The Enrichment Puzzle

Here’s a question worth pondering: why is the South African government considering a plan to enrich uranium? There are only a few reasons to do this, and none make any sense for this country:

  • For domestic use: Completely nonsensical as a rationale. Uranium enrichment on a small scale is just an expensive waste of effort; as a general principle, it’s only economically viable for countries with more than 20 nuclear reactors. (South Africa has two, and even the most ambitious plans only envisage building another six.) Unsurprisingly, of the 30 countries that generate nuclear power, only 10 enrich their own uranium. The rest find it cheaper and safer to import.
  • For export: Doubtful. The international market for enriched uranium is already well-supplied. Economies of scale ensure that we would find it very difficult to compete with established producers such as Russia, Japan, and the United States.
  • To attain “energy independence”: A specious argument frequently advanced by Iran. It’s slightly less lame in South Africa’s case, since we actually have uranium deposits which make energy independence an attainable goal. On the other hand, do we really need to worry about the possibility that all ten uranium-enriching exporters will simultaneously decide to boycott a peaceful, politically-stable country like South Africa? Some “threats” are so miniscule that it simply isn’t rational to insure yourself against them.
  • To produce nuclear weapons: This is the rationale behind India and Pakistan’s enrichment programmes. It’s also the rationale for Iran’s uranium enrichment, as any non-gullible observer of international politics will have long since concluded. I don’t believe this is South Africa’s end-goal, unless the government really has gone completely insane.
  • To produce “near-nuclear” capability: Some countries are reluctant to cross the threshold and produce working nuclear weapons, but have nevertheless developed nascent military capability which would allow them to build and deploy nuclear weapons very quickly, should they ever choose to do so. This was a big part of Japan and Brazil’s rationale for enriching uranium. As a motivation for South Africa, it makes more sense than the outright development of weapons, but it’s still pretty flaky. For one thing, who would this nuclear capability be directed against? Unlike Japan and Brazil, we don’t have any strong regional rivals which might conceivably need to be deterred some day.

I can think of only one other reason to float this proposal: as a political gesture of support for Iran. South Africa has consistently supported Iran’s nuclear programme (including its uranium enrichment), and relations between the two countries have improved under Ahmadinejad’s administration. The enrichment announcement came only a few days after we concluded a bilateral trade agreement and the Iranian Foreign Minister paid an official visit to Pretoria (see my impressions). By all accounts, we’re on remarkably good terms with Teheran.

For a long time, the United States has sensibly suggested that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty be amended so that enrichment is no longer allowed under the “peaceful uses of nuclear technology” provision. The South African announcement could be construed as a warning – from a country that the United States has repeatedly praised as the exemplar of nuclear disarmament – that “the right to enrich” should not be up for discussion, thus providing diplomatic cover for Iran. It’s a weird little theory, but it actually dovetails quite neatly with the rest of South Africa’s rather quixotic foreign policy.