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SA snubs Global Nuclear Energy Partnership

Michael Adler

South Africa is holding off joining a United States-led initiative to spread atomic power because it does not want to give up its right to enrich uranium, a senior South African official said on Tuesday. Exporting uranium only to get it back refined, instead of enriching it in South Africa, would be "in conflict with our national policy", said Minerals and Energy Affairs Minister Buyelwa Sonjica.

South Africa is holding off joining a United States-led initiative to spread atomic power because it does not want to give up its right to enrich uranium, a senior South African official said on Tuesday.

Minerals and Energy Affairs Minister Buyelwa Sonjica told reporters at a meeting of the United Nations atomic agency in Vienna that South Africa had received an invitation to join the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) but was worried it would conflict with national policy.

The partnership seeks to help states get nuclear fuel, such as uranium, so they do not produce it themselves, and is an effort to spread atomic power but not the technology that can be used to make nuclear weapons.

South Africa was not among the 11 countries which joined the project on Sunday in Vienna.

New members Australia, Bulgaria, Ghana, Hungary, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovenia and Ukraine joined the US, China, France, Japan and Russia in signing a statement of principles for GNEP.

Sonjica said that under the GNEP, “fuel would be distributed” to countries but South Africa “has taken a decision to beneficiate its minerals ... in other words to end-value the minerals in South Africa and that would include uranium.”

Exporting uranium only to get it back refined, instead of enriching it in South Africa, would be “in conflict with our national policy”, she said.

US official Will Tobey told reporters that it was wrong to say the GNEP would stop nations from doing anything since “GNEP states voluntarily join for their benefit. No one is asking a state to give up its rights.”

But Tobey, deputy administrator for defence nuclear non-proliferation at the US national nuclear security administration, said “it wouldn’t make sense to do both,” that is to join GNEP and still develop an indigenous uranium enrichment programme.

Tobey said there was no economic sense in building uranium enrichment facilities from scratch, as the process—which uses thousands of centrifuges spinning rotors at supersonic speeds—is very costly.

“The enrichment business is a tough business” which requires economies of scale. Most countries in the world do not enrich uranium because it does not make economic sense,” Tobey said.

Sonjica said that South Africa, which abandoned its nuclear weapons programme in the 1990’s, including uranium enrichment, is now set to expand its civilian atomic power programme in order “to reduce the amount of CO2 our power plants emit”.

It is looking for international partners to develop uranium enrichment.

Nuclear power is seen by many as crucial in a world where energy demand is booming since it makes electricity without adding to the greenhouse gases which cause global warming.

The US wants GNEP to organise countries that have secure, advanced nuclear capabilities to provide fuel to other nations which agree to use nuclear energy just for power generation.

Their compliance would be monitored by the Vienna-based UN watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

US Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said on Sunday that GNEP had no specific projects yet and that any concrete programmes were years in the future. ‒ Sapa-AFP

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