South Africa's Nuclear Program

Requir Van der Merwe
March 12, 2019

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018

Dawn of South Africa's Nuclear Program

Fig. 1: A RSA-3 3 stage LEO rocket. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

South Africas quest for nuclear weapons ignited with research into peaceful nuclear energy in early 1969. [1] At that time, South Africa was the leading uranium miner in the world, giving the country easy axes to one of the crucial materials needed in the production of nuclear weapons and energy. [1] At the peak of uranium demand in 1980, South Africa was leading the uranium production race at 6,147 metric tons per year. [2] South Africa's drive to produce nuclear weapons stemmed from both its isolation from the rest of the world due to apartheid and the growing threat of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. South Africa deeply feared the insecurities regarding its borders, which were important incentives in other nations programs. [3] This fear ignited South Africas journey for nuclear warheads in search of safety and protection for the country. [3]

Nuclear Weapons

South Africa developed 6 nuclear warheads along with a variety of missiles and other weapons over the course their nuclear program (see Fig. 1). The projects were completed with the cooperation of the Israeli government, who like South Africa was surrounded by hostile neighbors. [3] In 1975, South Africa designed two test shafts each 250 meters deep to test their nuclear weapons. However, A Soviet satellite spotted the test sights and notified the United States, causing the government to shut down the test because of diplomatic pressure from other countries. South Africa continued research into nuclear war heads and finally completed its first working bomb in 1982. [3]

Disarming Nuclear Weapons

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and softer international tensions, President F. W. de Klerk considered signing the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] in 1990, but only "in the context of an equal commitment by other states in the Southern African region". [4] After intensive negotiations, South Africa along with United Sates, the Soviet Union, Tanzania and Zambia agreed to sign the treaty in 1991. [4] F. W. de Klerk also banned any further development, manufacturing and importing or exporting of nuclear weapons as required by the NPT. The nuclear weapons were officially disabled in 1989 two years prior to the signing of the NPT. [4]


After the signing of the NPT, South Africa transitioned its nuclear program form nuclear deterrence to industrial and economic needs for the country. [3] The new policy change generated 28 million dollars from March 1993 to March 1994 with the new applications in mining and food production, aerospace development, and environmental preservation. [3] The policy change established South Africa as a responsible producer, possessor, and trader of advanced technologies on this field. [4]

©Requir Van der Merwe. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] "Uranium," British Geological Survey, March 2010.

[2] N. von Wielligh and L. von Wielligh-Steyn, The Bomb: South Africa's Nuclear Weapons Programme (Litera Publications, 2016).

[3] D. Albright, "South Africa and the Affordable Bomb," Bull. Atom. Sci. 50, 37 (1994).

[4] F. W. de Klerk, "South Africa, the Nation That Gave up Its Nukes," Los Angeles Times, 22 Dec 13.