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South Africa: They Built Nuclear Weapons and Then Gave Them Up. Why? via The National Interest

Key Point: The Republic of South Africa is the only country in the world to build a nuclear weapons program, then unbuild that program after domestic and international conditions changed.

by Robert Farley

Why did South Africa decide to build nukes, how did it build them and why did it decide to give them up? The answers are largely idiosyncratic, although they may hold some lessons for the future of nuclear weapons development on the Korean Peninsula and elsewhere.

South Africa sought nuclear weapons for familiar reasons. Although it enjoyed presumptive conventional dominance over any likely regional opponent, Pretoria worried that the advantage might erode over time. The South African government also appreciated that widespread disdain for its apartheid system might prevent Western countries (including the United States) from coming to its aid in any serious confrontation against the Soviet Union or its allies. Nuclear weapons would provide not only a direct way of confronting a military attack against South Africa, but also a means of leveraging Western diplomatic and military support during a crisis.

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Overall, South Africa constructed six uranium gun fission weapons (similar in nature to the Little Boy weapon dropped on Hiroshima). The devices were too large to fit onto any existing South African missiles, and consequently would have been delivered by bombers such as the English Electric Canberra or the Blackburn Buccaneer.

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No full test of the devices has ever been confirmed, as heavy pressure from the United States, the Soviet Union and France helped force Pretoria to cancel an underground detonation in 1977.

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Still, analysts suspect or know of at least four countries that supplied a degree of support to South Africa’s nuclear program. The United States supplied much of the initial technology associated with South Africa’s civilian nuclear program under a variety of different assistance programs. Although not intended to accelerate proliferation, the assistance did provide the basis for South Africa’s eventual nuclear program. France and Pakistan may also have supplied technical assistance at various points during the development of the program.

Allegations of Israeli support for the South African program have circulated for years. In the Cold War, Taiwan, Israel and South Africa constituted the Axis of Outcasts, countries anathema to large parts of the diplomatic community. 

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FW De Klerk denies this, but there are surely reasons to doubt that the security apparatus of the National Party shared his reasoning. As it turned out, the ANC had little-to-no interest in paying the diplomatic and military costs of maintaining a nuclear deterrent that deterred, in effect, no one. By 1994 all of South Africa’s nuclear devices had been disassembled.

Read more at South Africa: They Built Nuclear Weapons and Then Gave Them Up. Why?

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