South Africa’s Nuclear Autopsy

During the past five years, South Africa has made an astonishing strategic turnaround, voluntarily giving up its nuclear arsenal and surrendering its long-range missile capability, all under pressure from the United States. But questions remain: How did South Africa acquire the technology to build weapons of mass destruction? And how did Pretoria react to international export controls?

Hands down, Israel was South Africa’s most important missile supplier. Pretoria got most of what it needed from Tel Aviv. But the secrecy surrounding its A-bomb efforts often forced Pretoria to make do with low-tech equipment. “These guys were immensely proud of what they achieved under sanctions,” says a U.S. State Department official, “they came up with their own home-spun technology.” But for some tasks more sophisticated equipment was needed, so South Africa resorted to smuggling.

“I am not at liberty to divulge anything that we import…we do not identify our suppliers.” This was all Dr. Waldo Stumpf, the Chief Executive Officer of South Africa’s Atomic Energy Commission, would say as he fielded questions during a 1993 meeting at the South African embassy in Washington.

Dr. Stumpf declared categorically that South Africa “had no help from anybody on nuclear weapons technology…we gave no help to anybody and we received no help. On other things, yes…[but] not on enrichment technology, not on nuclear weapons technology.” He does admit that South Africa imported nuclear materials over the years, including low-enriched uranium, but he won’t say it came from China. Official German audits show it did and he denies that it was used for weapons.

In fact, Pretoria’s nuclear efforts depended on foreign help from the beginning. South Africa started nuclear shopping in the early 1960’s, when it contracted to buy its first research reactor from the United States. The Safari-I reactor at Pelindaba became operational in 1967, and for years the United States supplied its high-enriched uranium fuel and trained South African technicians to operate it.

South Africa’s nuclear program was run by its Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), whose scientists routinely culled open-source literature, including U.S. Navy manuals on nuclear weapon systems, safety and design. Pretoria’s quest for a bomb began in 1971. The AEC was charged with the most difficult task, producing the high-enriched uranium fuel. Armscor was asked to build the actual weapon. Once South Africa decided to “go nuclear,” it took only seven years to build an atomic bomb like the one the United States dropped on Hiroshima. The effort required about a thousand experts, but Dr. Stumpf says that “less than five or ten people had an oversight of the entire program.” Top secret clearance was only granted to persons born in South Africa with no other citizenship.

From the late 1970s through early 1990, South Africa produced highly enriched uranium a nuclear explosive at its pilot-scale enrichment plant at Pelindaba. The key technology, called “split-nozzle gaseous diffusion,” was supplied by West Germany in the early 1970s. Nevertheless, Dr. Abraham Johannes Andries Roux, president of the South African Atomic Energy Board, has claimed that 90 percent of the plant was manufactured in South Africa, and that the foreign content was purchased “through normal channels and was in no way crucial for the completion of the project.”

The need for secrecy made shopping difficult. According to the industry newsletter Nuclear Fuel, South Africa wanted tungsten, useful for making neutron reflectors for bomb packages. Tungsten can be wrapped around the uranium to increase the power of the neutron chain reaction in the bomb core. Tungsten has been controlled for export by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) since the late 1970s. Pretoria was forced to find secret sources in Rhodesia, Zambia and Zaire, according to a U.S. analyst, but no one will say exactly who sold what.

One of the things that surprised U.N. inspectors who visited South African nuclear plants was that much of the equipment was low tech. “These guys were very creative,” says a U.S. inspector, who reported that South African scientists regularly adapted lower-tech equipment to complex tasks. For example, two-axis machine tools normally used for simple manufacturing were reportedly adapted to create complex three-dimensional shapes for South Africa’s gun-type nuclear device.

By mid-1977, the AEC had completed its first bomb package, but the enrichment plant at Pelindaba, known as the “Y-Plant,” did not begin producing the high-enriched uranium fuel until 1978. A second package was built in 1978, and by late 1979 the Y-plant had made enough enriched uranium for a single bomb core. Pretoria says it built only six nuclear devices between 1977 and 1989, and the design for each was essentially the same.

South African officials say they never conducted a full-fledged nuclear test. But Soviet satellites detected preparations for a test site in the Kalahari Desert in 1977. Washington and Moscow pressured Pretoria to shut it down. In September 1979, however, an American satellite detected a distinctive double flash off the southern coast of Africa. The satellite data offered strong evidence that the flash had been caused by a low-yield nuclear explosion.

In June 1980, the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) reported to the National Security Council that the 2-3 kiloton nuclear test had probably involved Israel and South Africa. U.S. intelligence had tracked frequent visits to South Africa by Israeli nuclear scientists, technicians and defense officials in the years preceding the incident and concluded that “clandestine arrangements between South Africa and Israel for joint nuclear testing operations might have been negotiable.” Such speculation was fueled in 1986 when Israeli nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu was interviewed by the London Sunday Times. Vanunu said that it was common knowledge at Dimona that South African metallurgists, technicians, and scientists were there on exchange programs.

After Pretoria joined the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1991, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) started visiting South African nuclear plants to verify that Pretoria had accounted for all its secret bomb material. One of the lead inspectors recently told the Risk Report: “It was a tremendous experience…we enjoyed the highest level of cooperation that you could hope for…we were able to reconstruct the activity of the enrichment facility on a daily basis, and do forensic analysis of the records.”

But no information was provided on the suppliers. The Agency’s mandate was only to assess the “correctness and completeness” of Pretoria’s nuclear material reports. “We couldn’t ask the source of the materials,” says one of the inspectors, “if we had, they would have said: None of your business.'” The South Africans were very careful about suppliers, says the inspector. “There was nothing we saw to indicate Israeli fingerprints,” he adds.

The missile story

Israel and South Africa have a long record of military cooperation, though neither admits to working together on nuclear weapons or long-range missiles. But strong evidence of missile cooperation surfaced in 1989, when a powerful rocket took off from South Africa’s Overberg Test Range and flew nearly 1,500 kilometers. It turned out to be a South African version of Israel’s Jericho-II missile. U.S. officials confirmed later that the CIA had evidence of a full-scale partnership between the Israel and South Africa to develop, test and produce long-range missiles and rockets. A U.S. official who tracks missile proliferation tells the Risk Report that South Africa’s space launcher, the RSA-4, was built around the same engines that power Israel’s Jericho-II missile and its “Shavit” space launcher. In 1990, Washington penalized Armscor for its missile activities by banning trade for two years, but President Bush declined to punish Israel.

With the end of South Africa’s nuclear program, long-range missiles made little sense: there would be nothing nuclear to put on them. Pretoria ended its missile collaboration with Israel in 1992 and then halted all ballistic missile development in mid-1993. The next step was for Pretoria to join the Missile Technology Control Regime. As the price for membership, Pretoria had to vow that it would give up its long-range missiles and cancel its space launch effort. Then the South African companies that had actually built the rockets, such as Kentron, Houwteq and Somchem, were forced to eliminate key technologies.

Houwteq, the main contractor for the space launcher, had to dismantle its largest rockets and even retrieve blueprints and technical files from its many subcontractors. “Today, Houwteq is basically defunct as a company,” says an official from Denel, Houwteq’s parent. “There’s not much there now…it’s just a potential satellite production house.” Most of Houwteq’s engineers have been hired away by other firms such as Siemens Plessey, a company that formerly made transponders for the space launcher. Siemens Plessey was forced to return “two or three cabinets full of technical files” to Houwteq as part of the rocket destruction plan, according to a Plessey engineer.

Somchem, the second most important rocket company after Houwteq, was obliged to destroy the solid propellants and rocket casings it had made for the space launcher. Its filament-winding machines are now used to make large commercial piping, and its propellant batch-mixers can only be used for smaller missiles, says a South African diplomat. U.S. inspectors can visit Somchem to verify these arrangements.

U.S. inspectors also required Denel to destroy its large engine casting pits at Somerset West. One pit was partially filled in, limiting it to small engine production. A second was completely destroyed, according to a State Department official who was involved. Denel also destroyed large X-ray equipment, though two smaller machines remain for developing aircraft parts.

South Africa’s Hangklip test range at Rooi Els, which was equipped for large rocket tests, is reverting to a nature reserve. American inspectors have verified that its static motor test facility was destroyed. South Africa still has the large Overberg Test Range, an ideal spot for launching foreign satellites, but “its future is on hold while South Africa looks for foreign partners,” says a U.S. official who has inspected the site. “With respect to the space launch vehicle (SLV) and its new MTCR membership, South Africa is as clean as a whistle,” the inspector tells the Risk Report. South Africa was allowed to join the Missile Technology Control Regime in September 1995. But not everyone in Pretoria likes the outcome. A South African businessman, who asked to remain anonymous, predicted that “someday the Americans will have to explain why they screwed us over. We had to cancel a strong civil space program and a pending joint venture with Brazil…and a lot of companies lost business.”

Smuggling charges

South Africa is still paying for its decision to smuggle parts for its ballistic missile program. In September 1990, U.S. Customs agents shut down a company in Florida called York Ltd. for illegally shipping computerized guidance equipment for large ballistic missiles to South Africa. According to a Customs spokesperson, the company was selling isolators and circulators built to military specifications to South Africa’s Telecom Industries.

In an incident in 1988, Customs seized five South Africa-bound gyroscopes. According to an affidavit by an undercover agent, Armscor wanted a total of 38 gyroscopes for anti-tank missiles. The government indicted two Americans and three South Africans in what turned out to be an elaborate series of schemes to hide the real end-user. The scheme included shipping equipment to a front company in Israel.

The most flagrant shipments were by a Pennsylvania-based company called International Signal and Control (ISC). From 1984 to 1988, it sent South Africa more than $30 million in military-related equipment, including telemetry tracking antennae to collect data from missiles in flight, gyroscopes for guidance systems, and photo-imaging film readers, all of which would form the “backbone” of a medium-range missile system, according to a U.S. intelligence official. Some of this technology was reportedly transferred to Iraq. Fuchs International, a South African firm, was indicted in 1991 by a federal grand jury for providing Iraq with parts for ammunition fuses, used in artillery shells fired against allied troops during the Gulf War.

Armscor and ISC Chairman James Guerin were also indicted. Guerin pled guilty and is now serving time in prison. U.S. prosecutors hope Armscor will help them convict Guerin’s partner, Robert Clyde Ivy, a former Armscor employee. Mr. Ivy is the last unconvicted American charged in the 1991 indictments. Ivy’s trial has been postponed several times. In 1994, several officials associated with Armscor came to the United States to provide information about the case in return for offers by U.S. prosecutors’ of light sentences. More details about South Africa’s missile suppliers are bound to surface if Armscor is ever brought to trial.