Scowling cracks in India’s nuclear safety & security ?
IN 2002, the IAEA adopted an integrated approach to protection against nuclear terrorism.
This approach coordinates IAEA activities concerned with the physical protection of nuclear material and nuclear installations, nuclear material accountancy, detection of and response to trafficking in nuclear and other radioactive material, the security of radioactive sources, security in the transport of nuclear and other radioactive material, emergency response and emergency preparedness measures in Member States and at the IAEA, and the promotion of adherence by States to relevant international instruments.
While reports of Indian involvement in the theft of nuclear fissile material dates back to the early 1970s, the magnitude of the threat increased manifold in the 1980s and 1990s.
In the late 1980s, the CIA had concluded that India was trying to develop a sophisticated Hydrogen bomb. In 1994, on a tip-off, a shipment of beryllium was caught in Vilnius, worth US $ 24 million.
The buyer was thought to be either from India or North Korea – though the shipment was caught before it could reach the buyer.
In July 1998, India’s Central Bureau of Intelligence (CBI) unearthed a major racket in the theft of uranium in Tamil Nadu, with the seizure of over 8 kg of the nuclear material in granule form and the arrest of three men.
The contents of this theft were sent to the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR) for preliminary analysis and the Centre declared that there were two kinds of substances found in what they said was 6 kg of uranium – natural uranium (U237and U238) and U 235, which is weapons grade uranium.
The substances were found in the possession of Arun, a structural engineer, S. Murthy and their associates.
The imbuing threat of criminal or unauthorised acts involving nuclear and other radioactive material has grown significantly in India —clearly vindicated by the fact that from July 1998 to May 2021, there have been the intermittent incidents of such nature.
And yet agreeably, terrorism has been an increasing concern within international society but so far there has been less focus on one particular aspect of the problem – that is nuclear terrorism.
Limited access to fissile material and international safeguards on nuclear facilities are the two main barriers to nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism in the world today.
The potential effects of a theft of plutonium and uranium go beyond national borders, especially in South Asia with its transnational ethnic and religious linkages and conflicts.
Today, a broad range of factors, from documented seizures of kilogram-quantities of stolen, weapon usable fissile material to the newly demonstrated capability and will of terrorists to use weapons of mass destruction, makes it critical to ensure security of all weapon-usable material worldwide.
Still, there are many reasons to fear such a connection— ranging from the financial means available to organized crime syndicates and their capabilities— to move almost any illegal product across multiple international borders undetected, to their growing links with terrorist networks.
Indeed, resourceful criminal organizations with well-established trafficking channels and infrastructures seem to be ideally suited for either delivering nuclear fissile or other radioactive material to the customer or trafficking weapons built with these materials to their final destination.
Indeed, there is nothing to stop terrorists from exploiting this kind of vulnerabilities in border control in pursuit of their causes.
In case of nuclear smuggling, no sophisticated radiation detection equipment installed at official border crossings would prevent them from entering a country together with their dangerous material or weapons, if they chose to do so through an underground tunnel.
Recently, the IAEA has also published — in the IAEA Nuclear Security Series — Technical and Functional Specifications for Border Monitoring Equipment
(No. 1), Nuclear Forensics Support
(No. 2), Monitoring for Radioactive Material in International Mail Transported by Public Postal Operators
(No. 3), Engineering Safety Aspects of the Protection of Nuclear Power Plants against Sabotage
(No. 4) and Identification of Radioactive Sources and Devices
(No. 5). These publications provide information primarily for customs, police and other law enforcement bodies on the arrangements for effectively preventing, detecting and responding to inadvertent movements and illicit trafficking of nuclear or other radioactive material.
The IAEA is given considerably more information on nuclear and nuclear-related activities, including R&D, production of uranium and thorium (regardless of whether it is traded) and nuclear-related imports and exports.
IAEA inspectors have greater rights of access. This includes any suspect location, at short notice (e.g. two hours), and the IAEA can deploy environmental sampling and remote monitoring techniques to detect illicit activities.
States must streamline administrative procedures so that IAEA inspectors get automatic visa renewal and can communicate more readily with IAEA headquarters.
All these elements enhance the IAEA’s ability to provide assurances that all nuclear activities and material in the country concerned have been declared for safeguards purposes.
Against this backdrop it appears that India’s nuclear technology is no more safe and secure under the extremist Narenda Modi’s government.
To enable state policy and regional discourse to address nuclear terrorism with the maximum effectiveness, New Delhi must focus on an assessment of the risk – not just the threat – is necessary.
The special treatment meted out to India and Israel on WMD not only reflects the western powers’ policy of an exclusive nuclear favouritism— that is discriminatory approach towards the entire issue of nuclear weapons proliferation-which clearly manifests that for many Western states it is not the issue of preventing proliferation but of denying certain states nuclear status – and these states happen to be primarily Muslim states.
This unjust policy ushers in an era of nuclear apartheid whereby western powers are India-Israel fixed in their approach, thereby giving a secondary treatment to an Islamic state like Pakistan. But no more such policy is acceptable to the developing nations.
Pakistan’s government is justified in demanding the international nuclear community equality of treatment.
There is an urge that the western nuclear community, as well as the IAEA, must take serious note of it.—Concluded
—The writer, an independent ‘IR’ researcher-cum-international law analyst based in Pakistan, is member of European Consortium for Political Research Standing Group on IR, Critical Peace & Conflict Studies, also a member of Washington Foreign Law Society and European Society of International Law.