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South Africa's Pelindaba Nuclear Research Center stores nearly a quarter ton of uranium
South Africa’s Pelindaba Nuclear Research Center stores nearly a quarter ton of uranium

According to various reports, back in 1990, the South African government at the time extracted the country’s inventory of highly enriched uranium from its nuclear weapons, then melted the fuel before storing it in a silver vault at the Pelindaba nuclear research center. The Pelindaba center is located just thirty minutes away from Pretoria, the country’s administrative capital.

According to a report in HomeLand Security News Wire, over the years, some of the nuclear fuel had been used to produce medical isotopes. Nevertheless, roughly 485 pounds of the fuel remain there.

The United States has expressed concerns over the safety of South Africa’s nuclear cache. In November 2007, the research center’s security was breached when two teams of raiders entered the fenced perimeter. One group eventually broke into the center’s central alarm station. Thankfully, both teams were caught when a watch officer called in additional security personnel. Nevertheless, the episode has been a source of contention between South African and U.S. officials.

South African president Jacob Zuma has rejected incentives from the Obama administration to get rid of his country’s nuclear-weapons fuel. In a letter dated August 2011, Obama warned Zuma that a terrorist nuclear attack would constitute a “global catastrophe.”

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President Obama further proposed that South Africa transform its nuclear explosives into benign reactor fuel with U.S. support. Had Zuma agreed, the White House would have announced the deal at a 2012 summit dedicated to nuclear security, which was indeed held in South Korea. President Zuma rejected the proposal at the time. He also rejected other proposals and overtures from the Obama administration regarding South Africa’s nuclear fuel.

According to a report by the The Washington Post, the United States is partially responsible for South Africa’s nuclear cache. Between 1956 and 1965, the Americans had helped the country build its first nuclear reactor under the ’Atoms for Peace program’. The United States also trained scientists to run the South African reactor with U.S.-supplied weapons-grade uranium fuel.

Washington cut off its fuel supply to South Africa In 1976, under the Ford administration. This was after it concluded that the South African Apartheid regime was busy developing a clandestine bomb program – without informing the US.