That gives this country – which has insisted that the US and other world powers destroy their nuclear arsenals – a theoretical ability to regain its former status as a nuclear-weapons state. But the US is worried that the nuclear explosives here could be stolen and used by militants to commit the worst terror attack in history.
Washington has waged a discreet diplomatic campaign to persuade South Africa to get rid of its stock of nuclear-weapons fuel.
But President Jacob Zuma, like his predecessors, has resisted the White House.
He proposed that South Africa transform its nuclear explosives into benign reactor fuel, with US help.
If Zuma agreed, the White House would trumpet their deal at a 2012 summit on nuclear security in South Korea, Obama wrote, according to a copy of the letter.
Together, he said, the two nations could “better protect people around the world”.
Zuma insisted that South Africa needed its nuclear materials and was capable of keeping them secure. He did not accept a related appeal from Obama two years later, US officials said.
South Africa asserts that it is absurd for the US to be obsessed over the security of the country’s small stockpile while downplaying the starker threat posed by the big powers’ nuclear arsenals.
Raising the threat of nuclear terror, officials here say, is an excuse to restrict the spread of peaceful and profitable nuclear technology to the developing world, and to South Africa in particular.
This claim of being singled out is similar to that made by another emerging nuclear power: Iran.
Few outside the weapons states possess such a large stockpile of prime weapons material, and none has been as defiant of US pressure to give it up.
In response to this report, the South African government issued a statement reaffirming its view that the November 2007 break-in was an ordinary burglary and asserting that the weapons uranium is safe.
“We are aware that there has been a concerted campaign to undermine us by turning the reported burglary into a major risk,” said Clayson Monyela, spokesman for the country’s foreign ministry.
He said the International Atomic Energy Agency had raised no concerns, and that “attempts by anyone to manufacture rumours and conspiracy theories laced with innuendo are rejected with the contempt they deserve.”
A bomb’s worth could fit in a 2.5kg sack and emit so little radiation that it could be carried around in a backpack with little hazard to the wearer. Physicists say a sizable nuclear blast could be readily achieved by slamming two shaped chunks of it together at high speed.
Just nine non-nuclear-weapon states besides South Africa still have enough enriched uranium to build a nuclear weapon, although mostly not in a readily usable form, according to Miles Pomper, senior research associate at the James Martin centre for Nonproliferation Studies: Germany, Japan, Canada, Belgium, Kazakhstan, Poland, Italy, the Netherlands and Belarus.
Each has been similarly asked by Washington and its allies to reduce or eliminate their stocks of highly enriched uranium.
After Zuma rejected Obama’s 2011 plea, Obama raised the issue again, during a trip to Pretoria in June 2013.
This time, he privately asked Zuma to relinquish a different trove of weapons-usable uranium – still embedded in older reactor fuel that by US accounts is lightly guarded – in exchange for a free shipment of 350kg of fresh, non-weapons-usable reactor fuel.
There, the South African emissary told reporters that the summits should “wrap up” their work and leave nuclear security to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which considers the expansion of civilian nuclear power a key mission.
Fear of “what could go wrong” with nuclear technology, Nkoana-Mashabane said, should not violate the “inalienable rights” of countries to use enriched uranium for peaceful purposes. “We have no ambition for building a bomb again. That is past history. But we want to use this resource.”
South Africa has used some of the former bomb fuel to make medical and industrial isotopes – generating $85 million in income a year.
But about six years ago, South Africa started making the isotopes with low-enriched uranium that poses little proliferation risk – a decision that robbed it of its long-standing rationale for keeping the materials.
Now officials say they’re retaining their weapons uranium partly because some day someone may find a new, as-yet-undiscovered, commercial application.
Abdul Minty, who served for most of the past two decades as South Africa’s top nuclear policymaker and is now the country’s ambassador to UN agencies in Geneva, said it was the US that was recalcitrant. Even as it campaigns to halt the spread of nuclear weapons, he said, it refuses to part with its own.
The IAEA, the 75-year-old diplomat said, cannot be used as a tool to undermine the “basic right” of non-nuclear countries to develop their own nuclear industries.
He also harshly criticised the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty – in which the members of the UN Security Council agreed to get rid of their nuclear arsenals if the rest of the world promised not to acquire them – for not pressuring the major powers to disarm.
According to US officials and experts, South Africa uses only about 7.5kg of its remaining stock of weapons uranium to make isotopes annually, out of a total stockpile estimated by foreign experts at 220kg. And it need not use it at all.
Waldo Stumpf, a longtime atomic energy official in South Africa who presided over the dismantlement of the apartheid-era bomb programme, said in an interview that handing over the highly enriched uranium “was never part of the thinking here. Not within FW de Klerk’s government. Not afterwards, when the ANC took over. Why would we give away a commercially valuable material that has earned a lot of foreign exchange?”
In fact, South Africa intends not only to keep its existing enriched uranium, officials here say, but also insists on the right to make or acquire more.
Xolisa Mabhongo, who served from 2010 to 2014 as South Africa’s ambassador to the IAEA and last year moved to a senior executive post at the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation,
said: “I don’t think there is any incentive that can be offered” that South Africa would trade for its weapons uranium. “We do not see the need to give it to anybody else.”
* This article comes from the Centre for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative news organisation.