaba nuclear facility near Pretoria, where hundreds of kilograms of weapons-grade uranium are stored. The men breached an electronically sealed control room, shot an off-duty worker, and escaped. At the same time, a separate group of intruders was prevented from breaking into another section of the facility. No HEU was stolen, but the break-in demonstrated the vulnerability of the Pelindaba facility. The South African police have not yet arrested the intruders.
While South Africa may have the capability to restart a nuclear weapons program, it has disavowed nuclear weapons, joined nuclear nonproliferation treaties and cooperative arrangements, and worked to strengthen controls on dual-use items, making it an unlikely state of proliferation risk for the foreseeable future.
 In 1999, South Africa adopted a Nuclear Energy Act that transferred the AEC's commercial responsibilities to a state-owned corporation, the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (NESCA), www.nesca.co.za.
 Frank V. Pabian, "South Africa's Nuclear Weapon Program: Lessons for U.S. Nonproliferation Policy," The Nonproliferation Review, Fall 1995, p. 2; World Nuclear Association, "Nuclear Power in South Africa," updated September 2010, www.world-nuclear.org.
 David Albright, "South Africa and the Affordable Bomb," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July/August 1994, pp. 39-40; Roy E. Horton III, "Out of (South) Africa: Pretoria's Nuclear Weapons Experience," INSS Occasional Paper 27, USAF Institute for National Security Studies, August 1999.
 Jack Boureston and Jennifer Lacey, "Shoring Up a Crucial Bridge: South Africa's Pressing Nuclear Choices," Arms Control Today, January/February 2007, www.armscontrol.org.
 U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, Directorate of Intelligence, "New Information on South Africa's Nuclear Program and South African-Israeli Nuclear and Military Cooperation," 30 March 1983, secret report partially declassified and released on 27 April 1997, www.foia.ucia.gov.
 "De Klerk Tells World South Africa Built and Dismantled Six Nuclear Weapons," Nuclear Fuel, 29 (March 1993), p. 7; Adolf Von Baeckmann, Gary Dillon, and Demetrius Perricos, "Nuclear Verification in South Africa," IAEA Bulletin, January 1995, p. 4; Waldo Stumpf, "South Africa's Nuclear Weapons Program: From Deterrence to Dismantlement," Arms Control Today 25, December 1995/January 1996, pp. 5-8; Mark Hibbs, "South Africa's Secret Nuclear Program: From a PNE to a Deterrent," Nuclear Fuel 10, May 1993, p. 4; David Albright, "A Curious Conversion," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, June 1993.
 David Albright, "South Africa and the Affordable Bomb," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July/August 1994, pp. 41-42.
 Mitchell Reiss, "South Africa: Castles in the Air," in Bridled Ambition: Why Countries Constrain Their Nuclear Capabilities (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center, 1995), p. 10. See also J.W. De-Villiers, Roger Jardine, and Mitchell Reiss, "Why South Africa Gave Up The Bomb," Foreign Affairs 72, November/December 1993.
 Mitchell Reiss, "South Africa: Castles in the Air," in Bridled Ambition: Why Countries Constrain Their Nuclear Capabilities (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center, 1995), p. 10; U.S. Mission to the U.N., "News Coverage," 29 August 1977, unclassified memorandum released, Digital National Security Archive, http://nsarchive.chadwyck.com; U.S. Department of State, "Your Meeting with Gromyko: South African Nuclear Issues," 21 September 1977, secret memorandum partially declassified and released, Digital National Security Archive, http://nsarchive.chadwyck.com; U.S. Mission to the U.N., "Non-proliferation Issues at the 32nd UNGA: South Africa Nuclear Issues," 6 October 1977, confidential memorandum partially declassified and released, http://nsarchive.chadwyck.com.
 Waldo Stumpf, "South Africa: Nuclear Technology and Nonproliferation," Security Dialogue 4 (1993), p. 458; David Albright and Corey Gay, "A Flash from the Past," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, November/December 1997; David Albright, "South Africa and the Affordable Bomb," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July/August 1994, p. 42.
 David Albright, "South Africa and the Affordable Bomb," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July/August 1994, p. 42. On theories regarding South African-Israeli nuclear cooperation, see Peter Liberman, "Israel and the South African Bomb," The Nonproliferation Review, Summer 2004.
 J.W. De-Villiers, Roger Jardine, and Mitchell Reiss, "Why South Africa Gave Up the Bomb," Foreign Affairs 72, November/December 1993.
 William Green, The Observer's Book of Aircraft (London: Frederick Warne & Co. Ltd., 1968).
 David Albright, "South Africa's Nuclear Program," Seminar, MIT Security Studies Program, 14 March 2001.
 David Albright, "South Africa's Secret Nuclear Weapons," ISIS Report, May 1994, 10, www.isis-online.org; Mark Hibbs, "South Africa's Secret Nuclear Program: From a PNE to Deterrent," Nuclear Fuel, 10 May 1993, p. 5; Mitchell Reiss, "South Africa: Castles in the Air," in Bridled Ambition: Why Countries Constrain Their Nuclear Capabilities (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center, 1995), p. 11; Waldo Stumpf, "South Africa's Nuclear Weapons Program: From Deterrence to Dismantlement," Arms Control Today 25, December 1995/January 1996, p. 5; Adolf Von Baeckmann, Gary Dillon, and Demetrius Perricos, "Nuclear Verification in South Africa." IAEA Bulletin, January 1995, p. 42.
 Waldo Stumpf, "South Africa's Nuclear Weapons Program: From Deterrence to Dismantlement," Arms Control Today 25, December 1995/January 1996, p. 6; David Albright, "Nuclear Rollback: Understanding South Africa's Denuclearization Decision," in Barry R. Schneider and William L. Downdy, eds., Pulling Back from the Nuclear Brink (London: Frank Cass 1998); Adolf Von Baeckmann, Gary Dillon, and Demetrius Perricos, "Nuclear Verification in South Africa," IAEA Bulletin, January 1995, p. 45; Mark Hibbs, "South Africa's Secret Nuclear Program: From a PNE to a Deterrent," Nuclear Fuel, 10 May 1993, p. 4; Mitchell Reiss, "South Africa: Castles in the Air," in Bridled Ambition: Why Countries Constrain Their Nuclear Capabilities (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center, 1995), p. 16.
 U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, "South African Enrichment Program," August 1977, p. 458, www.gwu.edu.
 U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, Directorate of Intelligence, "Prospects for Further Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons," 2 October 1974, classified interagency intelligence memorandum, partially declassified and released, Digital National Security Archive, http://nsarchive.chadwyck.com.
 U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, Directorate of Intelligence, "Prospects for Further Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons," 2 October 1974, classified interagency intelligence memorandum, partially declassified and released, Digital National Security Archive, nsarchive.chadwyck.com. Verne Harris, Sello Hatang, and Peter Liberman, "Unveiling South Africa's Nuclear Past," Journal of Southern African Studies 30, September 2004, p. 463.
 Peter Liberman, "The Rise and Fall of the South African Bomb," International Security 26, no. 2, Fall 2001.
 David Albright, "Nuclear Rollback: Understanding South Africa's Denuclearization Decision," in Barry R. Schneider and William L. Downdy, eds., Pulling Back from the Nuclear Brink (London: Frank Cass, 1998).
 "Pretoria Says It Can Build A-Arms," The New York Times, 14 August 1988.
 "South Africa's Nuclear Weapons Program: Putting Down the Sword," Nuclear Weapons Archive, 7 September 2001, http://nuclearweaponarchive.org.
 Waldo Stumpf, The Birth and Death of the South African Nuclear Weapons Programme, "50 Years After Hiroshima" Conference, Castiglioncello, Italy, 1995. For text, see Federation of American Scientists, www.fas.org.
 J.W. De-Villiers, Roger Jardine, and Mitchell Reiss, "Why South Africa Gave Up the Bomb," Foreign Affairs, 72, November/December 1993.
 "Non-Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction Act 87 of 1993," South African Council for the Non-Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction, www.dti.gov.za. For information on South Africa's other WMD nonproliferation efforts, see the country's report to the UN Resolution 1540 Committee: "Note verbale dated 31 January 2005 from the Permanent Mission of South Africa to the United Nations Addressed to the Chairman of the Committee," UN Security Council, 1 February 2005, S/AC.44/2004/(02)/102.
 Jeff Erlich and Theresa Hitchens, "S. Africa Shines as Policy Beacon," Defense News, 12-18 June 1995, p. 1; South Africa, Department of Foreign Affairs, "Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)," www.dfa.gov.za.
 World Nuclear Association, "Nuclear Power in South Africa," updated September 2010, www.world-nuclear.org.
 Carli Lourens, "South Africa Flirts With Plan to Enrich Own Uranium," Johannesburg Business Daily, 28 August 2006. See also, Joseph Cirincione, et al., Deadly Arsenals, Second Edition (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005), pp. 411-412.
 "U.S.- South Africa Sign Agreement on Cooperation in Nuclear Energy Field," U.S. Department of State Press Release 16 September 2009, http://southafrica.usembassy.gov.
 World Nuclear Association, "Nuclear Power in South Africa," September 2010, www.world-nuclear.org.
 For information on South Africa's WMD nonproliferation efforts, see the country's report to the UN Resolution 1540 Committee: "Note verbale dated 31 January 2005 from the Permanent Mission of South Africa to the United Nations Addressed to the Chairman of the Committee," UN Security Council, 1 February 2005, S/AC.44/2004/(02)/102.
 Adam P. Williams, "South Africa, Germany Announce Significant Developments in Prosecution of Suspected Khan Network Participants," WMD Insights, December 2007-January 2008, www.wmdinsights.com.
 Adam P. Williams, "Special Report: The A.Q. Khan Network," WMD Insights, January 2010, www.wmdinsights.com.
 Micah Zenko, "A Nuclear Site Is Breached," The Washington Post, 20 December 2007; "Nuke Facility Raid an Inside Job?" 60 Minutes, CBS News, 23 November 2008, www.cbsnews.com; "South Africa," NTI Civilian HEU Reduction and Elimination Database, www.nti.org.
This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents. Copyright © 2011 by MIIS.
Get the Facts on South Africa
- Built six nuclear warheads before renouncing its weapons program in 1991
- Developed a chemical and biological weapons program in the 1980s under the name Project Coast
- Jointly developed medium-range ballistic missiles with Israel in the 1980s
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