South Africa, World

Things That Goes Boom: Is South African uranium the biggest threat to world peace?

Things That Goes Boom: Is South African uranium the biggest threat to world peace?

South Africa’s nuclear munificence is stockpiled in the Pelindaba Nuclear Research Centre, just west of Pretoria. Within a secure vault smoulders almost a quarter of a tonne of highly enriched uranium, enough to make about ten cities go boom. Using diplomacy by other means—AKA an expose by an outfit called the Centre of Public Integrity, published in the Washington Post—the Americans have announced that they believe Pelindaba to be one of the world’s great security threats. How afraid should we be? RICHARD POPLAK dons a nuclear protection radiation suit and wades in.

Here’s a question for pre-nuclear winter South Africa: how does one distinguish between regular, old-school robbery and high-stakes atom bomb brinkmanship intended to usher in World War IV?

By the grade of bolt-cutters used in the caper? By the tensile strength of the wool in the balaclavas? By the loudness of the Mission: Impossible theme song playing in the background?

These questions have taken on renewed urgency following the publication of a Centre for Public Integrity report that suggests that the renowned 2007 break-in at the Pelindaba Nuclear Research Centre was not a petty robbery, as our government insists that it was, but a coordinated and well planned attempt to steal as much of our 485lbs of bomb-grade uranium as possible. There is a significant difference in outlook here, and it has apparently caused a whole lot of sturm und drang between the SA Government and their American frenemies.

They want us to hand our weapons-grade uranium over to responsible adults for safekeeping. The SA government wants our paper-suited boffins to keep crafting medical isotopes in order to kill tumours, not people. Between these positions, there’s a persistent nightmare of stolen Brand-SA nukes wiping out the eastern seaboard at the behest of Iranian-sponsored pyromaniacs or ISIS-inspired millenarians.

So, just how significant is South Africa’s bomb juice to the global balance of power?

The story begins back in the halcyon days of apartheid, when commies were commies and Braai Day was every day. It was 1956, and Johannes Strijdom was looking to switch on the lights by the godly power of the split atom. The Americans were happy to help out an anti-Soviet outpost of Christian rectitude, and under the ambit of the Atoms For Peace programme, supplied Pretoria with the know-how to build a nuclear reactor powered by—spoiler alert!—weapons-grade uranium. Come 1976, and it was clear to the hacks in Washington that the apartheid regime was considering a bomb or two to complement their reactor. But by then it was too late. Because the Boers had enough highly enriched uranium supplied by the Americans to do with what they wanted, and they wanted the ultimate industrial-scale, city-sized meat griller.

Which, in short, is how a regime that was afraid of television managed to acquire an arsenal of atomic weaponry.

Oh, it was a different time, when the enemy of your enemy was your friend, and the bands of rogue Mujahedeen being funded by the Americans in Afghanistan had yet to branch out into international terrorism. Nonetheless, the quarter-tonne of uranium ingots that (hopefully!) still sit in Pelindaba are easily transportable, and so pure that slamming enough of them together at speed would cause the DA to send out a strongly-worded press release should Pretoria inadvertently be flattened.

What I’m really describing is one of those cause-and-effect screw-ups that are the bastard spawn of the Cold War. But the ingots are worth a lot of money, and the government doesn’t want to give them up. Think of them as inheritance from a hated patriarch, one that brings in roughly R850 million a year and gets the attention of all the boys at global circle-jerks like Davos. The Americans understand the South Africans to be close with Iran—who are famously pursuing their own nuclear programme—but mostly they understand us to be incompetent, and they’re afraid that a second Pelindaba break-in would result in someone with a very long beard posting an unforgettable YouTube video.

* * *

The November 2007 break-in was actually two break-ins. The first occurred shortly after midnight, the second shortly after shortly after midnight. The tsotsis/professional thieves/terrorist mofos (depending on your version) cut through the chain link fence, and entered the facility only to be thwarted by a local fireman. It’s not the stuff that Tom Cruise movies are made of, and while no one has been done for the breach—this, after all, is a country in which no one gets done for anything—there did appear to be “insider participation”, to which most of us would say, Duh.

And while our own government brushed the episode off, the real world was practically shitting mushroom clouds. “That really freaked people out,” understated Gary Samone, President Obama’s nuclear terrorism guru until 2013. Their prez even sent our prez a letter detailing his concerns, which sounds like a last resort given Zuma’s aversion to consuming written material. Pelindaba is considered an easy target, and the prize within is almost impossibly rich. The uranium is apparently contained within a vault, and the vault according to Waldo Stumpf, a nuclear wonk who worked for the apartheid regime and for the Mandela and Mbeki governments, is impenetrable.

Famous last words.

What so terrified the Americans was a 98-page report, still largely “secret”, that detailed the details of the raid with alarming details. As the Centre for Public Integrity piece put it:

The first raider went straight to the electrical box, where he circumvented a magnetic anti-tampering mechanism, disabled the alarms, cut the communications cable, and shut down power to a portion of the fence and to alarms on a gate just 250 feet away — opening a path for a vehicle to exit.

This was not simply a matter of pulling a switch, a person familiar with the independent investigation said, but required electrical skills and knowledge of the security systems. Those who participated, the report said, had special training.

The raiders arrived on a night when they may have expected little resistance. The Emergency Center supervisor scheduled for duty that night used a wheelchair, but had arranged for a colleague to take his place. She brought along her dog and her fiancé, Frans Antonie Gerber, an off-duty firefighter

Security forces never confronted the raiders. But the dogs’ barking — which led Gerber to spy the intruders and his girlfriend to call for help — thwarted the intrusion.

Chased off by Lassie. How encouraging. How reassuring.

The Americans believe that we have a “crime problem”, one which will lead to Pelindaba being emptied of its treasures. They want the uranium secured—another way of saying, “transferred to their care”—as soon as possible. But there never really has been a hope in hell of South Africa giving up the goods. The apartheid regime wasn’t about to hand ‘em over, and there’d be a measure of insanity to the ANC-led government doing the same. Sure, this stuff is terrorist catnip. But it generates four Nkandlas worth of income a year, and, frankly, it’s not like the United States is a paragon of responsibility when it comes to blowing things up.

* * *

The big barrier between Washington and the uranium remains Abdul Samad Minty, this country’s reigning nuclear wonk, and not exactly the sort of guy you’d find at an Elect Jeb Bush rally. Minty now has the plum post of the South Africa’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, and probably spends on an average espresso what our ingots bring in annually. But one can’t accuse him of equivocating, and as he told the Centre for Public Integrity, “The problem is you can’t have nuclear-weapons states who feel they can have nuclear weapons and have as many as they want.”

Minty’s long-held belief is that it’s impolite to tell a fellow holding a quarter of a tonne of bomb grade material to dump it when you’re holding 741 metric tons of the stuff. And according to an absolutely terrifying resource called, “There are about 40 states with approximately 2,070 tons of weapons-usable fissile material, enough to make more than 130,000 nuclear weapons,” while only eight states (un)officially have the bomb. For the Obama administration, the Pelindaba debacle has been about cauterizing one wound among dozens. And the SA Government doesn’t want to be cauterized, let alone considered a wound.

How bad will this spat get? Put it this way: there’s no middle ground. Highly enriched uranium is a resource, and in Africa you don’t hand resources over to other countries without conjuring up the likes of Cecil John Rhodes, which is just entirely bad vibes.

In an interview secured by the Daily Maverick, Xolisa Mabhongo, Group Executive Corporate Services at the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (NECSA), was equally as emphatic as Minty. “This is our property,” he said of the uranium. “What they should be worried about is the stockpiles of nuclear warheads held by the US and others. That is a threat to the world.” Mabhongo reminded us that South Africa was the first country to voluntarily dismantle its nuclear weapons, and is the second biggest producer of medical isotopes that treat cancer. No one else has done this, according to Mabhongo, and there has been nothing in the way of reciprocity from the big guys who jealously guard their own arsenals.

As Mabhongo correctly stated, the terms of the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) determined that those who did not have nukes would not attempt to acquire them, and those that did would get rid of them in as seemly a manner as possibly. The former has been rigorously enforced, with a Pyongyang-ish blip here and there. The latter has been a complete joke. ‘We have kept our side of the bargain,” said Mabhongo, implying that we’ve bombed cancer instead of the Marshall Island archipelago.

What’s more, according to Mabhongo, our uranium is under “24-hour guard” by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the same people who will be policing Iran if US Secretary of State John Kerry can bore the mullahs into signing a deal. What’s more, South Africa has signed an additional protocol to the IAEA, which means the inspectors can pop in unannounced, visit our nuclear sites, eat our biltong, and comment on the colour schemes in our secret bunkers.


On the one hand, a terrified Washington trying to exact another of President Obama’s pie-in-the-sky mandates: sweeping up the thousands of kilograms of enriched uranium that was over the course of the Cold War dispensed by the Americans like bad LSD at a Grateful Dead concert. On the other hand, you have a South African government that isn’t interested in having this conversation until it includes the term “disarmament”, full knowing that it also means “never”. Pelindaba remains a target, but its one that is under the supervision of the same agency that the Obama administration claims will save us all from the Mad Mullahs when the Big Deal is done.

In other words, an impasse.

Worryingly, though, here in the real world, where nuclear bombs really hurt, we’re told to believe the words of the government that sat on the 1997 report informing them that country would run out of electrical power by 2007, right up until it ran out of power in 2008. The same government that did pretty much nothing until 2015. Except that, should something Eskom-sized happen this time, their ineffectiveness and disconnect from reality could cost Western (or Eastern, or African) civilisation roughly eight to ten cities. And yet, if the Washington Post story was meant to nudge that government into action, it’s done no such thing.

So keep digging, folks—dig deep, and dig far. Store up your Koo supplies, load up your iPod with dirges and shanties, make sure you buy plenty of everything. Because an eternity in a bunker could be the load-shedding of the future. DM

Photo: Pelindaba (NJR ZA via Wikimedia Commons)


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.8% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.2% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.2% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.2%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options