South Africa Has recently been accused of "playing both sides of the nuclear coin". This followed President Jacob Zuma’s speech at the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit last month, in which he said SA’s technical achievement in being able to generate medical isotopes through low enriched uranium (LEU) was "a welcome addition to the capability to produce such isotopes using highly enriched uranium (HEU)".
Zuma also said: "SA has adopted a policy on the beneficiation of our mineral resources, including uranium." Critics have suggested SA has a policy of enriching uranium and does not want to limit its options by giving up the production or use of HEU, and by implication will hold on to its existing stock of HEU, which it still has from the nuclear weapons programme of the apartheid government.
Although it is true SA will continue to maintain and use its existing stockpile of HEU, SA does not have a policy of enriching uranium. The 2008 nuclear energy policy document states "there is presently no uranium enrichment infrastructure or economically proven technological capabilities in SA", and the "government’s intention is to investigate the re-establishment of a uranium enrichment capacity as part of uranium beneficiation for peaceful purposes". There is nothing clandestine about this, nor does it portray playing a game of two sides. Let’s be clear.
As a leading African participant in both the 2012 and the 2010 nuclear summits, SA understands that nuclear terrorism continues to be one of the most challenging threats to international security and is committed to the summits’ action plans and communiqués, which seek to strengthen nuclear security, reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism, and prevent terrorists, criminals or other unauthorised actors from acquiring nuclear materials. With the other 50-odd states present, SA recognises that in doing this, the rights of states to develop and use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes should not be hampered.
The Seoul communiqué encouraged states to take "measures to minimise the use of HEU, including through the conversion of reactors from highly enriched to low enriched fuel … taking into account the need for assured supplies of medical isotopes", and also encouraged states "in a position to do so, by the end of 2013, to announce voluntary specific actions intended to minimise the use of HEU".
SA has already done this, and today is leading the transition to produce the medical isotope molybdenum-99 with LEU rather than HEU. In August last year, the government, through the Nuclear Energy Corporation, returned 6,3kg of HEU spent fuel to the US for safe storage and ultimately destruction. There are no double games here.
SA has every right to keep its stock of HEU given that it is using it for peaceful purposes. And although HEU poses a proliferation risk, SA has put every possible nonproliferation measure in place, including safeguards and 24-hour real-time video surveillance, with the International Atomic Energy Agency to ensure that the material does not end up in the wrong hands.
It is ironic that most of the research facilities around the world that were designed to operate on HEU are situated in the states that have nuclear weapons. One cannot exclusively focus on reducing reliance on HEU for peaceful purposes without any real commitment and progress on the elimination of HEU and other fissile materials that are primarily being used for military purposes. The threat to humanity’s very existence is the continued use of such material for weapons purposes.
The Seoul communiqué reaffirms that nuclear security measures will not hamper the rights of states to develop and use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. The HEU that the Nuclear Energy Corporation holds does not pose a security risk and given the developmental benefits of nuclear and other radioactive materials for Africa, there is a clear need to ensure the continued delivery of such materials and related applications that they provide, such as radionuclides intended for use in life-saving medical treatments.
SA is fully within its rights as a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to explore the feasibility of enriching uranium and fuel fabrication provided this is done for peaceful purposes.
Unfortunately, due to the sensitivities around this material, the issue of possession and use of HEU has become, and will continue to be, highly politicised.