Like millions of others, I’m an admirer of the modern history of South Africa: its nonviolent transition from a racist system to multiracial democracy; Nelson Mandela’s decision after decades in prison to reject bitterness for reconciliation; its unique status as a country that voluntarily dismantled its nuclear weapons arsenal. Both the United States and South Africa champion nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament in public statements.
I was surprised, as a result, to discover the depth of the diplomatic discord between the United States and South Africa about an issue on which I expected the two countries to see eye-to-eye: the U.S. campaign to persuade countries to eliminate stocks of uranium that could be used to build nuclear bombs.
As National Security Editor R. Jeffrey Smith and I found after interviews with more than 65 officials, experts and other sources from both countries over a period of ten months, South Africa has about a quarter-ton of uranium from its former nuclear weapons program that could be readily used to build bombs.
While South African officials admit they currently have no practical use for this dangerous material, they’ve refused entreaties by both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama to get rid of it. We wrote about these fractious conversations in three abbreviated articles published this week as part of our continuing investigative series entitled "Nuclear Waste." A more detailed account of an alarming raid on the Pelindaba site holding South Africa's weapons-usable materials by two armed groups will be published by us on Friday, March 20.
No current or former U.S. official we talked to expressed concern that South Africa wants to rebuild its nuclear weapons. But the United States has been pushing for decades to clear out stocks of highly-enriched uranium around the world, out of concern they could be stolen or seized, and ultimately be used by terrorists.
We also discovered that the United States considers South Africa’s stock of uranium as one of the most vulnerable in the world, because of its size and because the uranium exists in a form that is particularly easy to adapt for use in a weapon, including an unsophisticated one.
Another major concern, we learned, was that South Africa had reacted fairly passively to a November 2007 break-in at the Pelindaba nuclear research center, outside Pretoria, where the uranium is stored. While officials there publicly dismissed the incident as a botched burglary attempt, U.S. officials came to suspect that the tightly-organized raid targeted the uranium, with inside help.
So what would South African officials tell me when I finally met them face-to-face? What lay behind South Africa’s defiant stance? What was Pelindaba like? These were the questions I had in October when, after crossing the Atlantic Ocean and the Equator, I finally landed at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg.