By Sher Bano*
In the most recent incident, on June 4, 2021, the Indian police arrested seven people and seized about 6.4 kilograms of uranium. The culprits were trying to sell this nuclear-related radioactive material at the black market. Surprisingly, this is the second consecutive incident of such kind within a month. Quite recently in the last month, the Indian ‘ATS’ (Anti-Terrorism Squad) arrested two men for the illegal possession of nearly 7 kilograms of highly radioactive natural uranium in the Western state of Maharashtra.
These consecutive incidents are the recent examples of a thriving nuclear black market in India. Ironically, for so many years India has been running propaganda against Pakistan that the latter’s nuclear program is endangering the world. Whereas, Pakistan on the other hand has been adhering to the international practice of nuclear safety and security to make its nuclear assets secure. This is further evident from the fact that Pakistan has been ranked as the most improved country in theft ranking by NTI report 2020. Pakistan has raised serious concerns regarding the illegal uranium trades in India that clearly shows lack of enforcement and regulatory mechanisms and also non-compliance with the international nuclear security norms.
What makes it even more alarming is that these are not the first incidents of illegal uranium trade in India. There have been various other incidents in the past that indicate India has become the hub of the nuclear black market. In Thane, India the police found about 9 kilograms of depleted uranium in 2016. It was believed to be the consignment worth 27 crore Rupees that was smuggled from gulf nations to be sold in the black market. In Kolkata, five men were arrested by the police with 1 kilogram of uranium enclosed in plastic bags in July 2018. Later on, it was revealed that the substance in the bags was uranium resin that previously came into contact with radioactive uranium. In February 2021 in Indore, the police arrested four men that were trying to sell 2gm of uranium in one plastic bag and three glass bottles. Similarly in March 2021, Law and enforcement agencies of Katmandu arrested four Nepalese nationals for the possession of 2.5 kilograms of unprocessed highly radioactive uranium. As per the details shared with media by the police the uranium was smuggled by the arrestee’s father-in-law from India, who used to work in a uranium mine about twenty years ago.
All such incidents are evidence of India becoming a safe haven and a black market for illegal trade of nuclear-related materials. Deeply concerned by this, Pakistan’s Foreign Office has urged for the detailed investigation of illegal uranium trade in India. The way the radioactive material is being smuggled in between South Asian countries should be alarming. That’s why a thorough investigation of India’s nuclear black market and its uranium/nuclear assets must be conducted. Even though the amount of uranium that was seized is not enough to make a bomb, it can do considerable damage if used in a dirty bomb. Since India has been included in NSG even though it is not a member of NPT, the IAEA and other international bodies must hold India accountable for being a threat to international security.
It is worth mentioning here that India is bound to ensure the security of all nuclear material and facilities since it is a signatory of IAEA’s ‘CPPNM’ (Convention on Physical Protection on Nuclear Material). Moreover, as per the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540 that was passed in 2004 under United Nations Charter VII, it is obligatory for all the member states to strengthen security measures and to make sure that the equipment that can be used in ‘WMD’ (Weapons of Mass Destruction) is not acquired by the non-state actors. The recent nuclear smuggling incidents in India are clear violations of both of these obligations and expose the serious deficiencies of the nuclear safety and security architecture of India. Further, according to UNSCR 1540, all the states should make laws that deal with incidents of nuclear theft and create an implementation mechanism; however, deliberately, the charges imposed on recent arrests are of disposing and concealing stolen property. Hence this is also a violation of UNSCR 1540 by India. The incidents that involve smuggling and theft of nuclear material are reported to ‘ITDB’ (Incident and Trafficking Database) of IAEA. Since it is not clear if India had shared any such information with ‘ITDB’; the international community should be concerned about the increasing incidents of nuclear theft in India.
Even though ensuring nuclear safety and security is a national responsibility, all the states would have to face the repercussions of their actions or inactions that could threaten international security. Hence it has become necessary to discourage such trends by holding such states accountable for their non-compliance with the international obligations and practices of nuclear safety and security. Inevitably, Pakistan has urged the international community to access the nuclear facilities of India for the safety of the entire region and also demand transparency.
The writer is working as a Research Affiliate at the Strategic Vision Institute (SVI), a non-partisan think-tank based out of Islamabad, Pakistan