From peaceful nuclear research to building the Bomb

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From peaceful nuclear research to building the Bomb

The South African civilian nuclear research and development programme, aimed at research into the peaceful applications of nuclear energy, formed the precursor to the Republic's eventual nuclear weapons programme. The origins of the peaceful nuclear program can be traced back to the closing stages of the Second World War, when the United States was in need of uranium for the then secret 'Manhattan Project'. The discovery of significant uranium deposits in the goldfields of the Witwatersrand led to the joint development of extraction processes of the uranium ores, thereby initiating close nuclear cooperation between South Africa and the US that would span almost three decades. In 1950, the US and the United Kingdom (UK) signed a purchasing agreement with South Africa to secure guaranteed supplies of natural uranium for their own nuclear weapons programmes. This agreement served as the impetus for South Africa's rapid development into one of the world's major uranium producers, and was followed by further agreements, such as the nuclear cooperation agreement of 1957 between South Africa and the US. In terms of the 1957-agreement, the US provided the Republic with a nuclear research reactor (SAFARI-1), trained additional scientists and reactor technicians and supplied enriched uranium as fuel for SAFARI-1.

In the early phase, the success of the civilian research, coupled with its interest in using nuclear reactors for energy production, prompted work on uranium enrichment processes. Requiring enriched uranium to power SAFARI-1, a pilot uranium enrichment plant was established at Valindaba adjacent to the Pelindaba Nuclear Research Center west of Pretoria. Parallel to its uranium enrichment efforts, South Africa further embarked on research into peaceful nuclear explosives (PNE's) for application in industries such as mining and the construction of dams. In 1969, the Atomic Energy Board (AEB) created a commission to evaluate the technical and economic aspects of PNE's, followed in 1971 with the then minister of mines', Carl de Wet, approval of "preliminary investigations" into producing PNE's (Horton 1999: 4). Initially, the program remained limited to theoretical research on the feasibility of both implosion and gun-type nuclear devices, but in early 1974, the AEB (now known as the Atomic Energy Corporation - AEC) prepared a report that concluded that the actual development of PNE's was feasible. The prime minister, B J Vorster approved such a program and allocated funds to the development of a nuclear test site at Vastrap in the Kalahari Desert. The program, although ostensibly for peaceful purposes, was treated as top secret, especially so after the adverse world reaction following to a 'peaceful test' conducted by India in May of the same year.

In explaining why South Africa decided to redirect its clandestine 'peaceful nuclear program to the development and assembly of nuclear weapons, it is crucial to examine the worldview of South Africa's political leadership (e.g. the ruling National Party -NP). White South Africa strongly aligned itself with the West and the senior members of the NP were convinced that the Republic's geostrategic position, wealth of critical materials (such as uranium, gold and other minerals) and staunch opposition to communism would gain it the favour - and military support - of the West. They further believed that these attributes would enable the continuation of the domestic apartheid policy and the maintenance of a favourable balance of power in the region with South Africa as the 'bulwark against Communism in Africa'. What they had not counted on was the dual challenge of rising internal resistance by the black majority (led by the African National Congress - ANC), and international ostracism caused by the apartheid policy. As the ANC gained power and influence, the government increased the severity of its responses and incidents such as the Soweto uprisings of 1976 escalated the international isolation of South Africa.

Furthermore, as the 1970's progressed, there was a marked deterioration in the stability situation of Southern Africa, leading to an increase in what has been referred to as 'Afrikaner angst'. This served as the direct impetus for the establishment of the nuclear weapons program. The main sources of instability on the Republic's borders were the following:

  • In 1975, Portugal withdrew from its African colonies (Mozambique and Angola) following a military coup d'etat in Lisbon. South Africa not only lost its most important regional ally, but were now also faced with uncertainty as to the true intentions of the Warsaw Pact countries that moved in to fill the power vacuum in the former colonies through supporting pro-Soviet and Marxist-Leninist governments in Mozambique and Angola;
  • White minority rule in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), another important ally of South Africa for obvious reasons, was slowly coming to an end;
  • Black nationalist pressure on South African-controlled South West Africa (SWA, now Namibia) increased in tandem with the armed struggle waged in SWA by the SWA People's Organisation (SWAPO); and
  • Actions by the Soviet Union in the region were especially worrisome to Pretoria given the former's hegemonistic policies in Southern Africa and its use of 'surrogates' (such as the Cubans in Angola). The South African political leadership was convinced that these actions would ultimately result in a direct conventional attack on its territory.

Against the backdrop of mounting regional insecurity, a number of other political/military factors did not bode well for South Africa's security future. In 1975 Pretoria militarily intervened against the Soviet-backed MPLA government in the Angolan civil war with tacit support of the US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, and tangible support of covert US funding, but the US was soon forced to withdrew its support when the US Congress and the public learned of the covert aid. Without US assistance South Africa was forced to withdraw from Angola, although it continued to provide some support to UNITA (i.e. provision of arms). The UK terminated the 1955 Simon's Town Agreement for bilateral naval defence soon after, yet the worst was still to come.

Between 1975 and 1977, South Africa successfully proceeded from theory to practice with the construction of the PNE test site at Vastrap. Engineers succeeded in drilling two test shafts, each over 250 meters deep, for the purpose of testing the developed PNE devices. The AEC planned a 'cold' test of the nuclear device completed in 1977, to be followed by a second test a year later with a HEU core if the first test was successful. Despite the strongly negative international reaction following India's 'peaceful' nuclear test three years before, it appears that the South African government were confident that there would be little or no long-term international repercussions over an overt 'declaration by detonation' of its capability to produce PNE's, and consequently, while the PNE development program was still considered a state secret, no attempt was made to conceal the supporting test infrastructure. In August 1977, a Soviet surveillance satellite detected the test preparations and alerted the US. Immense diplomatic pressure descended on the South African government, who received strongly worded demarches from several states, including the US, the Soviet Union, France and the UK. A US State Department official described the US position as follows:

"We did indeed receive information that South Africa was preparing for an atomic explosion, which, according to the South African authorities, was for peaceful purposes. We know what a peaceful atomic explosion is; however it is not possible to distinguish between a peaceful atomic explosion and an atomic explosion for purposes of military nuclear testing. We therefore warned South Africa that we would regard such testing as endangering all the peace processes under way and as having a potentially serious consequences with respect to our relationship with South Africa (as quoted in Horton 1999: 5) "

Meanwhile, the French foreign minister warned that such a test would have 'grave consequences' for Franco-South African relations, implying the cancellation of France's contract to supply South Africa with the Koeberg nuclear power reactor (Albright 1994b: 6). South Africa denied that such a test was imminent, but had no choice but to cancel the planned test and close down the Vastrap facility.

The Vastrap incident fuelled South Africa's growing international isolation. The UN Security Council enacted a mandatory arms embargo against Pretoria following the incident, and the US broke off all forms of nuclear cooperation between the two countries with a unilateral restriction on nuclear trade or exchange with South Africa. Simultaneously, the US abrogated the fuel supply contract in which the US undertook to supply 93 percent enriched uranium fuel for SAFARI-1, adding what AEC head Waldo Stumpf termed 'insult to injury' by not returning South Africa's prepayment for a cancelled fuel consignment until 1981 - three years later. Furthermore, South Africa was removed from its seat on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors and replaced by Egypt. As the most advanced nuclear program in Africa, the South African government felt that under Article VI of the IAEA Statute, the seat rightfully belonged to South Africa.

P W Botha, who succeeded Vorster as prime minister in September 1978, perceived these developments as betrayals by the West and illustrative of the limits of Western support for security and consistent trade. According to Pabian, this perspective helped to solidify the so-called 'laager mentality' at the base of Botha's conception of a 'total onslaught' on the white minority government, "...calculated to bring about the downfall of this State...and to create chaos in its stead so that the Kremlin can establish its hegemony here" (Botha as quoted in Liebenberg & Spies 1994: 468). The concept was based on four main pillars:

  • The sense of an all-out threat to (white) South Africa's survival;
  • The belief that its enemies are directed by the Soviet Union;
  • A feeling of having been abandoned by the West; and
  • A fear of massive conventional attack.

Accordingly, Botha formulated a 'total national strategy' with the SSC at the forefront to combat the perceived total onslaught. In the words of Horton (1999: 11), this strategy defined "...a roadmap for the use of political, military, diplomatic and economic tools for a long term effort to develop effective responses to internal and external national security threats". As such, the total strategy included the doubling in size of the South African Defence Force (SADF), a tripling of the SADF's budget, the stimulation and expansion of the South African arms industry, the establishment of a Conventional Force and Counterinsurgency and Terrorism Force to counter the rising threats from the Soviet 'surrogates' on the Republic's borders, and the launch of an infamous destabilisation campaign aimed at attacking ANC bases in neighbouring countries in an effort to counter internal terrorism. As a final step, Botha took the decision to redirect the PNE program to a nuclear weapons development program - convinced that the increasing isolation of South Africa and the arms embargoes levelled against it rendered the Republic ill-equipped to meet regional security concerns. South Africa, he felt, had no alternative but to develop a nuclear deterrent .

It should be noted that Botha's decision followed a paper authored by Barnard. In the paper, entitled "The deterrent strategy of nuclear weapons", Barnard (quoted in Pabian 1995: 5) concluded by saying that:

"Although nuclear strategy is no fool-proof formula for survival, it offers a helpful method to stabilise internal relations in an uncertain world. Partly as a result of thereof, South Africa must increasingly direct its strategic attention to this field. The acquisition of nuclear weapons will not necessarily isolate South Africa any further...without a strong power base all modern diplomacy is doomed to failure".

Barnard's words provide interesting interpretative pointers to attempts of analysing the nuclear deterrence strategy (NDS) approved in 1978. The three-phase NDS was based on the following elements:

  • Phase I comprised 'strategic uncertainty' of neither acknowledging nor denying the existence of a South African nuclear capability. It would move to next stage only if a crisis ensued and South Africa found itself with its back against the wall.
  • Phase II called for the covert revelation of Pretoria's nuclear capability to Western powers (especially the US). If unsuccessful,
  • Phase III called for an underground test of a nuclear device to demonstrate the nuclear capability existed. If states remained unconvinced, a contingency existed to conduct an aboveground detonation to demonstrate an operational nuclear weapon capability.

Despite indicated rhetoric to the contrary, it is clear that the real bottom line of the NDS was the targeting of the West (the US in particular), not a Soviet surrogate, with the objective to compel Western governments to come to South Africa's assistance in the face of a military threat or attack. In order to achieve the desired result, the credibility of the NDS had to be insured. In the light of the repeated categorical denials by South African officials that Phase III implied that there was ever any strategy for operational application of nuclear weapons, credibility required deliverability. This underscored a line of thinking that, if the government decided to show its nuclear devices to Western powers during Phase II, they might not take South Africa's threat seriously enough if the devices were only test devices. Accordingly, the focus of the South African nuclear weapons program became the possession of the credible possession of a deliverable nuclear device, not its specific yield.

In 1978, the AEC built the first nuclear weapon device, but it was not until the second half of the following year that enough HEU had been produced to load the device. However, the device was never converted into a deliverable weapon, but kept for demonstration purposes. In line with the strategic repositioning of South Africa's nuclear program from peaceful research to weaponisation, the South African Armaments Corporation (Armscor) succeeded the AEC as the lead agency for developing South Africa's nuclear deterrent. Armscor, born out of the debacle surrounding the Vastrap nuclear test preparations and the consequent arms embargoes levelled at the country, was charged with the manufacturing additional nuclear devices, while the AEC was given a brief to provide nuclear materials, health physics support, and theoretical studies and development work in more advanced nuclear weapons technology.

Comprised principally of engineers and employed by the military, Armscor naturally took a very different approach to building nuclear weapons than the AEC, which was essentially a civilian scientific organisation. The Armscor-run nuclear weapons program had the following three main components:

  • The development and production of a number of deliverable gun-type devices.
  • Studies of implosion and thermonuclear technology, including 'boosted' devices.
  • Research and development of production and recovery processes of plutonium, and tritium, and the production of lithium.

More relevant to this discussion than the finer details of the Armscor program, however, is the fact that the company emerged as having influence over nuclear matters second only to that of the SSC. While theoretically working with the South African Air Force in ensuring the physical and electronic compatibility of the nuclear weapon devices with the Buccaneer aircraft, Armscor exerted tremendous autonomy within the nuclear weapon program and enjoyed unprecedented access to Botha, first as prime minister and later as state president. Armscor reportedly even expanded the original three-phase NDS into a 30-40 page document establishing specific criteria and preconditions corresponding to each phase of the original strategy - with the intention of providing a very detailed description of the specific political, military and diplomatic conditions to be achieved at each decision point leading up to the possible use of nuclear weapons.

By 1982 South Africa finally possessed a deliverable nuclear weapon device, and after reviewing the nuclear weapons programme, Botha confirmed that the programme would be limited to seven fission devices only.


A 'cold' test refers to the explosion of a nuclear device not containing a highly enriched uranium (HEU) core.

In this context, it is important to note the astounding domination of Botha in all spheres of political policy making, including foreign policy. Botha was appointed minister of defence in 1966 and when he became prime minister in September 1978, he retained the post for a further two years, while administering the office of the director of the National Intelligence Service (NIS) simultaneously. Accordingly, he held the key reins of power in a position analogous to a US president serving as the Secretary of Defence and the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, but without the checks and balances of a strong, independent legislature or judiciary. Botha not only held all three positions during the period when the decision was made to produce nuclear weapons (October 1977) and when the first device was actually assembled (November 1979), but also hand-picked his successors from his protÁƒÂƒ©gÁƒÂƒ©s - gen. Magnus Malan as minister of defense and dr Neil Barnard as director of the NIS (see Horton 1995: fn 16).

In this context, some clarification is needed. Authors such as Albright (1994a and b) stipulate that this device was the first nuclear weapon device, while others such as Beri (1998) plainly refer to the 'second nuclear device'. This was the second nuclear device developed by the AEC, counting the PNE that would have been tested at Vastrap as the first. The device completed in 1978, however, was the first nuclear weapon device.

'Boosting' increases the explosive yield of a fission device. In such a device, the thermonuclear reaction of tritium and deuterium produce a spike of neutrons that fission significantly more plutonium or HEU) (Albright 1994a: 11).

Last updated : 31-Mar-2011

This article was produced by South African History Online on 31-Mar-2011

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