The haunted heart of nuclear secrets

2014-08-03 15:00

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On that day back in 1992 when then president FW de Klerk announced he was shutting down South Africa’s nuclear programme, a nondescript grey building outside Pretoria emptied so fast that a few employees’ sandwiches were left behind.

For two decades, the Circle building had been the hub of the country’s nuclear weapons programme; a secretive, shadowy space to which employees were transported on buses with whited-out windows?–?the kind of place in which the head of security kept an Uzi submachine gun under his desk “in case of emergency”.

But in 1992, it emptied out for good and today, it is little more than a pricy storeroom.

The facility stands opposite Pelindaba, South Africa’s main nuclear research centre, which has an intriguing history of its own.

Pelindaba was founded on, and named after, newspaper editor and state historian Gustav Preller’s farm.

His deputy editor was the legendary Afrikaans writer, Eugène Marais, and it was on Pelindaba farm in 1936, in the shadow of a karee tree, that Marais?–a depressed morphine addict?–?killed himself with a shotgun.

The Circle building takes its name from the Gerotek circular test track on which Armscor still tests its military vehicles for speed and grip in wet weather.

The small turn-off to the building simply reads “Workshop”.

In the 1970s and 1980s, security was so tight that employees of the Circle were ferried to work each morning in minibuses with painted-over windows.

This precaution meant that not even those working at the Circle building knew precisely where their offices were.

The bus would drive straight into the facility and from there, employees would head for their individual offices, says Tim Smit.

Smit has worked at Armscor and Gerotek for the past 41 years, but was never part of the Circle staff.

He is the executive manager of the site’s vehicle testing facility, but got involved in the cleaning-out of the abandoned building in 1992. Now he uses it as a storeroom.

Dr Nic von Wielligh, who was closely involved with South Africa’s nuclear programme, has just released his book, Die Bom, a tell-all account of our nuclear race.

In it, Von Wielligh recalls that the head of security in the Circle building apparently kept an Uzi mounted under his desk?–?just in case.

South African specialists couriered the country’s precious uranium to the Circle and it was fixed into missile warheads and glide bombs.

Today, Smit is walking ahead of us with a torch.

The electricity has been cut off in large parts of the building. The walls are 45cm thick, reinforced concrete dotted with heavy vault doors that were operated from a control room.

No natural light breaks through. The rooms are freezing cold and narrow, twisted corridors make it easy to get lost.

Smit says one vault was still locked when he assigned people to investigate what was left in the building after the exodus in 1992.

“We had to drill through the wall for a day and a half before we could access the vault,” he says.

All that remains in the vaults?–?they once stored nuclear warheads?–?are two Mirage Drop tanks.

Elsewhere in the facility’s abandoned, echoing corridors, there is a battered Casspir armoured antimine vehicle and a few old anti-aircraft guns.

The double-storey building’s ground floor was used to manufacture nuclear warheads and related systems. Eight cells could withstand 2.5kg of explosive tests designed to gauge at what point a device would shatter.

Each of the cells had a dome-shaped cover that would blow off if something went wrong with the tests.

There wasn’t much time for anything besides work inside the building –?just a small kitchen and a little dining room where employees could eat lunch.

Smoking was prohibited, a point emphasised all over the Circle building with huge signs. Just the tiniest whiff of smoke could have triggered a catastrophic explosion.

An emergency shower in one corridor bears silent witness to the radioactive material that researchers worked with every day.

Its work may have been secretive, but the Circle was opened amid much pomp and ceremony by then prime minister PW Botha on May 18 1981.

In his speech, Botha spoke about how even a plough could be moulded into a sword at the facility.

The work in the Circle would give South Africa the strength to negotiate over the threats on its border, crowed Botha.

Six nuclear weapons were built at the Circle.

The first of these was delivered to Botha as a Christmas present in December 1982.

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