Buyelwa Sonjica, minerals and energy minister, said that any enrichment of uranium by South Africa would be pursued within international obligations.

South Africa has said it hopes to expand its economy by around six per cent in the future and would need new energy capacity to fuel the expansion of the continent's biggest economy.

Sonjica said: "I therefore believe that time has come for South Africa to conduct a cost-benefit analysis into the beneficiation [processing] of uranium. I will soon be making certain announcements in this regard."

Nuclear expansion

South Africa abandoned its nuclear arms programme before the end of apartheid in 1994.

But it opposes forcing nations to abandon uranium enrichment, saying this could hurt its potential commercial activities to supply the nuclear power industry.

Sonjica said: "The expansion of peaceful uses of nuclear energy worldwide is looking more and more irreversible.
 
"Clearly there is potential in this country and in this continent for us to look at ways of increasing the role nuclear technology plays in our economies."

Speaking at the launch of the 200-strong South African Young Nuclear Professionals, Sonjica said the proposed plan would require building four to six new nuclear reactors, and that the country had enough uranium reserves to fuel such a nuclear energy programme.
   
Koeberg, near Cape Town, is Africa's only nuclear-fired facility and imports all its fuel.

Its two nuclear reactors each generate about 900 megawatts of electricity.

South Africa, which has a seat on the International Atomic Energy Agency, has said it supports Iran's right to develop peaceful nuclear technology under the terms of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Iran denies US accusations that it wants to use its nuclear facilities to make bombs and says its plans are limited to generating electricity.