U.S. Said to Consider Plan to Buy S. Africa Uranium
The United States is considering a plan to buy South Africa’s stocks of enriched uranium, but isn’t sure the Pretoria government has come clean about the amount of bomb-grade nuclear material it owns, officials say.
South Africa, which officially renounced its nuclear weapons program in 1991, has asked the United States to buy its weapons-grade uranium, said one official who spoke on condition of anonymity. He declined to further discuss the highly sensitive issue.
The idea would be for the United States to dilute the highly enriched substance to lower-grade uranium fuel and sell it back for South Africa’s nuclear reactors, said another official, who also asked not to be named.
According to Leonard Spector, a nuclear expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, both sides stand to gain from such a deal. South Africa would get fuel it cannot produce on its own, and the United States would make sure South Africa can no longer make nuclear weapons.
A similar deal was announced several days ago for the United States to buy 500 tons of enriched uranium from nuclear weapons being dismantled by Russia. This would get the material out of harm’s way in the volatile former Soviet lands and generate badly needed cash for the successor republics.
The problem with South Africa, though, is that no one other than its government knows quite how much enriched uranium it has produced since secretly launching a nuclear weapons program in the 1970s.
Since South Africa signed and ratified the International Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1991, the International Atomic Energy Agency has conducted some 80 inspections of nuclear facilities in that mineral-rich country. Under terms of the treaty, South Africa has also declared its stocks of weapons-grade fuel.
But, said CIA Director R. James Woolsey last week, “we have some concerns about the accuracy of South Africa’s declaration” to the IAEA.
A White House report to Congress on nuclear programs worldwide went even further. “The United States has serious questions about South Africa’s compliance with . . . its obligations” under the treaty, said the report, submitted one day before the George Bush Administration left office in January.
State Department officials say South Africa is cooperating with the IAEA in an effort to clear up the discrepancies between its declaration and the findings of inspectors who took samples from nuclear waste sites, enrichment facilities and reactor cores.
“The process of verification is inherently complicated and takes time,” the State Department said.
Spector explained that experts were trying to decide whether the discrepancies could be explained by the uranium enrichment method used by South Africa, in which some uranium put into the enrichment process dissipates so that the end product weighs less than the amount of raw material.
The amount of enriched uranium South Africa declared to the IAEA is secret. But one official said it appears South Africa enriched more than 800 pounds of uranium between 1978 and 1989 at its reprocessing center in Valindaba.
A declassified 1979 CIA report obtained under the Freedom of Information Act estimated that South Africa had already produced enough material for several nuclear weapons. One device requires at least 10 pounds of enriched uranium.
The official said South Africa has refused to tell the IAEA the enrichment level of this uranium, beyond providing a range figure.