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U.S. says South Africa’s weapon-grade uranium not sufficiently secure

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Nuclear risksU.S. says South Africa’s weapon-grade uranium not sufficiently secure

Published 23 April 2015

In the early 1990s South Africa’s former apartheid government dismantled the country’s six nuclear bombs and its nuclear weapons-making infrastructure as it began planning the transformation of the country into a democracy. The nuclear fuel, extracted from the country’s nuclear weapons, has over time been used to make medical isotopes, but roughly 485 pounds remain. A November 2007 breach at the Pelindaba nuclear research center, where the nuclear fuel is stored in a former silver vault, alarmed U.S. officials, who had reason to believe the culprits were after the center’s fuel inventory. Incentives from the Obama administration for South Africa to convert its nuclear-weapons fuel, have been rejected by South Africa.

In a 2012 State Department counterterrorism report, South African nationals were suggested as possible terrorist financiers and facilitators. A South African nonprofit was suspected of funneling funds to Bangladeshi militant groups. The report adds that informal cash transfer businesses called hawalas, widely used by the country’s Somali community, likely transferred money to violent jihadists in East Africa.

Adding to the country’s vulnerability as a hub for terrorist supporters, South Africa’s borders remain porous and terrorist groups have exploited the holes to move through the continent. For these reasons and more, the U.S. government has spent the past few years trying to persuade South African president Jacob Zuma to transform the country’s weapons-usable uranium into a more benign form (see “South Africa refuses to give up cache of weapon-grade uranium,” HSNW, 19 March 2015).

In the early 1990s South Africa’s former apartheid government dismantled the country’s six nuclear bombs and its nuclear weapons-making infrastructure as it began planning the transformation of the country into a democracy. The nuclear fuel, extracted from the country’s nuclear weapons, has over time been used to make medical isotopes, but roughly 485 pounds remain.

A November 2007 breach at the Pelindaba nuclear research center, where the nuclear fuel is stored in a former silver vault, alarmed U.S. officials, who had reason to believe the culprits were after the center’s fuel inventory. Two teams of raiders who entered the center’s fenced perimeter were never caught and the South African government has since labeled the incident an attempted “burglary.”

Matthew Bunn, a Clinton White House science official who also advised the George W. Bush administration on nuclear security matters, called the South African government’s view of the raiders as burglars “utterly nonsensical.” “Nobody breaks through a 10,000-volt security fence to steal someone’s cellphone,” he said. “The obvious question is, What else at the site justifies having two well-trained, knowledgeable teams at the site at the same time? The assumption … to be disproved is that they were … after the highly-enriched uranium.”

After the raid, the Bush administration offered to help tighten security at Pelindaba, but the South African government refused. Instead, South Africa chose to seek a special International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) review of the site, and in January 2008 the IAEA issued a statement that a security upgrade plan set up by the South African government a year before the raid had provided an “appropriate basis” for protecting the site. U.S. officials at the time were unsatisfied with South Africa’s handling of the breach, but South Africa’s representative on the IAEA board asked his American counterparts: “Don’t you trust the IAEA? This is the organization you created. They come here, they inspect, they report, the stuff is under 24-hour surveillance, it’s in a vault. What’s your problem?”

According to the Center for Public Integrity, a confidential report for the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (NECSA) — the utility that runs Pelindaba — conducted by Kroll Inc., an international intelligence and investigations firm, concluded that the 2007 raid was carefully planned and involved teams with special training and some knowledge of Pelindaba’s perimeter security measures. Still, the South African government refuses to acknowledge the gravity of the breach. To date, no one has been arrested and workers who were present and hurt during the 2007 attack remain employed at Pelindaba.

A September 2009 State Department diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks reveals that Joseph Shayi, NECSA’s top security manager told U.S. officials that he needed additional motion sensors, video cameras, fencing, and training for Pelindaba, but, according to All Africa Global Media, some of Shayi’s colleagues said at the time that the upgrades would divert funds from other nuclear work.

Incentives from the Obama administration for South Africa to convert its nuclear-weapons fuel, have been rejected by Zuma. The 2007 raid aside, “if a real terrorist organization tried to break in there, they’re going to get in,” said Donald Gips, President Barack Obama’s ambassador to South Africa from 2009 to 2013.

Waldo Stumpf, a senior official in South Africa’s nuclear programs under both the apartheid and democratic governments until 2001, said in a past interview that due to security upgrades made at Pelindaba, “there’s no way” that unauthorized parties could get into the (fuel) vault. Roger Johnston, a physicist who from 1992 until early this year led a team of Energy Department scientists studying nuclear security, called the breach at Pelindaba an example of what could occur when facility authorities become too assured in their security measures. “It’s just not a business where you should ever be confident,” Johnston said.

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