Zuma was unmoved, however, and in a letter of his own, he insisted that it needs its nuclear materials and was capable of keeping them secure. He did not accept a related appeal from Obama two years later, current and former senior U.S. officials said.
Differing points of view
Washington may bear a special responsibility for ensuring that South Africa’s materials do not wind up in the wrong hands.
Over nine years ending in 1965, it helped South Africa build its first nuclear reactor under the Atoms for Peace program, and then trained scientists to run it with U.S.-supplied, weapons-grade uranium fuel. Washington finally cut off the fuel supply in 1976, after becoming convinced the apartheid regime used its nuclear research to create a clandestine bomb program, fueled by its own highly-enriched uranium.
The apartheid regime hatched the bomb program at a time when it faced sabotage at home, wars on its borders and increasing international isolation. But by the end of the Cold War, the government realized that its whites-only rule would have to be scrapped, and so its leaders ordered the weapons destroyed and the production facilities dismantled, while holding onto the explosive fuel.
In interviews, top officials in both countries made clear that they see the nuclear security issue today through different prisms. Zuma’s appointees assert that it’s absurd for the United States to obsess over the security of the country’s small nuclear explosive 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. And for good reason: Both countries defiantly constructed facilities to enrich uranium in the past, over foreign opposition, and want the rest of the world to agree they have a right to do it in the future. They have long been diplomatic friends and trading partners, and have discussed helping one anothers’ nuclear research.
But this demand for uranium enrichment rights– which Tehran wants enshrined in an agreement with six great powers — is hardly theirs alone. Although the Obama administration has tried to discourage uranium enrichment everywhere, leaders in Brazil, Argentina, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Jordan, and South Korea say they see nuclear power, along with the ability to enrich uranium, as their right.
By most accounts, Iran doesn’t have significant amounts of weapons uranium, only the means to make it. But it stands accused by the International Atomic Energy Agency(IAEA) — and behind it, by the United Nations Security Council — with failing to come clean about past nuclear work with weapons applications. That’s why it has been hit with sanctions.
South Africa, in contrast, was praised by the IAEA in 1995 for “transparency and openness” in discussing its weapons program. The agency also declared it had no reason to suspect that South Africa’s inventory of fissile materials was incomplete or that the program had not been completely stopped and dismantled.
Unlike Iran, however, South Africa already possesses highly-enriched uranium — nearly a quarter-ton of it — which the United States has tried but failed to pry loose. That’s why current and former U.S. officials say that it is South Africa that is now the world’s largest uncooperative holder of nuclear explosives, outside of the 9 existing nuclear powers.
Few outside the weapons states possess such a large and vulnerable stockpile of prime weapons material, and none has been as defiant of U.S. pressure to give it up.
Told what this story would say, the South African government responded Friday with a statement reaffirming its view that the November 2007 break-in was a run-of-the-mill 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, spokesperson for the country’s foreign ministry, called the Department of International Relations and Cooperation. He said the IAEA 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.”