By Sher Bano*
The specialized nuclear materials are very scarce. Only some states have significant deposits of such costly and rare material. Hence the safety and security of these materials is also the responsibility of the states which possess them. However, with the rising incidents of nuclear theft and trafficking, India is badly failing in that responsibility. These peculiar instances are the cause of concern not only for Pakistan but for the international community as well.
The most recent incident was in the month of August, during which the Indian authorities seized 250kg of the radioactive element californium. The seized material was worth 573 million dollars. Previously there have been two more incidents reported in the same year. The first incident occurred in the month of May during which 7kilograms of natural Uranium were seized by Indian police. As per the Maharashtra anti-terrorism squad, the material was worth 2.9 million dollars. Later in the month of June, the Indian police arrested seven people, and 6.4 kg of Uranium was seized from them. In the wake of such incidents, the reasons for Pakistan being concerned are legitimate because such incidents are hazardous for both regional and international security. However, despite such evident lapses in India’s nuclear security, there has been a deafening silence from the international community.
Because of the largely indigenous and fast pace inputs into its nuclear facilities, India has been facing safety issues from the start. During 1995 and 1998 nearly 147 incidents involving safety-related mishaps took place in Indian atomic energy plants as per the Indian parliamentary report. The first incident of uranium theft took place in 2001 during which two men were arrested by West Bengal police with nearly 200 grams of semi-processed uranium. During the span of 2001-10, there have been frequent incidents of nuclear theft in India. In 2013 as per the Indian government sources, uranium ore was illegally acquired by the guerilla rebels residing in northeast India from the government-run milling plant. They used it to build a rudimentary bomb before getting arrested. In the year 2018, a uranium smuggling network was discovered by the Kolkata police. Hence the nuclear theft in India has become a norm rather than an occasional mishap.
To prevent such incidents, Pakistan has repeatedly called for measures to be taken for a thorough investigation of all such occurrences. As per the recent statement by Pakistan’s foreign office spokesperson, these incidents of nuclear theft in India are a matter of deep concern because they point toward poor enforcement and regulatory mechanism, lax controls, and the existence of a nuclear material black market in India. It also makes the safety and security of India’s nuclear program questionable. In order to avoid the serious repercussions of India’s poor safety and security standards, the international organization such as IAEA needs to investigate all such incidents and hold India accountable. India being the party to “CPPNM” (Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials) and its additional protocol must guarantee the safety and security of nuclear material in transit and at nuclear installations. Moreover, India also being a member of the Nuclear Safety Convention must establish an autonomous regulatory authority but has failed to do so. The resolution 1540 of UNSCR also makes it binding to strengthen their administrative and legal structures in order to avoid the non-state actors to access dangerous nuclear materials. Still, there is a lack of any jurisdiction that would investigate such security lapses despite resolution 1540.
Even though nuclear security is a national responsibility, there needs to have a proper evaluation before granting any state privileged status in a nuclear regime. All the states that supported the decision of granting India with a special NSG waiver and that also support its entry into the group need to rethink. These incidents of nuclear theft combined with the fascist Hindutva ideology could be a grave threat to both regional and international security. The international community needs to demand more transparency and responsible behavior from India. There is also a need to review future nuclear cooperation with the country.
India’s poor nuclear safety and security have also increased the risk of nuclear terrorism. Despite statutory and institutional arrangements, the non-proliferation record of India is problematic. Moreover, the safety and security of its nuclear infrastructure also remain questionable. India has a non-transparent policy on cases related to nuclear trafficking. This uncommunicative approach by India regarding loopholes in its safety and security apparatus can prove to be damaging for not only national but also for regional and international security. The international nuclear establishment needs to intervene and ensure that India secures and consolidates its nuclear infrastructure and material.
*The writer is working as a Research Affiliate at the Strategic Vision Institute (SVI), a non-partisan think-tank based out of Islamabad, Pakistan.