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Last update - 04:02 02/08/2009
By Yossi Melman, Haaretz Correspondent
Nearly 30 years later there still is no certainty that a flash detected by the sensors of an American satellite indeed signaled a nuclear test that, according to foreign publications, involved
In September 1979, a
In 1963, the
The Vela type satellites were equipped with sensors to detect flashes of light and radioactive radiation characteristic of nuclear explosions. The flash of a nuclear explosion is very short and is picked up on two spectrums, those of regular light and gamma ray radiation, with a time span between one and the other. The assessment that the satellite had indeed detected a nuclear test was further backed by the fact that several days after that flash, a seismic monitoring station in the
Most of the experts in the American intelligence community (and others outside) thought at that time the signals detected by the satellite had pointed to a nuclear test. However, there was also a possibility of a "false alarm" due to a fault in the satellite's detection system.
To ascertain the facts, a secret committee was set up under then
Most of the committee's members assumed that South African navy vessels had sailed out of Simonstown port, near
The experts believed the test was carried out at sea because there was no better alternative. Some two years earlier a Soviet spy satellite, Cosmos, detected underground tunnels at the South African Vastrap nuclear test site in the
Most of the examination team assumed there had been a joint Israeli-South African test. Another intelligence assessment said it was solely an Israeli test. A third assessment, published at the time, said that even if it was not a joint test, scientists of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission and of the nuclear reactor in Dimona, had been aboard one of the escort ships during the test and examined the results. On February 20, 1980, the CBS TV network broadcast an item about the test, saying the two states had carried it out and reported the American administration was looking into it.
It was reported, inter alia, that Prof. Ernst David Bergman, who headed the
Some time before, de Klerk's government reported the history of its nuclear development to the International Atomic Energy Agency in
The nuclear weapons that
According to the press abroad,
The South African gun-type bomb weighed about a ton. It was 1.8 meters long, and its diameter was some 650 millimeters. The power of such a bomb was equivalent to the one dropped on
The South African announcement and similar statements that de Klerk had made noted that
However, in 1997, Aziz Pahad, the deputy minister of foreign affairs in Nelson Mandela's government, confirmed to me that the 1979 flash was "definitely a nuclear test." He confirmed, moreover, that "the nuclear issue was secret, and that many documents were destroyed although not all of them. There are many reports of relations between the two states' scientists and cooperation regarding very specific equipment."
Gen. Constand Viljoen, an Afrikaner pillar of the Apartheid regime who commanded South Africa's ground forces from 1976 to 1980 and then was chief of general staff for five years, said: "We wanted to get nuclear know-how from anywhere we could and from
Viljoen, who visited Israel and conferred with senior officers, said he had opposed his country's nuclear program as a waste of money and resources. "Instead of the billions we spent on nuclear weapons," he said, "we could have bought tanks and needed military equipment. Ambitious politicians and the heads of the Armscor arms corporation [where the nuclear weapons were developed - Y.M.] pushed for the program. As a good soldier I was compelled to obey them." Viljoen evaded a question about the 1979 test.
Since 1945, members of the nuclear club have carried out more than 2,000 nuclear tests. Of those, 150 have been defined as tests "for peaceful purposes." The
Can a state produce an operational nuclear weapon without testing it? Yes, say the experts, adding that today, with powerful computers that can accurately simulate nuclear tests, it is definitely possible to avoid an actual test.
Another possibility is that a state that has developed nuclear weapons compensates for the absence of a nuclear test by receiving or otherwise obtaining the results of a test another country has conducted. If Israeli representatives had been in South Africa in 1979 just as observers, examined the results of the tests or got them, then Israel could argue it has abided by its agreement with the United States and still benefit from extensive information about a nuclear test, avoiding the need to conduct one of its own.
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