S. Africa has nuclear plant, but who will provide the fuel?

South Africa is faced with the daunting problem of having invested millions of dollars in its first nuclear power plant, but having no fuel to run it. Behind-the-scenes negotiations still are under way between the United States, South Africa, and France to end an impasse that has seriously hampered this country's nuclear program and could cost South Africa millions, if not billions, of dollars.

Dr. Wynand De Villiers, chairman of the South African Atomic Energy Board (AEB), confirms that his country is still trying to "thrash out" problems with the United States that threaten the successful starting up of South Africa's first nuclear plant, now under construction near Cape Town.

Dr. De Villiers, South Africa's top nuclear scientist, conceded that the French-built Koeberg nuclear power plant could "stand without fuel" unless negotiations with the United States and France are successful.

His comments came during a wide-ranging interview at the modernistic AEB headquarters in the Magaliesberg Mountains near Pretoria. He also:

* Denied that South Africa has detonated a nuclear explosion in the past -- or is intending to do so in the future.

* Stresses that South Africa's nuclear collaboration with Taiwan is only on production of radioactive isotopes and food preservation techniques -- not in the production of nuclear weapons.

There was no nuclear collaboration with Israel at present, he said, adding that past cooperation had been restricted solely to peaceful uses of atomic power.

* Revealed that South Africa currently plans to enrich only enough uranium at its super-secret complex at Valindaba, next door to Pelindaba to meet the country's power production needs, and is not planning at present to engage in commercial production or sale of enriched uranium on the world market.

* Said hed would like to see expansion of South Africa's nuclear program -- possibly to include the design and construction of nuclear power plants. (All of its present reactors have been provided by other countries.)

Dr. De Villier's unequivocal denial of South African detonation of nuclear explosives is in sharp contrast to some earlier statements by South African officials, who at times have hedged on the question of the country's nuclear capability. He states flatly that it is "utter nonsense" to suggest that South Africa is involved in the production or testing of nuclear explosives.

The tall, dark-haired Dr. De Villiers says his main concern is to get South Africa's nuclear program back on track after a derailment caused by a 1977 United States embargo on nuclear fuel shipments to this country.

The Koeberg nuclear power station, now nearing completion near Cape Town, was built on the assurance that the US would provide enriched uranium fuel. But the US halted nuclear fuel shipments four years ago after South Africa's refusal to sign the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NNPT).

Moreover, the sighting of what appeared to be a nuclear test site in the Kalahari Desert that same year increased concern about South Africa's nuclear intentions.

And, a 1978 law -- the US Nuclear Nonproliferation Act -- further restricted American nuclear cooperation with countries like South Africa.

The first of Koeberg's two reactor units should be completed by 1982, the second by 1983. Yet South Africa's own uranium enrichment plant is not expected to begin production until 1985. Even if it should produce sufficient fuel for Koeberg, South Africa still does not have the capability to fabricate the enriched uranium into fuel rods for insertion into the reactor core.

Speculation has been that France -- which also refuses to sign the NNPT -- would supply the Koeberg fuel as a last resort or, alternatively, fabricate fuel rods from enriched uranium provided by South Africa. But Dr. De Villiers indicates such as move is unlikely, without American approval.

Each day the co pleted Koeberg plant sits idle, the reported cost to the South Africans could be as high as $1.3 million.

And the losses to South Africa are not merely potential ones: Already the country's Safari-1 research reactor at Pelindaba is idle 7/8ths of the time due to a shortage of fuel, and South Africa's nuclear research consequently has been retarded.

The United States has found loopholes in the its nonproliferation laws to allow the sale of enriched uranium to India -- a country that not only refuses to sign the NNPT, but which has already exploded a nuclear bomb.

That move does not exactly rub salt in South Africa's wounds, says Dr. De Villiers, "but it is a bit difficult to accept that exceptions can be made in India's case, and not in South Africa's case." Dr. De Villiers points out that both the safari-1 research reactor and the Koeberg plant are subject to international inspection and safeguards. And, he says, the South African government has no objection, in principle, to safeguards and inspections at its uranium enrichment plant. But, he points out, no international guidelines for safeguarding enrichment plants have yet been drawn up, and no other plants in the world are at present subject to international inspection.

He further notes that South Africa has already agreed not to reprocess spent nuclear fuel from its reactors -- a procedure that could yield plutonium, a raw material, for nuclear weapons.

Consequently, he says, the reasons for denying South Africa nuclear fuel are "purely political," rather than technological.

"Even if we sign the nonproliferation treaty," he says, "there will be an outcry that the US is recognizing South Africa," by supplying it with fuel.

Moreover, he says, signing the treaty could jeopardize the secrecy of South Africa's uranium enrichment process -- which this country claims is unique in the world -- and lead to the pirating of its technology. That, according to some analysts, might thwart South Africa's ambitions to become a major exporter of enriched uranium someday.

In 1979, two American diplomats were expelled from South Africa for allegedly taking aerial photographs of South Africa's nuclear installations. That added to the climate of suspicion between the two countries, as did a mysterious sighting of what could have been a nuclear explosion in the South Atlantic Ocean in September 1979.

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