Enriched uranium: Bye Washington, hello Moscow


Enriched uranium: Bye Washington, hello Moscow

South Africa gave the US the finger (once again) when a memorandum of understanding was signed out of the blue between Necsa and a Russian company for the supply of nuclear fuel to Koeberg on Tuesday, writes PIET CROUCAMP. This after South Africa kept the USA dangling for a long time in this regard.


SINCE Russia's military invasion of Ukraine, the relationship between the US and South Africa can best be described as an unpleasant version of climate change.

Last September, during President Cyril Ramaphosa's visit to the White House, President Joseph Biden referred to his South African counterpart as a friend and said: “The United States and South Africa and your government have the same value set."

The only momentary awkwardness between the two heads of state was when the ANC leader expressed his concern over the Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Bill, which at that stage was before the US Congress and posed a serious threat to the bromance between Cyril and Vladimir Putin.

The bill — now passed — defines “malign activities" as practices that undermine US goals, interests and national security. Biden's secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, will accordingly monitor the actions of the Russian government and its ideological sycophants in Africa, including private military companies (such as the Wagner Group), but also the ANC's domestic allies, especially the Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg.

To provide context: Vekselberg is a 25% beneficiary of a trust invested in New African Manganese Investments, and the ANC's investment arm, Chancellor House, has a majority interest in this mining company.

Biden and the US Senate still have a very recent memory of the alleged favouritism shown to Donald Trump by Wagner's Yevgeni Prigozhin in November 2020, and Vekselberg and Chancellor House are expected to finance the ANC's 2024 election campaign.

The Electoral Commission of SA will have to be sensitive to unauthorised interference in the election by Moscow and a whole host of oligarchs with interests in South Africa ranging from mining to nuclear power.

Cyril’s political slip on display

But back to Ramaphosa's visit to the White House. He told Biden this law would unfairly marginalise and punish Arican countries for exercising their sovereignty in their political pursuit of development and economic growth.

Biden did not respond in a way that would reassure Ramaphosa. Blinken was present and as far as they were concerned, in Southern Africa it was only a concern for South Africa, Zimbabwe and Eswatini and could not be linked to the whole of Africa. And if one correctly understands the absence of African leaders at the Russia-Africa summit last month, the Americans may have been right.

Since then, Ramaphosa's political slip has been on display, as American ambassador Reuben Brigety described it without mincing his words on May 11. The US president's more recent letters to the South African leader are consequently significantly more formal and without the expectation of a favourable and immediate response from Pretoria.

Agreement on nuclear energy

The seeping distrust between Ramaphosa and Biden is sometimes uncritically and solely attributed to Russia's sinister interests in the ANC, but perhaps it is more complex.

One of the points of discussion that Biden touched upon during the three hours he and Ramaphosa spent in the Oval Office was the deal to extend the agreement for cooperation between their two countries on peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

In fact, on September 1, in anticipation of Ramaphosa's visit, the US president wrote to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the president of the Senate about extending the agreement. He wanted to show goodwill by having the extension ready for Ramaphosa's visit.

Biden's optimistic letter that the agreement would be renewed without opposition read: “I am pleased to transmit to the Congress, pursuant to subsections 123b and 123d of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, as amended, of an Agreement to Extend the Agreement for Cooperation between the United States of America and the Republic of South Africa Concerning Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy (the ‘Agreement’). I am also pleased to transmit my written approval, authorisation, and determination concerning the Agreement and an unclassified Nuclear Proliferation Assessment Statement (NPAS) concerning the Agreement. In accordance with section 123 of the Act, a classified annex to the NPAS, prepared by the Secretary of State, in consultation with the Director of National Intelligence, summarising relevant classified information, will be submitted to the Congress separately.”

The agreement is specific about the use of enriched uranium and nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

After the 1994 election, the Americans forced South Africa to stop enriching uranium for fuel because it involved virtually the same process that apartheid South Africa used to make nuclear weapons. The enrichment process in Africa's only nuclear power was shut down and the equipment was sold to the Chinese for next to nothing.

According to a report of the research unit of the US Congress, published on November 17 last year, the 1995 agreement between the US and South Africa would expire on December 4. The report defined the legislation that regulates this type of agreement as follows: “Under the Atomic Energy Act (EAA) of 1954, all significant US non-defence nuclear cooperation requires a nuclear cooperation agreement. Significant nuclear cooperation includes the transfer of US-origin special nuclear material subject to licensing for commercial, medical and industrial purposes, and the export of reactors and critical parts of reactors under the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) export licensing authority. Such agreements are congressional-executive agreements.”

But Congress has not yet implemented Biden's letter, because the renewal of the cooperation agreement is still being ground in the mill of mistrust and uncertainty.

Moreover, neither leader has publicly mentioned their discussion on nuclear energy and the planned renewal of the 1995 agreement. But I have good information, confirmed by communication between the US president and Congress, that it was discussed. As far as the Americans are concerned, during his conversation with Biden, Ramaphosa undertook to immediately deal with the fact that South Africa seemed politically unwilling to extend the agreement.

The US has similar agreements with several other countries, and in some cases they are automatically extended. But this does not apply to South Africa, probably because the Americans were not yet convinced in 1995 of the ideological bona fides of the ANC government.

A proposed extension of the agreement until December 2026 has been prepared, but the South Africans were supposed to get the appropriate domestic legislation in place and sign the agreement prepared by the Americans, which never happened.

At the end of April 2017, the Western Cape High Court, in a case brought by Earthlife Africa, ruled that South Africa's international nuclear agreements must be subject to a public process. An agreement between South Africa, Russia and Korea, in which Tina Joemat-Pettersson was involved, was set aside. In fact, the court also set aside the 1995 agreement between the US and South Africa. Nuclear agreements cannot happen between political elites, they must be managed by the legislatures, it said.

Preoccupation with Putin

Over time, and with South Africa and Ramaphosa's conspicuous preoccupation with Putin and Russia, a pertinent perception took hold in Washington's corridors of power that South Africa had not only deliberately let the 1995 agreement expire in 2022, but that the Ramaphosa administration wanted to add new expectations and requirements to the deal.

These would require the Americans to give up their control over the trading of enriched uranium to Koeberg in a way that could jeopardise their national security.

Pretoria's version differs somewhat. As far as it is concerned, the Americans' claim that South Africa's relationship with Russia is the motivation for not renewing the agreement is questionable. The delay is therefore not an inadvertent oversight by South Africa; the agreement was intentionally not signed.

The argument is that in 2022, when the renewal of the 1995 deal came up, the US unilaterally changed some of the clauses in the original agreement. Even more important is that the judgment of the Western Cape High Court meant South Africa never really had an agreement with the US, nor — by implication — with France, which also could have supplied nuclear fuel to Koeberg.

A new agreement had to be negotiated, but the Biden administration allegedly inserted a provision that South Africa was not allowed to produce the fuel for locally manufactured nuclear reactors itself. The problem was that this would make South Africa totally dependent on US fuel, including for new science projects that include modular technology.

The new clauses were sufficiently vague that they would include fuel for South Africa's high temperature modular reactor (HTMR-100). To the already distrustful South Africans, it appeared as if the Americans wanted to insert this restrictive clause in the hope that South Africa would sign the agreement without realising the consequences of the restrictions.

In the distant past, South Africa was able to develop and manufacture the complete fuel cycle for Koeberg. It has been considering resuming manufacturing for some time, but for now we also get fuel from the French.

For understandable reasons, South Africa has always ensured there are at least two suppliers available. As it is, there is enough US fuel in stock at Koeberg for the next 18 months. The stories in the media that Koeberg's reactors will soon run out of fuel are therefore unfounded.

Necsa and a pot of lentil stew

The people I talked to, who should understand Koeberg's problems better than I do, claim the nuclear power station's current problems cannot necessarily be connected to the cooperation agreement with the Americans or the Lady R's unsettling presence in Simon's Town.

But, like the Americans who whisper in my ear, I smell a rat: the ANC has a money crunch, and Ramaphosa is anxious because next year's national and provincial election campaigns must be financed by something or someone.

Just when I understood everything, a report appeared in Creamer Media's Engineering News on August 1: “The South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa) announced on Tuesday that it had signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Russia’s TVEL Fuel Company. TVEL is a subsidiary of the state-owned Rosatom nuclear group, and the MoU covers cooperation in the area of nuclear fuel (and related components) production.” 

I phoned Joseph immediately; the phone in the White House rang endlessly.

For the sake of context as far as 2024 is concerned: Chancellor House's indirect interest in Vekselberg's United Manganese of Kalahari (UMK) amounts to 22%. The investigative journalism unit amaBhungane reported that financial records indicate that UMK paid out R2.4 billion in dividends in 2020 after the favourable manganese prices of 2019. The ANC's share would have been R528 million.

No one will ever be able to say that Ramaphosa traded his soul and South Africa's economy for as little as a pot of lentil stew.

♦ VWB ♦

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