One of the most fascinating aspects of the construction of South Africa’s first nuclear energy project, the 1 800 MW Koeberg power station, in the Western Cape – and an aspect that will always differentiate it from any future nuclear build programme in the country – was that it was undertaken at a time when government was simultaneously pursuing a covert nuclear weapons development programme.
Given the highly covert nature of that programme, the history of the development of South Africa’ s nuclear weapons arsenal is not well known or even well documented. However, enough details made their way into the public domain to piece together a captivating, if not intriguing, narrative.
In 1970, the South African government openly acknowledged that it intended to initiate a nuclear weapons research programme under the guise of developing ‘peaceful’ nuclear explosives that could be used in its mining industry. While that may have been true, in 1974, government made the highly covert decision to transform that research initiative into a full-scale development programme to manufacture a “limited nuclear deterrent” capability.
That programme was primarily motivated by South Africa’s pariah status among the international community, which stemmed from its consistent refusal to reform the policy of apartheid. As it became increasingly isolated in the 1960s and early 1970s, it was believed that, in the event of an attack or an invasion, the country would not be able to rely on foreign military assistance. Thus, the National Party government believed that the best way to protect itself from invasion would be a nuclear weapons arsenal.
Another important factor prompted the National Party government to undertake the programme was its inherent anticommunist sentiment and its grave concern over what was perceived to be a Soviet-backed communist expansion in Southern Africa during the mid-1970s.
Such fears were heightened – and, no doubt, reaffirmed government’s nuclear weapons programme – when some 25 000 Cuban troops were deployed in Angola to support the leftist liberation movement, the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola, on the eve of Angola’s independence from Portugal in November 1975.
When the decision to develop a limited nuclear deterrent capability was taken in 1974, the extremely paranoid government, under the Premiership of John Vorster, thought it wise to keep the project so secret that not even all the Cabinet members were made aware of it. One of the very few members of government who was privy to the project was FW de Klerk, who later explained that “our nuclear programme was never discussed in Cabinet or the State Security Council and was managed on a strictly need-to-know basis”.
Apart from the fact that the Western Bloc would have disapproved of such a project, the National Party government decided to keep it secret or at least ambiguous in the absence of hostilities or direct aggression against South Africa. Only if the threat of a Soviet-backed invasion was considerably elevated would government reveal its nuclear deterrent capabilities.
Manufacture of the highly enriched uranium required for the nuclear weapons was undertaken at the Valindaba facility, the construction of which was completed in 1975. Realising that such a large facility, which was adjacent to the Pelindaba research reactor, could not be hidden from outsiders, the National Party government publicly announced the existence of the plant and its purpose to enrich uranium but kept secret the uranium enrichment technology and, more importantly, its plans to produce weapons-grade uranium.
It was in the midst of this covert weapons programme that power utility Eskom was planning and issuing international tenders for the construction of the country’s first nuclear energy plant. In fact, when the tender was awarded at the end of May 1976, the nuclear weapons programme was firmly under way.
Despite the covert nature of the programme, the international community certainly had its suspicions that South Africa was dabbling in more than just the development of ‘peaceful’ mining explosives. It is for that reason that the award of the Koeberg tender was greeted with considerable public and political outcry over France’s willingness to assist what was not only a racist pariah State, but also one that was probably developing nuclear weapons.
It was for that reason that, in the week following Eskom’s award of the tender to the French consortium, Vorster was obliged to officially cable the French government to “affirm South Africa is only interested in the peaceful uses” of France’s nuclear technology. That was accompanied by a vehement insistence that the country was not developing nuclear weapons.
In a further attempt to ease French distress over the project, French Foreign Minister Jean Sauvagnargues told the National Assembly that the Koeberg plant would have no effect at all on the production of nuclear weapons. “In any case, South Africa has such a strong armaments industry that she has no need for nuclear weapons.” He went on to state that France would “highly disapprove” of South Africa making nuclear arms.
Such assurances were also given by the French companies involved in the consortium. When asked in a television interview if there was any fear that the plants would help South Africa to build atomic bombs, Lucien Abourdarham, sales director of Framatome, the company that was providing the nuclear reactors, said it was true that some plutonium would be produced by the reactors but “many other elements are necessary without which it is absolutely impossible to build an atomic bomb”. He said the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would monitor the use of the materials and installations.
However, as the nuclear arms programme intensified, South Africa increasingly resisted all efforts by the IAEA to carry out inspections on its nuclear facilities. This led to the country’s removal from the African seat of the international body in 1979.
Meanwhile, the construction of Koeberg continued, with France’s steadfast commitment, unabated. The plant was finally commissioned in April 1984.
As history would prove, the international community was right in its suspicions all along, for South Africa did, indeed, successfully manufacture six massive gun-type atomic bombs, each containing 55 kg of highly enriched uranium, over a period of 12 years. These were dismantled and destroyed during the transition to nonracial democracy.