October 23, 2005

Switzerland helped apartheid regime make nuclear bombs

A government-sponsored report says neutral Switzerland played a key role in building the nuclear weapons of South Africa’s former apartheid regime. “Swiss industry got around the arms embargo that the UN had imposed on South Africa in grand style,” said Peter Hug, a historian who produced one of the reports in the Swiss National Science Foundation’s six-year investigation into Swiss-South African relations.

Germany was among the countries that also played a role, the University of Bern history professor said, but he gave no details on their involvement. “The fissionable material needed for this originated from the uranium enrichment that South Africa had built up with technical support from Switzerland, Germany and other countries,” Hug wrote in his 11-page report for the project.

South Africa built six nuclear weapons and partially assembled a seventh between the 1970s and 1993, when then-President FW de Klerk stood in front of Parliament to disclose the programme and announce that the bombs had all been dismantled. De Klerk renounced the programme that had been aimed at neighbouring states opposed to apartheid and Cold War instability that was fuelling the war in nearby Angola.

Hug said a handful of companies and a government research institute were involved in South Africa’s atomic programme. In 1977, one firm began to supply “highly sensitive technology” to South Africa’s uranium enrichment programme. The deal was for at least 100 million Swiss francs, he said. “Though details are not clear, deliveries occurred via the subsidiary in South Africa,” he said. According to him, another Swiss company helped supply aluminium vacuum outlets to South Africa, which “played an important role in uranium enrichment.”

While the Swiss government did little to prevent these transactions taking place, it also allowed “close scientific and technology cooperation” to exist between a government nuclear research centre and South Africa. “The administration was informed of many illegal and semi-legal deals. It tolerated them in silence, supported some of them actively, or criticised them only half-heartedly,” Hug found.

The nuclear research centre aided South Africa between 1971 and 1985 in the sectors of acceleration technology and uranium enrichment, Hug said. It was there that “South African atomic scientists were trained and gained the know-how to build a South African accelerator,” he said. Firms with branches in Switzerland also dealt with uranium that they had obtained from Namibia, in violation of international law, Hug further explained. (SAPA/ News 24, South Africa)

related link:
South Africa's Nuclear Weapons Program: An Annotated Chronology, 1969-1994
(Centre for Non-proliferation Studies)

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