On the wind-swept coast north of Cape Town, South Africa is constructing two of the world's most carefully built atomic power plants.
It probably is misleading to compare South Africa -- with its Western standard of living for whites and its controlled black labor force -- to most developing countries.
But as the only nation on the African continent building atomic power stations, South Africa provides an interesting counterpoint to the efforts under way in Latin America, the Middle East and Asia.
The advanced planning that has gone into South Africa's first two nuclear power plants -- and the safety and quality assurance standards that are being enforced -- appear to be at least the equal of any major industrial country.
The site, a barren stretch of beach, is large enough to accommodate at least two and probably four additional nuclear power plants.
Before construction even started, a 1-to-20 scale model of the harbor in front of Koeburg was constructed at Stellenbosch University. "We simulated all imaginable wave conditions and wave heights," an official of Escom, the South African electric company, said.
As a result, a complex breakwater is nearing completion that will reduce waves -- which have been measured at 39 feet less than a mile offshore -- to no more than 22 inches.
The two South African reactors are also designed to withstand a major earthquake, even though the Cape is not a particularly intensive seismic area. They will utilize a unique French concept -- which the Framatome consortium also proposes to use for two plants it is building in Iran -- that puts the nuclear reactor on a sliding concrete raft sitting stop hundreds of rubber pedestals.
In a small tremor, the entire concrete raft would tremble on its rubber legs, then return to place. "At 7 or 7.5 on the Richter scale, it would slide irreversibly," an Escom official said. But at least theoretically, the entire nuclear section would remain undamaged atop the raft.
Security arrangements for South Africa's nuclear power stations are also impressive.
"The design of the containment is very, very robust," a South African engineer said proudly. "It's said the design would withstand ordinary missiles, and perhaps even a 747 coming straight down on it."
While a French engineering source suggested he would not care to see the structure put to a direct test by a Boeing 747 airliner, he noted that an Israeli safety consultant employed by Escom wanted even the administration building for the reactor to be able to withstand a direct hit by a rocket.
Most of the laborers currently working on the site are black single men recruited in the Transkei, and brought to Koeburg on one-year contracts. "The contractor set up a school on the site where every new man is put through an aptitude test," an official said. "If he hasn't been in industry before, he gets some basic training in how to handle tools and ladders."
At noon, hot lunches are brought to the site on a truck. No fires of any kind are permitted. "In the cold winter months, all the workers on ordinary construction sites are used to building fires and warming up," a South African official said. "We don't allow it. Even smoking is banned."
At the end of a year, the workers are sent back to the Transkei for a paid vacation. Officials report the rate of contract renewals has been running about 85 percent.
In addition to the French standards, South Africa is making Framatome follow U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission guidelines -- with a few twists of its own thrown in as well.
"It's unbelieveable," a Framatome official said. "On reinforcing steel, for instance, they insist that it be without rust. They are really hung up on corrosion."
While South Africa felt that it was not ready to play a larger role in constructing atomic power plants at this stage, like Brazil it hopes to be building most of its nuclear reactors in 10 or 15 years time.
At the moment, South Africa looks like a better bet.