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South Africa
Location of South Africa
Nuclear program start date 1970s
First nuclear weapon test possible 22 September 1979
First fusion weapon test Unknown
Last nuclear test Unknown
Largest yield test Unknown
Total tests Unknown
Peak stockpile Six bombs
Current stockpile none; voluntarily destroyed
Maximum missile range ca 1,300 kilometres (810 mi) (English Electric Canberra)
NPT signatory Yes
Nuclear weapons
One of the first nuclear bombs.

Arms race
Civil defense

Nuclear-armed states

United States · Russia
United Kingdom · France
China · India · Israel
Pakistan · North Korea
South Africa (fmr.)

From the 1960s to the 1980s, South Africa pursued research into weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. Six nuclear weapons were assembled[1]. With the anticipated changeover to a majority-elected government in the 1990s, the South African government dismantled all of its nuclear weapons, the first nation in the world which voluntarily gave up nuclear arms it had developed itself.

The country has been a signatory of the Biological Weapons Convention since 1975, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty since 1991, and the Chemical Weapons Convention since 1995.


Nuclear weapons

Spare bomb casings from South Africa's nuclear weapon programme

South Africa developed a small finite deterrence arsenal of gun-type fission weapons in the 1980s. Six were constructed and another was under construction at the time the program ended.[2] South Africa was able to mine uranium ore domestically, and used aerodynamic nozzle enrichment techniques to produce weapons-grade material.


Testing the first device

The South African Atomic Energy Board (AEB) selected a test site in the Kalahari Desert at the Vastrap weapons range located at 27°50′S 21°38′E / 27.833°S 21.633°E / -27.833; 21.633 north of Upington. Two test shafts were completed in 1976 and 1977. One shaft was 385 metres deep, the other, 216 metres. In 1977, the AEB established its own high-security weapons research and development facilities at Pelindaba, and during that year the program was transferred from Somchem to Pelindaba. In mid-1977, the AEB produced a gun-type device—without an HEU core. Although the Y-Plant was operating, it had not yet produced enough weapons-grade uranium for a device. As has happened in programmes in other nations, the development of the devices had outpaced the production of the fissile material.

Atomic Energy Commission officials say that a "cold test" (a test without uranium-235) was planned for August 1977. An Armscor official who was not involved at the time said that the test would have been a fully instrumented underground test, with a dummy core. Its major purpose was to test the logistical plans for an actual detonation.

How that test was cancelled has been well publicized. Soviet intelligence detected test preparations and in early August alerted the United States. U.S. intelligence quickly confirmed the existence of the test site. On 28 August, the Washington Post quoted a U.S. official: "I'd say we were 99 percent certain that the construction was preparation for an atomic test."

The Soviet and Western governments were convinced that South Africa was preparing for a full-scale nuclear test. During the next two weeks in August, the Western nations pressed South Africa not to test. The French foreign minister warned on 22 August of "grave consequences" for French-South African relations. Although he did not elaborate, his statement implied that France was willing to cancel its contract to provide South Africa with the Koeberg nuclear power reactors.

In mid-1983 de Villiers said that when the test site was exposed, he ordered its immediate shutdown. The site was abandoned and the holes sealed. One of the shafts was temporarily reopened in 1988 in preparation for another test, which did not take place; the move was intended to strengthen South Africa's bargaining position during negotiations to end the war with Angola and Cuba[3]

Possible detonation

In September 1979, a double flash over the Indian Ocean detected by a U.S. satellite was suspected of being a South African nuclear test, in collaboration with Israel (this event is known as the Vela Incident). No official confirmation of it being a nuclear test has been made, and expert agencies have disagreed on their assessments. In 1997, South African Deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahad stated that South Africa had conducted a test, but later retracted the statement as being a report of rumours. Pahad apparently had no inside information about the programme.[4] In February 1994, Commodore Dieter Gerhardt, the convicted Soviet spy and former commander of South Africa's Simon's Town naval base was reported to have said:

"Although I was not directly involved in planning or carrying out the operation, I learned unofficially that the flash was produced by an Israeli-South African test code-named Operation Phenix. The explosion was clean and was not supposed to be detected. But they were not as smart as they thought, and the weather changed – so the Americans were able to pick it up."[5][6]

Viable delivery

SAAF Canberra B12 with inertial navigation and special sensors package over Transvaal

The six bombs were not particularly sophisticated, being designed to be delivered from one of several aircraft types then in service with the South African Air Force (SAAF). The Canberra B12 in service with 12 Squadron SAAF was chosen as the primary air drop vehicle as it was highly reliable, spares were readily available from several countries (unlike the Buccaneer and the maritime reconnaissance Shackleton, grounded due to UK refusal to supply spare parts), and it had both a significantly greater radius of action and a much higher operating altitude than the Buccaneer and Cheetah. There was also much more internal space for the fitting of weapons system control equipment.

Further, the Buccaneer was designed with a rotating bomb-bay, which needed modification to carry the first-generation 'shape' weapon, raising complexity and reliability issues, and increased fuel consumption, leading to the Canberra B12 being the preferred 'viable means of delivery' in the early part of the program.

South Africa also had a relatively sophisticated intercontinental ballistic missile programme running concurrently with the nuclear programme, and was known to be working on more sophisticated nuclear weapons capable of delivery from such a platform. According to published data one of the missiles, the RSA-4, may have been capable of delivering a 700 kg nuclear warhead from its South African launch site to any point on earth[7].

Alleged collaboration with Israel

David Albright and Chris McGreal have claimed that South African projects to develop nuclear weapons during the 1970s and 1980s were undertaken with some cooperation from Israel.[8][9][10] The United Nations Security Council Resolution 418 of 4 November 1977 introduced a mandatory arms embargo against South Africa, also requiring all states to refrain from "any co-operation with South Africa in the manufacture and development of nuclear weapons".[11]

According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, in 1977 Israel traded 30 grams of tritium for 50 tons of South African uranium and in the mid-80s assisted with the development of the RSA-3 ballistic missile.[12] Also in 1977, according to foreign press reports, it was suspected that South Africa signed a pact with Israel that included the transfer of military technology and the manufacture of at least six nuclear bombs.[13]

In 2000, Dieter Gerhardt, Soviet spy and former commander in the South African Navy, claimed that Israel agreed in 1974 to arm eight Jericho II missiles with "special warheads" for South Africa.[14]

All the bombs (six constructed and one under construction) were destroyed and South Africa acceded to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty when South African Ambassador to the United States Harry Schwarz signed the treaty in 1991. On 19 August 1994, after completing its inspection, the IAEA confirmed that one partially-completed and six fully-completed nuclear weapons had been dismantled. As a result, the IAEA was satisfied that South Africa's nuclear program had been converted to peaceful applications. Following this, South Africa joined the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) as a full member on 5 April 1995. South Africa played a leading role in the establishment of the African Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty (the Treaty of Pelindaba) in 1996, becoming one of the first members in 1997. South Africa signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996 and ratified it in 1999.

Biological and chemical weapons

In October 1998, the report of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission included a chapter on Project Coast, a clandestine government chemical and biological warfare program conducted during the 1980s and 1990s. Project Coast started in 1983, ostensibly to produce equipment for defensive purposes, including masks and protective suits. Despite vehement assertions to the contrary, some testimony appeared to show that the programme went well beyond defensive purposes.

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ "South Africa: Nuclear Case Closed?" (PDF). National Security Archive. 1993-12-19. Retrieved 2008-08-26.  
  3. ^ Frank V. Pabian. [ "South Africa’s Nuclear Weapon Program: Lessons For U.S. Non Proliferation Policy"]. James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. pp. 8. Retrieved 2008-12-08.  
  4. ^ Aziz Pahad's statement and retraction discussed here
  5. ^ South Africa and the affordable bomb, David Albright, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Jul 1994, pp 37.
  6. ^ Proliferation: A flash from the past David Albright, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Nov 1997, pp. 15
  7. ^ Jericho
  8. ^ Chris McGreal (2006-02-07). "Brothers in arms - Israel's secret pact with Pretoria". The Guardian.,,1704037,00.html.  
  9. ^ South Africa and the affordable bomb (David Albright) "South Africa and the affordable bomb". Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. August 1994. South Africa and the affordable bomb (David Albright).  
  10. ^ Unknown author. "RSA Nuclear Weapons Program". Federation of American Scientists.  
  11. ^ UNSCR 418 of 4 November 1977: States should refrain from "any co-operation with South Africa in the manufacture and development of nuclear weapons"
  12. ^ "Missile Chronology (South Africa)". Nuclear Threat Initiative. May 2003.  
  13. ^ "P.W. Botha felt Israel had betrayed him". Jerusalem Post. 2006-11-02. Retrieved 2006-11-02.  
  14. ^ "Tracking Nuclear Proliferation". PBS Newshour. 2 May 2005.  
  • Joseph Cirincione, Jon B. Wolfsthal, Miriam Rajkumar. Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Threats. Washington D.C.: Carnegie Endowment For International Peace, 2005.

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