Shoring Up a Crucial Bridge: South Africa's Pressing Nuclear Choices

By Boureston, Jack; Lacey, Jennifer | Arms Control Today, January/February 2007 | Go to article overview
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Shoring Up a Crucial Bridge: South Africa's Pressing Nuclear Choices


Boureston, Jack, Lacey, Jennifer, Arms Control Today


Taking advantage of an unusual nuclear history; an innovative, domestic nuclear power industry; and strong ties with other strategic countries, South Africa is emerging as a crucial bridge between developed and developing countries on nuclear issues. South Africa's outspoken support for "all" country's rights to develop nuclear technologies for peaceful purposes and its renewed interest in developing its own nuclear fuel cycle puts it at center stage in nonproliferation debates.

At the same time, its record as the only country to develop its own nuclear weapons and then renounce them (see page 20) has allowed it to challenge the nuclear-weapon states to meet their disarmament commitments under the nuclear Nonprolireration Treaty (NPT).

South Africa has long played a prominent role in the Nonaligned Movement (NAM), which brings together developing countries. Moreover, it has forged dose ties with Brazil and India on nuclear issues, and the three together yield considerable influence on nuclear issues as members of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors.1 In the next few months, it will also gain new power in the UN Security Council and as the next chair of the Nuclear Suppliers Group.2 More than ever, therefore, South Africa's nuclear policy can have significant implications in shaping the future of the nuclear nonproliferation regime. It has the potential to be a responsible model for other developing nations to follow or could prove to be a new problem by backing some states that have questionable motives.

Unique Past, Unique Present

South Africa once had the infrastructure to assemble a number of nuclear weapons. In 1989, however, the government gave up that path, admitted its nuclear weapons development, and disassembled the devices. Subsequently, South Africa joined the NPT and became an important voice in the nonproliferation regime, particularly as a representative of developing nations, including those in the NAM. In addition, South Africa is part of the New Agenda Coalition, an eight-state grouping that demands "the speedy, final and total elimination" of all nuclear weapons. These fora provide South Africa with an opportunity to convey its commitment to nonproliferation and disarmament efforts.

To this end, South Africa was one of the few countries recently to criticize the United Kingdom's decision to build a new class of ballistic missile-capable submarines. In an official statement, the South African Department of Foreign Affairs called on the British government to honor its "unequivocal undertaking" toward nuclear disarmament made during the 2000 NPT review conference.3

South Africa's long nuclear history has also laid the basis for a domestic nuclear industry of a size and sophistication unusual for developing countries, and it continues to develop new nuclear technologies that will equate to larger markets and increased revenue in the future.

South Africa's nuclear industry is one of the most innovative in the world. It includes projects such as the pebble-bed modular reactor slated for construction beginning in 2007, which puts South Africa at the forefront of nuclear energy technologies. The pebble-bed reactor will be pioneering in its cost, safety (it avoids the complexities and low efficiencies of the steam cycle), design, and quality control. It will eventually provide 4,000-5,000 megawatts of power following module completion in 2013. The reactor will use down-blended weapons-grade uranium from former Russian nuclear warheads.4

The country also has the world's fourthlargest uranium reserves5 and significant experience in fuel production. South African officials are exploring the potential construction of new nuclear plants and re-invigorating South Africa's nuclear fuel cycle.6 Its strong web of bilateral and multilateral relationships could allow South Africa to grow as a major global supplier of nuclear technologies.

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