NUCLEAR WEAPONS AND THE BANTAMSKLIP APARTHEID SITE
A nuclear warhead works by using a runaway nuclear reaction. The nucleus of an atom has two major components: positively charged protons and neutrally charged neutrons. The number of neutrons in the atom provide different isotopes of that atom.
NUCLEAR FISSION When a heavy nucleus of Uranium-235 is hit by a neutron (1) it splits into two smaller nuclei (2), releasing more neutrons and energy in the form of waves (3)
When an unstable nucleus is hit by a stray neutron, it splits into two parts (called “fission”). It also gives off stray neutrons, which smash into other nuclei, splitting them in turn, and thus creating a chain reaction. An uncontrolled reaction is similar to that which was created over Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, creating tremendous heat and damage to human beings, and so ushering in the Nuclear Age.
Rossing uranium mine Namibia
In order to build such formidable bombs, however, you need highly enriched Uranium. Uranium ore is only slightly radioactive. Most of it consists of the isotope, Uranium 238, which is relatively stable and unusable. The more unstable and therefore useful isotope is U235, which is only 0.7 percent in nature, so it needs it needs to be separated from the rest of the uranium ore and thereby enriched in its percentage.
The nuclear fuel cycle
The more U235 in the metal, relative to the amount of U 238, the more unstable will be the mixture, and therefore the more useful it becomes for fission purposes. The best way to secretly enrich Uranium is to have a nuclear reactor as cover for your activities. The country only has to say it is enriching for peaceful purposes, as North Korea and Pakistan did and Iran is doing now. Both North Korea and Pakistan now have nuclear bombs, bombs that they denied they were developing.
LOOKING AT THE HISTORY
South Africa already had a small nuclear reactor as far back as 1965, for peaceful research purposes, but there is evidence that some elements in the South African government even then had plans to join the nuclear arms race, even though the reactor was acquired from the USA under the ''atoms for peace'' program. Interestingly, this reactor ran on highly enriched Uranium - that means weapons grade Uranium - which was supplied by the USA.
The 43 m high Helium Test Facility at Pelindaba
As these things go, there was an enormous amount of covert actions, secrecy, espionage and counter-espionage and deception. Prime minister John Vorster announced publicly in 1970 that South Africa had developed its own unique way of enriching uranium. The message was clear: think twice before you mess with us. But he added that the enriched uranium would only be used for peaceful purposes. However, the USA did not like this development and stopped supplying highly enriched Uranium to South Africa.
NUCLEAR POWER – NUCLEAR WEAPONS
South Africa never confirmed nor denied that it had atom bombs, kept the world guessing - and worried.
The developement of nuclear power in South Africa can only be understood against the backdrop of the Cold War, which started almost at the end of the 2nd World War untill the fall of the Soviet Union - and beyond. Moscow drove communist expansionism and the Western powers seemed unable to stop it. Korea is still in a deadlock since 1953. Eastern European countries became puppets of Moscow, Russian tanks rolled into Prague and Budapest, to brutally suppress uprisings. The USA withdrew from Vietnam in 1975 after receiving a bloody nose. That was a war that was never even formally declared. It just happened. The Russians invaded Afganistan in 1979 and civil war, was devastating Mozambique and Angola. As conflict spilled over our borders, the previous government realized they may at best contain the conflict, but never win it. Then came the arms embargo in 1975. South Africa stood alone. Apartheid had made South Africa a pariah state, an outcast from the international communities, both East and West. With its back against the wall, drastic action was needed.
The architect of South Africa’s ‘Grand Apartheid’ and an entheuastic backer of South Africa’s nuclear program, Prime Minister Hendrick Verwoed (left)
The decision was made to manufacture atom bombs as the only effective defense or at least a deterrent. Almost from the beginning, nuclear power stations and the development of atom bombs became inextricably linked.
Whatever one's stance is now or whatever side of the political divide you were, or are on, it cannot be denied that white South Africa had every reason to feel threatened defending the undefensible. Whatever the case, the apartheid regime chose to dig in its heels.
As is now known, there was a lot of internal disagreement in the cabinet at the time and when F.W. de Klerk became head of state, he secretly ordered the nuclear bomb manufacturing to be stopped. The fact that South Africa indeed had nuclear weapons was only acknowledged by President de Klerk March 24 1993, four years after he ordered bomb building to be stopped in 1998.
Let us go back to the situation in the mid seventies.
From the mid to late sixties, the situation in Sub-Saharan became more unstable and even worse during the seventies. Peace and democracy seemed out of reach. Fear gripped the southenmost country of the continent as the situation to the North seemingly worsened.
There are limitations to conventional warfare. South Africa was no match for what Moscow could supply. Cubans poured into Angola. Unrest increased on our borders. The only answer was to get atomic weapons, as well as devices to deliver them to to distant enemy cities. A tall order, as very few countries had that capabilily at the time. Certainly none in Africa
South Africa would also later be able to later launch its own satellite into space. Sadly,, that completed satellite is now only a display item at the Air Force Museum at Swartkops. South Africa was forced by the USA in a rather unfriendly way, to demolish its entire missile program, even for peacefull purposes. A good example of how paranoid and mixed-up American foreign policy really is. The result is that most of the scientists working on that missile program, are now working for countries hostile to the USA.
Perhaps the only good that came out of all of this is that South Africa is now the world's 3rd largest exporter of nuclear isotopes for medical and industrial use, So the bombs found a peacefull use after all.
The Technical part.
Most of us know the model of an atom. It has a nucleus, consisting of protons with a positive electrical charge, neutrons with no electrical charge and a little cloud of electrons, with a negative electrical charge, orbiting around it. When we talk about ''nuclear'', it only concerns the nucleus of the atom and what happens to it. The electrons play no part in nuclear reactions at all. Elements are things like Hydrogen, Oxygen, Iron and Uranium, according to the number of protons in the nucleus . Some elements have different isotopes. That means, although they have the same number of protons, they have different numbers of neutrons in the nucleus. So, Uranium 238 has 3 more neutrons than Uranium 235. That means: U235 and U238 are the same element, with the same number of protons and electrons, but are 2 different isotopes of the very same element, Uranium. Elementary, my dear Watson.
Some isotopes are called: ''stable'', that means they stay the same over millions of years, but others are ''unstable''. Unstable isotopes tend to spontaneously break up or lose some of its neutrons, This usually happens with some sort of release of energy in the form of radiation. These isotopes are therefore called ''radio-active''. Since there are uncountable billions and billions of atoms in one gram of an unstable element, and they break up one atom at a time at random, that means at any time now or in the distant future, there is no danger of them all breaking up at once with lots of release of radiation and energy. There are just too many of them for the chances of that to happen. They decay gradually.
But the more unstable they are, the faster it takes for one gram of that element to break up, or ''decay.'' The time it takes for one half of the atoms to break up, is called the ''half - life'' of that atom. This may vary from minutes to centuries. Then it will take the same time for the other half to break up, leaving only a quarter of the original gram to further decay, every time using the same time to half its numbers. And so on.
Scientists figured out ways to hurry up the process that will cause all of the atoms of the unstable isotope of Uanium, (U235) break up in a very short time, with the release of a helluva lot of energy and radiation. That is called a nuclear explosion or atom bomb. Or simply the A-bomb. They elliminated the natural half-life. This splitting of the atom is called "fission''. And the bombs are also called 'Fission bombs.''
To build atom bombs, you need Highly Enriched Uranium. Natural Uranium ore is only slightly radio-active as it contains a mixture of two forms of Uranium, the ''isotopes'', U238 and U235. Most of it is the isotope, Uranium 238, which is stable and unuseable. The unstable, or radio-active isotope is Uranium235, which is only a small% in the ore and it is U235 what is needed. It needs to be separated to an extent from the rest. This process is called ''enrichment''. The more U235 vs. U238 in the resulting mixture, the more it is ''enriched'' and the more unstable it is. In other words, the more radio-active the mixture, the more usefull it is. uranium enrichment is extremely difficult and expensive. South Africa did succeed to find a secret, uniqe process for enriching Uranium.
From left to right: Minister of Defence, Magnus Malan: Chief of SADF; General Constand Viljoen: Chairman of Armscor, Commandant Piet Marais; President P W Botha.
The best way to secretly enrich Uranium, is to have a nuclear reactor as a cover for your activities. The country only has to say it is enriching for peacefull purposes, as North Korea and Pakistan did and Iran is doing now. Both North Korea and Pakistan now have nuclear bombs, bombs that they denied they were developing. It is the lust for political power that drove most nuclear research, not electrical power.
South Africa already had a small nuclear reactor as far back as 1965, for peacefull research purposes. But there is evidence that some elements in the South African government even then had plans to join the nuclear arms race, even though the reactor was acquired from the USA under the ''Atoms For Peace'' program. Interestingly, this reactor ran on Highly Enriched Uranium - that usually means, ''Weapons Grade Uranium'' - which was supplied by the USA. Weapons need to be lightweight to be delivered by aeroplane or rocket, so the uranium needs to be highly enriched - up to 90 % for a big bang. Reactor fuel needs only to be enriched up to about 10%, because there is no real weight restriction. The more enriched the fuel, the more unstable it is, so the more radio-active it is and the more difficult and dangerous it is to handle.
At the time, as these things go, in the murky world of politics and weapon procurement, then, as now, the amount of covert actions, secrecy, espionage and counter-espionage and deception was enormous. Prime Minister John Vorster announced publicly in 1970 that South Africa had developed its own unique way of enriching uranium. But, he assured everyone, that the enriched uranium would only be used for peacefull purposes. However, the USA did not like, nor support this developement and stopped supplying highly enriched Uranium to South Africa for the small reactor it already had.The USA did not really believe South Africa could achieve that capability. The USA optimistically hoped that South Africa's nuclear program would just fizzle out with an arms embargo. However, it had the oppposite effect than intended. Instead of halting the nuclear research, it just spurred the South Africans on to do the impossible: make atom bombs with only a fraction of the money and other resources of any country that had atom bombs.
South Africa never confirmed, nor denied that it had atom bombs, but kept the world guessing - and worried. Untill much later.
The excuse was that nuclear research would be used for ''peacefull purposes'' only. In those years, ''peacefull'' may even have included (as unbelieveable as it may sound today) using small nuclear explosions instead of dynamite in engineering projects. The Americans contemplated using it to enlarge the Panama Canal and blasting a harbour in Alaska to construct a military base close to Russia. The Americans dropped the idea, but the Russians did use nuclear explosions to make a canal or canals, but this remains shrouded in mystery. With South Africa's rich mineral deposits and raw materials, nuclear bombs for mining were a possibility, but most believed that the South Africans did not have the the technical ability to construct them.
But to be sure, the arch enemies, the USA and Soviet Union, later even joined forces to spy on South Africa, exchanging satelite pictures. A potential nuclear test site being built in the Kalahari, nearly got South Africa in a big war. The site got close to being bombed, but South Africa got wind of it (perhaps tipped off by the USA) and hastely cancelled the test and demolished the site. The public of course, never even supected anything. However, South Africa kept the Koeberg Reactor going, so nobody really knew what ''we'' were up to.
THE P W BOTHA POWER STATIONS
The process goes in full swing
In the P.W. Botha era, there was the ''total onslaught'' and ''swart gevaar'' - mostly from the North, Within our borders, it lead to the chasm between black and white growing larger,. along with animosity and fear - the scourge of apartheid - leading to extremist groups on both sides. The scaremongering may have done more harm than good, even with 50 000 Cuban troops in Angola. The plans for an invasion and a possible war had to be drawn up and implemented with ever greater haste.
Conventional wisdom dictates in such a scenario that the defensive and offensive military bases should be as far North as possible, but not so close to the border to be vulnerable to a surprise cross-border attack. These were built and ''Boetie gaan border toe.''
But one will keep your secret weapon manufacturing as far away from the enemy to the North as possible and hidden where nobody will suspect it. It was already known that the nuclear facilities were near Pretoria, so no use shifting that. Just let the nuclear facilities blend in with with other industrial sites, camouflaged as something else. And so the history of nuclear power and atom bombs are twisted into the very fabric of this country. Just as is happening in all other countries aspiring to be part of the nuclear bomb elite.
The Houwteq facility near Grabouw
The furthest away from the Swart Gevaar, and "the closest to home'' was right here in the Western Cape. So the new development for secret misssile technology was hidden away in a chemical factory, Somchem, in Somerset West. The missile engine factory was hidden in the mountains that is now the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve and other technology was developed at Houw-teq close to Grabouw. Hermanus was not spared either.
Newly completed RSA propulsion stage. These indigenously – fabricated engines may have propelledat least one RSA test missile during a test flight in 1989
The first missile testing range was built at St., Lucia, Northern Natal, right in the middle of a high priority conservation area, despite the objections of ''the Greens''. Because the earth rotates westwards, it is best to place missile launching sites
on the East coast and as close as possible to the equator. That is why Cape Kennedy/Canaveral is on the coast of Florida in USA and the Europeans launch theirs from French Guyana in central America. But now there was a problem. Things were not going well in Mozambique and that was too close to the secret missile testing. So then in 1983 the missile launching site went as far South as possible as well. And where is better than the Agulhas plain near Bredasdorp? This missile test range is still used today..
Satellites shown in various stages of construction – at Houwteq, Grabouw, Cape.
To be economical, one must have your power plant and fuel as close as possible to the place where it is used. It was convenient to have big power stations close to the coal mines in eastern Transvaal and the high tension wires were relatively short to the mines and industries around Johannesburg. Cape Town is far south and a lot of power is lost in transmission due to resistance in the long cables. So, to build Koeberg nuclear power station near Cape Town was logical and economically justified. There is no coal in the Cape and the nuclear fuel is manufactured near Pretoria where such a manufacturing plant was well known and how would anybody know how much Uranium is actually enriched and to what degree? Security was so tight, that neither the USA nor the Soviets ever found out.
Uranium ore is plentyful in South Africa. So weapons grade enriched Uranium - a mixture of up to about 90 % U235 and 10 % U238 - was manufactured next to reactor grade Uranium at only 3.5 % to 10% enriched. Nuclear fuel is concentratrated so only a truckload or two poses no transport problem. So South Africa enriched its own uranium to about 3.5 % to be used in Koeberg, and quite legally so, in the eyes of the world. What the world did not know, was that a large amount of weapons grade Uranium was manufactured as well, at the same enrichment facilities.
However, with a growing population, more power stations became necessary. The transport of coal is expensive, so the coal-fired power stations near Cape Town were eventually shut down, as being uneconomical. At least one coal-fired power station at Newcastle, Natal, right next to a coal mine, was dismantled and the essential machinery sold to Germany, at the turn of the millenium, even with power shortages looming. This gives one a clue of how ignorant the current government actually is about energy and related matters.
The Apartheid Connection.
Now it becomes interesting. Koeberg is too far from Port Elizabeth and East London, not to mention Durban and Richards Bay to be really that economical, due to electricity lost in long transmission lines. So why build one here at Bantamsklip, which is also far too far ? Or even at Thyspunt, near Cape St. Francis? Or at Duynefontein, next to Koeberg, the three preferential sites?
Well, if one put it further East, it would be too close to where Nelson Mandela and other ''terrorists'' came from. And here the securocrats' paranoia is showing in a 1984 report: The: ''nuclear invesitigation report western cape 011538# P1 - 48.'' This report states ''is not adviseable to route 3 lines parallel from a security point of view.'' The ANC or PAC ''terrorists'' were trying to disrupt the economy by blowing up power lines at the time, remember? To have one main power line out of action could be managed by feeding from elsewhere in the grid. With all 3 gone, it could be extremely disruptive. Not good in war-like situation.
Durban and Pietermarirtzburg are rapidly growing cities. Neither have coal fired power stations and all its electricity comes the former eastern Tranvaal. Richards Bay is also developing fast and huge electricity-hungery Aluminium smelters were planned there, with one already operational. So why not put a nuclear power station there? This is now anyone's guess. Could the proximity to Mozambique still be a factor? Or the surrounding ''swart gevaar''? Unlikely. Very unlikely. So what is it?
Or could it be that the old plans from before 1994 are still on the drawing boards and in the back of the minds of the old planners. And so the new planners just took over the old blueprints? Being new in the game, the new role players, some too young to remember, simply went on with the old plans, drawn up in the P.W. Botha era without questioning the reasons for the plan. It could very well be. As the French say, ''There is nothing as permanent as a temporary arrangement''. Judging by the plans for the Aluminium smelters that were approved and then had to be cancelled again, one has reason to question the judgement of the ministry of energy affairs and the department of trade and industry.
The Thyspunt site, although also in an ecological sensitive area, is close to East London and Port Elizabeth. P.E. the bigger city, is the one furthest from the power station. This does not really make sense. The area between the two cities was surveyed and found geologically unsuitable for a huge structure like a nuclear power station. But one would expect it to be further up the coast, closer to Durban and Richards Bay. Especially since Eskom sells Electricity to an Aluminium smelter all the way up in Mozambique. MozaI buys electricity at half of the price that it costs Eskom to produce the power, if one has to believe the latest newspaper reports.
It seems very likely that Eskom got stuck in the mindset of the ''old guard'', most of whom have since retired. But the new ones who took over the reigns, just went on unquestiongly with that mindset - that paradigm - that nuclear power stations should be in the old Cape Province, just like old P.W. Botha and his securocrats decided. Due to this, the Western Cape and lately the western side of the Eastern Cape must carry the burden of having nuclear power-plants in our midst. With all the negative effects and no benefit.
Will the top hierarchy wizen up that they are following P.W. Botha's policy? Unlikely. They are far too busy fighting each other for positions, big salaries and retirement bonuses. The leadership at Eskom, these last few years, has been so unstable that no big plan was formalized, except to build more power plants. Realizing that going nuclear would be too costly and will take far too long to build, they decided to go the old coal route; cheaper and faster.That was untill the World Bank told Eskom they will not get a cent, until Eskom includes renewable energy in its long term planning. In their haste to get going, the board members of Eskom forgot all about their promises about renewable energy until the rude - or is that ''inconvenient'' - awakening by the World Bank.
It is unclear exactly how the World Bank thinks about nuclear, given the costs, but greenhouse gas power stations are a no-no to the money lenders. Their mindset is more towards renewable sources such as wind and solar generated electricity.
So, in summery, let us not call it the ''Bantamsklip'' or ''Thyspunt” PowerStations.'' Just call them after the Big Boss, ''Die Groot Krokodil'' who wanted it that way
The P.W. Botha Powerstations. That is what they really are..