How SA’s nuke cloud became a global silver lining
Despite possessing six Hiroshima-type nuclear bombs, the apartheid war chiefs stopped short of a ‘Hiroshima solution’, writes Michael Schmidt
A colour photograph for sale in a Johannesburg store shows an eerily calm scene. A sleek silver aircraft parked on a sandy field, with an identical aircraft in the background, stands under a beautiful deep blue sky.
The photo was taken on Tinian Island in the Pacific Ocean group of the Marshalls and the plane — a Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber — has Enola Gay written prominently on its nose. The image is signed in blue pen: "Dutch Van Kirk Navigator Hiroshima – Enola Gay – 6 Aug. 1945."
The aircraft in the background is Bockscar, which dropped the bomb on Nagasaki.
As US President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un trade threats of nuclear annihilation, a new exhibition in Johannesburg recalls the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with a loss of 226,000 lives.
The Atomic Bomb and Human Rights Exhibition at the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre has at its epicentre the story of Sadako Sasaki, who was two years old when Hiroshima was incinerated and who died of resulting leukaemia 10 years later. Her habit of making origami paper cranes became a global symbol of the antinuclear bomb movement.
In honouring SA as the only country to have voluntarily dismantled its nuclear weapons, Hiroshima mayor Kazumi Matsui said in a message for the exhibition’s opening that although the bomb that destroyed his city in 1945 had resulted in deep hurt, which persisted 72 years later, "there are approximately 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world", most of them far more powerful than the one used to attack Hiroshima.
Public knowledge of the South African nuclear-bomb programme emerged incrementally following former president FW de Klerk’s announcement in March 1993 that the country had developed "a limited nuclear deterrent capability", but it had been "dismantled and destroyed".
It was only in 2003 that more details emerged after former nuclear-war chief Lt-Gen Jan van Loggerenberg, former Armscor research and development head Dr Hannes Steyn and former Atomic Energy Corporation head Dr Richard van der Walt released their book Armament and Disarmament. It sketched the programme’s development from the decision to build nuclear bombs in 1978 until the project ended in 1991.
The creation of SA’s bomb, which involved a gun-type device in the tail section firing a uranium projectile into an enriched-uranium core in the nose section, was tightly controlled through a parallel system of half-authorisation codes required to be matched to allow the removal of a tail and a nose from separate armoured safes at the secret Advena facility near Pelindaba.
On September 22 1979, a US spy satellite picked up the double-flash of a nuclear detonation over SA’s Prince Edward Islan
Another book — The Bomb, by former Atomic Energy Corporation nuclear physicist Nic von Wielligh and his daughter Lydia von Wielligh-Steyn — identified the individual devices for the first time.
Starting in 1979, a "300 series" was developed into five preproduction models, two of which were of such high quality that one was retained as a training device called Hobo after its warhead was removed and integrated into the first production model called Cabot in December 1982 – "a Christmas gift for PW Botha".
A production series of true nuclear weapons then started with the completion in November 1979 of Video – later renamed Melba and used as a demonstration model – plus Cabot 306, which was upgraded into an active device, and the "500 series" of live nukes produced between 1988 and 1989, giving a total of six operational fission weapons with yields of 10 to 18 kilotonnes, equivalent to the Hiroshima bomb’s 15kt.
The authors relate what happened when Video was hidden in a disused coal mine outside Witbank. Arriving with the nuke at 3am one morning, Van der Walt decided to have the wheels of the nuke’s trolley removed "to make it more difficult to steal".
One of Video’s builders recalled: "I started unscrewing the nuts on one wheel in the dark.... The mine was pitch-dark.... Then I saw that I was busy trying to unscrew a split rim. If it had blown out it would have taken my head off."
On September 22 1979, a US spy satellite picked up the double-flash of a nuclear detonation over SA’s Prince Edward Islands, corroborating seismic and fallout evidence that a 3kt device had been detonated, probably an Israeli missile test fired from Overberg in the Cape with SA observing.
The Bomb’s new disclosure is that the apartheid state wanted more than six operational nukes.
In November 1986, a new nuclear weapons deterrence strategy was approved by former defence minister Magnus Malan. Botha demanded one demonstration model, three gun-type nuclear weapons that could be delivered by ballistic missiles and three "boosted" versions that would be delivered by medium-range missiles, plus another seven weapons that could be delivered by aircraft.
A massive new facility was planned to produce weapons-grade plutonium and other heavy metals, with the aim of producing a thermonuclear fusion bomb with a yield of about 100kt.
In the 1986 strategy’s worst-case scenario — SA facing a losing war — the nuclear weapons would have not been used strategically against enemy capitals such as Luanda, but rather tactically in support of naval and ground forces.
So, despite possessing six Hiroshima-type nuclear bombs, the apartheid war chiefs stopped short of a "Hiroshima solution" to win their Bush War.