Fact Sheet

Nuclear Disarmament South Africa

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Nuclear Disarmament South Africa

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Arsenal and Missile Types

NPT Non-nuclear Weapon State Formerly Possessed Nuclear Weapons

Arsenal Size

  • South Africa manufactured 6 air-deliverable nuclear weapons of the “gun-type” design.
  • The government halted its nuclear weapons program in 1989 and dismantled existing weapons and production equipment.

Weapons System

  • The weapons produced were non-strategic gun–type weapons.
  • Each of the six nuclear devices contained 55 kilograms of highly enriched uranium (HEU).
  • The nuclear devices could have been delivered by a modified Buccaneer bomber. A multi-stage booster rocket (RSA 3) may have been a prototype for an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM).
  • The space-launch vehicle (SLV) program was abandoned in 1993.

Capabilities and Developments

Destructive Power

  • Each device had an estimated yield of 10-18 kt.

Warheads Dismantled

  • On 26 February 1990, President Frederik Willem de Klerk ordered the destruction of the six completed nuclear weapons and the seventh partially completed device.
  • President de Klerk announced to South Africa’s Parliament on 24 March 1993 the existence and abandonment of the former nuclear weapons program.
  • IAEA inspections between April and August 1993 confirmed the complete dismantlement of the nuclear weapons program.
  • As of 2015 South Africa still possessed approximately 185 lbs. of HEU in a central facility under IAEA safeguards.
  • Recently South Africa has emerged as a leader of the movement to implement and expand nuclear energy throughout Africa. South Africa currently has one nuclear power reactor, and it is the only one on the continent.

Commitments and Policies

Disarmament and Treaty Commitments

  • 1 July 1991: Deposited accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) as a non-nuclear weapon state party.
  • 11 April 1996: Joined with other African nations to sign the Treaty of Pelindaba to create a Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone on the African continent.
  • 24 September 1996: Signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) (ratified in 1999).
  • Member of the New Agenda Coalition in support of a nuclear weapons free world.
  • As one of the most vocal state advocates of nuclear disarmament, South Africa supports proposals to create a new legally binding framework containing clear benchmarks and timelines to achieve and maintain a world free of nuclear weapons.
  • South Africa supports the Austria-led Humanitarian Initiative, which calls for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons as an assurance that they will not be used “under any circumstances.” The alternative Australia-led Initiative does not use such language.
  • South Africa was a leader in encouraging negotiations on a UN- proposed nuclear weapons ban treaty at the 71st session of the UN General Assembly.
  • Signed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) in 2017 and ratified the treaty in 2019.

Nuclear Weapons Policies

  • The apartheid government developed a three-stage deterrence strategy in 1978, fearing a direct invasion or an invasion of South African-controlled Namibia by Soviet-backed forces.
  • The departure of Cuban forces from Angola, Namibia’s independence, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union enabled South Africa to abandon its nuclear weapons program in 1989. Isolated from the global economy, the government also recognized that South Africa would benefit more from giving up its nuclear weapons program than maintaining it.
  • Following the dismantlement of South Africa’s nuclear weapons, the domestic 1993 Non-Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction Act committed South Africa to abstain from developing nuclear weapons.

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Nuclear weapon
Nuclear weapon: A device that releases nuclear energy in an explosive manner as the result of nuclear chain reactions involving fission, or fission and fusion, of atomic nuclei. Such weapons are also sometimes referred to as atomic bombs (a fission-based weapon); or boosted fission weapons (a fission-based weapon deriving a slightly higher yield from a small fusion reaction); or hydrogen bombs/thermonuclear weapons (a weapon deriving a significant portion of its energy from fusion reactions).
Dismantlement: Taking apart a weapon, facility, or other item so that it is no longer functional.
Highly enriched uranium (HEU)
Highly enriched uranium (HEU): Refers to uranium with a concentration of more than 20% of the isotope U-235. Achieved via the process of enrichment. See entry for enriched uranium.
The auxiliary part of a propulsion system of a missile that supplies the thrust during the launch and initial phase of a flight.
Space Launch Vehicle (SLV)
A rocket used to carry a payload, such as a satellite, from Earth into outer space. SLVs are of proliferation concern because their development requires a sophisticated understanding of many of the same technologies used in the development of long-range ballistic missiles (e.g., propulsion, guidance and control, staging, and structures). Some states (e.g., Iran), may have developed SLV programs in order to augment their ballistic missile capabilities.
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
IAEA: Founded in 1957 and based in Vienna, Austria, the IAEA is an autonomous international organization in the United Nations system. The Agency’s mandate is the promotion of peaceful uses of nuclear energy, technical assistance in this area, and verification that nuclear materials and technology stay in peaceful use. Article III of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) requires non-nuclear weapon states party to the NPT to accept safeguards administered by the IAEA. The IAEA consists of three principal organs: the General Conference (of member states); the Board of Governors; and the Secretariat. For additional information, see the IAEA.
Safeguards: A system of accounting, containment, surveillance, and inspections aimed at verifying that states are in compliance with their treaty obligations concerning the supply, manufacture, and use of civil nuclear materials. The term frequently refers to the safeguards systems maintained by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in all nuclear facilities in non-nuclear weapon state parties to the NPT. IAEA safeguards aim to detect the diversion of a significant quantity of nuclear material in a timely manner. However, the term can also refer to, for example, a bilateral agreement between a supplier state and an importer state on the use of a certain nuclear technology.

See entries for Full-scope safeguards, information-driven safeguards, Information Circular 66, and Information Circular 153.
Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)
The NPT: Signed in 1968, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) is the most widely adhered-to international security agreement. The “three pillars” of the NPT are nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Article VI of the NPT commits states possessing nuclear weapons to negotiate in good faith toward halting the arms race and the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. The Treaty stipulates that non-nuclear-weapon states will not seek to acquire nuclear weapons, and will accept International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards on their nuclear activities, while nuclear weapon states commit not to transfer nuclear weapons to other states. All states have a right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy, and should assist one another in its development. The NPT provides for conferences of member states to review treaty implementation at five-year intervals. Initially of a 25-year duration, the NPT was extended indefinitely in 1995. For additional information, see the NPT.
Non-nuclear weapon state (NNWS)
Non-nuclear weapon state (NNWS): Under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), NNWS are states that had not detonated a nuclear device prior to 1 January 1967, and who agree in joining the NPT to refrain from pursuing nuclear weapons (that is, all state parties to the NPT other than the United States, the Soviet Union/Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China).
Treaty of Pelindaba
Treaty of Pelindaba: The Treaty on the African Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zone was opened for signature in Cairo in April 1996. The treaty prohibits the research, development, manufacturing, stockpiling, acquisition, testing, possession, control, and stationing of nuclear explosive devices on any member’s territory. The treaty also prohibits the dumping of radioactive waste originating from outside the continent within the region. In addition, the treaty requires parties to apply International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards to all their peaceful nuclear activities. The treaty also provides for the establishment of the African Commission on Nuclear Energy (AFCONE), which supervises treaty implementation and ensures compliance with its provisions. For additional information, see the ANWFZ.
Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (NWFZ)
NWFZ: A geographical area in which nuclear weapons may not legally be built, possessed, transferred, deployed, or tested.
Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT)
The CTBT: Opened for signature in 1996 at the UN General Assembly, the CTBT prohibits all nuclear testing if it enters into force. The treaty establishes the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) to ensure the implementation of its provisions and verify compliance through a global monitoring system upon entry into force. Pending the treaty’s entry into force, the Preparatory Commission of the CTBTO is charged with establishing the International Monitoring System (IMS) and promoting treaty ratifications. CTBT entry into force is contingent on ratification by 44 Annex II states. For additional information, see the CTBT.
Ratification: The implementation of the formal process established by a country to legally bind its government to a treaty, such as approval by a parliament. In the United States, treaty ratification requires approval by the president after he or she has received the advice and consent of two-thirds of the Senate. Following ratification, a country submits the requisite legal instrument to the treaty’s depository governments Procedures to ratify a treaty follow its signature.

See entries for Entry into force and Signature.
New Agenda Coalition
New Agenda Coalition: In June 1998, the foreign ministers of Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, Slovenia, South Africa, and Sweden issued a statement calling for a new nuclear disarmament agenda. (Slovenia later withdrew from the NAC.) The NAC called for the five nuclear weapon states and the three nuclear-capable states to make an unequivocal commitment to nuclear disarmament and to begin multilateral negotiations that would lead to the elimination of nuclear weapons through a Nuclear Weapons Convention.
Though there is no agreed-upon legal definition of what disarmament entails within the context of international agreements, a general definition is the process of reducing the quantity and/or capabilities of military weapons and/or military forces.
United Nations General Assembly
The UN General Assembly is the largest body of the United Nations. It includes all member states, but its resolutions are not legally binding. It is responsible for much of the work of the United Nations, including controlling finances, passing resolutions, and electing non-permanent members of the Security Council. It has two subsidiary bodies dealing particularly with security and disarmament: the UN General Assembly Committee on Disarmament and International Security (First Committee); and the UN Disarmament Commission. For additional information, see the UNGA.
The actions of a state or group of states to dissuade a potential adversary from initiating an attack or conflict through the credible threat of retaliation. To be effective, a deterrence strategy should demonstrate to an adversary that the costs of an attack would outweigh any potential gains. See entries for Extended deterrence and nuclear deterrence.


  1. “Nuclear ‘gaining traction’ as option in many African countries, says IAEA,” World Nuclear News, 29 September 2022, www.world-nuclear-news.org.
  2. Roy E. Horton, III, “Out of (South) Africa: Pretoria’s Nuclear Weapons Experience,” INSS Occasional Paper 27, Counterproliferation Series, August 1999, www.usafa.edu.
  3. J.W. de Villiers, Roger Jardine, Mitchell Reiss, “Why South Africa Gave Up the Bomb,” Foreign Affairs, November/December 1993, www.lexisnexis.com.
  4. International Atomic Energy Agency, “The Denuclearization of Africa (GC(XXXVII)/RES/577),” Report by the Director General, 9 September 1993, www.iaea.org.
  5. David Albright, “South Africa’s Secret Nuclear Weapons,” Institute for Science and International Security, 1 May 1994, www.isis-online.org.
  6. Department for Disarmament Affairs, Report of the Secretary General, “South Africa’s Nuclear-Tipped Ballistic Missile Capability,” United Nations, September 1991, www.un.org; “RSA-3” Encyclopedia Astronautica, www.astronautix.com.
  7. Joseph Cirincione, Jon B. Wolfsthal, Miriam Rajkumar, “South Africa,” in Deadly Arsenals (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005), pp. 407-418.
  8. Adolf von Baeckmann, Garry Dillon, Demetrius Perricos, “Nuclear Verification in South Africa,” IAEA Bulletin, 1995, pp. 42-48, www.iaea.org.
  9. Douglas Birch and R. Jeffrey Smith, “South Africa Rebuffs Repeated U.S. Demands That It Relinquish Its Nuclear Explosives,” The Center for Public Integrity, 14 March 2015, www.publicintegrity.org.
  10. South African Department of Foreign Affairs, “Communique on Foreign-Ministerial-Level Meeting of the New Agenda Coalition in New York,” 23 September 1999, www.info.gov.za.
  11. Statement at the 2015 NPT Review Conference General Debate by Ms. Nozipho Mxakato-Diseko, Deputy Director-General, Multilateral Branch, Department of International Relations and Cooperation, 29 April 2015, www.reachingcriticalwill.org.
  12. “Joint Statement on the Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear Weapons,” Statement by the Federal Minister for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs of Austria,
  13. Reaching Critical Will,
  14. 28 April 2015, www.reachingcriticalwill.org.
  15. “Statement on the Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear Weapons,” Statement by the Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Australia to the United Nations, Reaching Critical Will, 30 April 2015, www.reachingcriticalwill.org.
  16. “Taking forward multilateral nuclear disarmament agreements,” UNGA 71st session, 14 October 2016, www.reachingcriticalwill.org.
  17. “South Africa,” International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, accessed January 2024, www.icanw.org.
  18. “South Africa: Past Nuclear Policies,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, November 2006, http://archives.sipri.org.


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