Destroy its own nuclear arsenal – Meet the only country in the world that “built and bury” its nuclear weapons

The risks associated with nuclear weapons and their potential proliferation have been discussed and debated for more than five decades now. Countries like Iran and North Korea have been sanctioned for their nuclear programs exceeding permitted limits for uranium enrichment and nuclear weapon development.

The United States and Iran remain stuck in negotiations that previously ended in stalemate. Nor has there been a breakthrough with North Korea turning its back on the demand to dismantle its nuclear arsenal.

However, there is a country that not only built nuclear weapons for itself without any official recognition, but also voluntarily abolished them and became outspoken with the world decades ago.

Former South African President FW De Klerk who dismantled South Africa’s nuclear weapons (via Wikidata)

The former apartheid South African government was involved in the research and development of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) from the 1940s to the 1990s.

In 1989, however, its decision to end the nuclear program made South Africa the only country to build nuclear weapons and to voluntarily abandon them. A few years later, in 1993, the country also ended its biological, chemical and missile programs, thus abolishing all forms of ADM.

Then South African President Frederick William de Klerk verified what had been suspected for years on March 24, 1993. He announced to the world that his government was working on a top secret project and had acquired weapons. nuclear.

He had said South Africa produced six atomic bombs in one of the most infamous speeches to the country’s parliament in all of its history. He also said the bombs had been destroyed and the country’s nuclear development had been halted for military needs.

Then, in a significant turn of events, South Africa became part of the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and thus became the first country to build nuclear weapons, destroy them without warning, and then join the treaty alliance aimed at non-proliferation. nuclear weapons.

India and Pakistan are not signatories to the NPT, which prohibits them from joining the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

South Africa, after destroying nuclear weapons built under the apartheid government, began to advocate for disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation in the post-apartheid era. He also led the efforts to establish the Treaty of Pelindaba and the African Nuclear Energy Commission established with the aim of ensuring compliance by States Parties with their commitments in the Treaty.

In 1999, they also joined the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT).

South Africa’s rendezvous with nuclear weapons

South Africa, which had a lot of uranium, was interested in atomic energy and in the mining, commercial and energy industries that could form around it as early as 1948. In 1957, the government bought its first nuclear reactor. in the USA.

Although the focus of the nuclear program was not officially changed from peaceful to military goals until 1977, U.S. intelligence records suggest that South Africa launched its nuclear weapons program in 1973. They were initially barred from testing these weapons due to intense international pressure, according to the International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).

However, South Africa had designed and manufactured its first nuclear explosive device in 1982. It had six bombs, each containing 55 kilograms of highly enriched uranium (HEU), and was capable of delivering the explosive equivalent of 19 kilotons of TNT, in 1989.

South Africa-nuclear
Bomb housings at the abandoned South African nuclear bomb production facility near Pretoria. (Wikimedia Commons)

When De Klerk officially announced to Parliament the destruction of all nuclear bombs, he also granted the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) unrestricted access to the nuclear site in order to investigate his allegations.

He said the agency could visit all nuclear sites in South Africa to verify their claims and with that a full circle was closed from the acquisition of nuclear weapons to their dismantling and becoming the one of the strongest voices for disarmament in the world.

In 2017, under the presidency of Jacob Zuma, South Africa also became a signatory to the “Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons” which includes a comprehensive set of bans on participating in any activity related to nuclear weapons.

Only four countries have ever surrendered their nuclear weapons in history. And three of them – Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine – did so because these nuclear weapons were inherited from the former Soviet Union, but these countries did not have the resources to control them. and maintain them, according to The Atlantic.

The choice to sell the arms in exchange for American support and the guarantee of Russian security is, however, extraordinary; if Ukraine and Kazakhstan had kept the arsenals on their soil, they would have become the third and fourth nuclear powers in the world, respectively.

Why did South Africa destroy its nuclear weapons?

South Africa’s intention to develop restricted warhead nuclear weapons began in 1974, according to De Klerk’s speech in 1993. The threat posed by the expansion of Soviet forces in South Africa was the reason for this decision to manufacture warheads, in a major policy change.

South Africa has developed nuclear weapons due to the uncertainty generated by the Warsaw Pact, an organization of former communist countries.

The choice of South Africa was also affected by the changing security environment in Africa. Portugal has abandoned its African territories. Angola and Mozambique obtained their independence. The civil battles that broke out in the country took on an international dimension. Between the communist and capitalist powers, the shadow of the cold war weighed heavily; the security situation in the region had deteriorated.

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In Angola, the number of Cuban forces was increasing. South Africa believed in a defensive weapon. The country was also cut off from the rest of the world because of its apartheid policy. In the event of an attack, the president told parliament that his country could not count on foreign aid.

During the Cold War, neither the United States nor Russia, the two superpowers of the time, supported South Africa. When South Africa was preparing to conduct an underground nuclear test in 1977, the United States and the Soviet Union teamed up to stop it.

Under these conditions, the South African government decided to build an atomic bomb for its own safety, and the South African government authorized a three-step nuclear deterrent strategy in April 1978.

The first step was to maintain the confusion over the country’s nuclear capabilities, that is to say not to admit or deny them. If there was a threat to South Africa, the second step would be carried out. It was determined that in the event of a threat, South Africa would secretly inform a superpower such as America that it possesses nuclear weapons.

It was decided that if the threat did not diminish, South Africa would move on to phase three and officially admit to possessing nuclear weapons. It was also determined that the bomb would be tested underground at the same time.

India has 140 nuclear warheads - with more to come |  National interest
File Image: Indian Nuclear Capable Missile

In reality, South African politics never went beyond the first phase.

The reasons for the dismantling of these atomic weapons were given by De Klerk in his speech to parliament. He cited the truce in Angola, the departure of 50,000 Cuban soldiers from Angola and the tripartite agreement for the independence of Namibia. He also noted that the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union necessitated the end of South Africa’s nuclear program.

Under these conditions, the then president noted, nuclear deterrence had become not only necessary but also an obstacle to South Africa’s foreign relations and its full integration into the world for its own benefit and progress. .

One would assume that the United States is somewhat expecting the same dismantling of nuclear weapons from North Korea which has become more and more belligerent by the day. While the United States insists on a complete dismantling of the nuclear arsenal, North Korea demands a comprehensive lifting of the sanctions imposed on it.

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