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South Africa's announcement this week that it has dismantled its small arsenal of nuclear weapons is a heartening step toward reducing the nuclear threat that still exists in a chaotic world despite the end of the Cold War.

President F.W. de Klerk stated that South Africa has taken apart nuclear weapons made between 1974 and 1990 and that the country is "strictly adhering" to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that it signed in 1991.That announcement is welcome, but it also is the first official ac-knowl-edgment that South Africa had any nuclear weapons to start with - although the country, like Israel, has been informally regarded as a nuclear power for some years.

De Klerk said six nuclear fission devices were in existence when he took office in 1989 and were intended as a deterrent against attacks by other countries.

He said the downfall of communism in Eastern Europe lessened foreign threats to South Africa and influenced him to have the devices destroyed.

He did not say how powerful the weapons were, but the South African Press Association has said they were as big as the bomb dropped on Hiro-shima.

To be sure, there is no documentation to uphold de Klerk's statements about the weapons and their fate. But South Africa has invited the International Atomic Energy Agency, which oversees the non-proliferation treaty, to inspect sites and review records.

The U.N.-affiliated IAEA certainly should do so. It also should investigate to see if weapons or weapons-grade nuclear fuel have not been reported.

But if South Africa can be taken at its word - at least on this issue - the destruction of these devices and de Klerk's admission that they even existed represents a far-reaching change.

For one thing, the country's once-secret nuclear program now has been talked about on the record by someone in the know. This candor contrasts sharply with countries such as North Korea, which is suspected of conducting such programs but keeps them under wraps.

And it seems to indicate that white-ruled South Africa feels more secure than it once did, despite the internal racial turmoil as the country struggles toward black majority rule.

In pulling his reluctant white countrymen slowly toward that racial goal, de Klerk deserves a great deal of credit. The unilateral destruction of South Africa's nuclear arms is one more addition to a growing sense that he is earning the respected title of statesman.