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Why South Africa Gave up Its Nuclear Weapons Forever via The National Interests

by Robert Farley

Key Point: The old apartheid government caved to foreign pressure and didn’t want the newly-elected government to gain control of the weapons.

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.

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South Africa could mine the requisite uranium on its own territory, and enrich it in domestic facilities. With a modern industrial economy and access to technologically sophisticated institutions of learning and research in the United States and Europe, South Africa could easily develop the technical expertise needed to build a weapon. Already the target of harsh international disdain for its domestic institutions, the South African government did not worry overmuch about how the pursuit of nuclear weapons might make it into an international pariah.

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. South Africa explored the possibility of building or acquiring ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons, although this would have required a substantial upgrade of the devices themselves. 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.

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Conclusion

The region and the world are undoubtedly safer because of the decisions made in the 1990s to relinquish South Africa’s nuclear program. Moreover, the dismantling of the relatively small program provided a template for how other nuclear powers could think about eliminating their own programs. However, with the exception of the Soviet successor states (which faced dramatically different constraints) no other states have yet taken up South Africa’s example. With the apparent increase in global tensions over the past few years, it seems unlikely that anyone will join South Africa in the post-nuclear club anytime soon.

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