Tuesday 5 September 2017
The Bushveld Bomb
A colour photograph for sale in a Johannesburg store shows an eerily calm scene: under a beautiful deep blue, cloud-flocked sky, the gleaming silver of a sleek aircraft parked on a sandy field, a red fire extinguisher standing by its nose-wheels, with an identical aircraft standing in the background.
The place is Tinian Island in the Pacific Ocean group of the Marshalls, the plane is a Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber and it 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.
In a week in which Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un traded threats of nuclear annihilation, a new exhibition in Johannesburg recalls the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with a loss of some 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 when Hiroshima was incinerated and who died of the resulting leukaemia ten years later – her habit of folding origami paper cranes becoming a global symbol of the anti-nuke movement.
In honouring South Africa as the only country to have voluntarily dismantled its nuclear weapons, Kazumi Matsui, the mayor of Hiroshima, in a message for the exhibition’s opening, noted that although the “absolute evil” of the nuke which destroyed his city in 1945 had resulted in deep hurt that still persisted today, now, 72 years later, “there are approximately 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world,” most far more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb.
Public knowledge of the South African nuke programme only emerged very incrementally following President FW de Klerk’s bombshell announcement in Parliament on 24 March 1993 that the country had developed “a limited nuclear deterrent capability” but that it had been “dismantled and destroyed.”
Details were deliberately vague and it was only a decade later, in 2003, that more information was revealed when former atomic war-chief Lt Gen Jan van Loggerenberg, former Armscor research-and-development head Dr Hannes Steyn and former Atomic Energy Corporation (AEC) head Dr Richard van der Walt released their book Armament and Disarmament.
That book sketched the programme’s development from the initial decision to build nukes in 1978 until the project was wrapped up in 1991. Its primary new contributions included how the SA bomb – a gun-type device in the tail section that would fire a uranium projectile into an enriched-uranium core in the nose section – were tightly controlled via a parallel system of half authorisation codes required to be matched in order to allow the removal of a tail and a nose from separate armoured safes at the secret Advena facility near Pelindaba. More rules determined how the sections would be united and the nuke armed.
In an interview with me in 2004, van Loggerenberg revealed that they had developed all-terrain launch vehicles for nuke-tipped missiles “to ensure survivability from possible pre-emptive strike” and to make it very hard for enemy reconnaissance to pinpoint the launch site.
The latest book on what they call “the bomb in the bushveld,” The Bomb, is by former AEC nuclear physicist Nic von Weilligh and his daughter Lydia von Weilligh-Steyn in which for the first time, the individual devices are properly identified. Starting in 1979, a “300 series” eventually developed into five pre-production models – two of which were of such high quality that one, 305, 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 demo 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 10-18kt, equivalent to the Hiroshima bomb’s 15kt.
The authors relate a scary tale of what happened when Video was hidden in a disused coal mine outside Witbank – Advena not yet having been built. Arriving with the nuke at 3am one night, Dr van der Walt decided to have wheels of the nuke’s trolley removed “to make it more difficult to steal”. One of the builders of Video 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.”
The authors are equivocal on the famous incident of 22 September 1979 when a US spy satellite picked up the telltale double-flash of a nuclear detonation over SA’s Prince Edward Islands possessions – despite 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.
But The Bomb’s real new revelation is that the apartheid state wanted more than six operational nukes. In November 1986, a new nuclear weapons deterrence strategy was approved by Defence Minister Magnus Malan and President PW Botha that called for one demonstration model, three gun-type nuclear weapons that could be delivered by ballistic missiles, and three “boosted” versions (with a yield five times larger) that would be delivered by medium-range missiles, plus another seven weapons which could be delivered by aircraft.
And a massive new facility was planned to produce weapons-grade plutonium and other heavy metals – aiming at thermonuclear fusion bomb with a yield of around 100kt that would be delivered by intermediate-range ballistic missile. But In the 1986 strategy’s worst-case scenario, of SA facing a losing war, the nukes would have not been used strategically against enemy capitals like Luanda, but rather tactically in support of naval and ground forces. So despite possessing six Hiroshima-type atom bombs, the apartheid war-chiefs stopped short of a “Hiroshima solution” to win the Bush War.
* Post-script: my own book, Drinking With Ghosts, has a chapter on the apartheid nuke programme, but The Bomb adds more valuable detail.