Nuclear weapons, while being categorized as “Weapons of Mass Destruction” (WMD), are widely regarded as one of the biggest existential threats to humanity. That is why the international nuclear non-proliferation regime requires stringent security protocols to be in place. With all the rigorous security and safety measures it should be highly concerning that fifteen pounds of radioactive uranium was up for sale in India. The Indian authorities have very recently apprehended two men after seizing over fifteen pounds of highly radioactive uranium in Mumbai.
Ordinarily, such a security lapse would be a top story in international media. Not only just that, but the custodians of the nuclear non-proliferation regime would also have initiated a multilateral investigation of such an incident. Political commentators and experts would have rushed to declare such a state; rogue and dangerous. Opportunistic politicians would use such an incident to defuse internal squabbles and distract the public from domestic problems. But in this case, unfortunately, there seems to be total silence. Ironically, not just the western powers have remained quiet about this incident; we find no condemnation, not even a statement of concern from IAEA.
While we will get into the fact that the custodians of the nuclear non-proliferation regime are quiet about this incident, the more pertinent question would be about the state of security and safety protocols of the Indian nuclear program. This incident in isolation might not be a cause of immediate and major concern for the international community, but it does raise important questions regarding India’s nuclear credentials.
What are they doing with uranium in India? It is not the first time that law enforcement authorities apprehended radioactive material in India. In 2016, Maharashtra police seized eight kilograms of uranium in Mumbai. One has to wonder what message such incidents communicate, especially for a state that wants to become part of the Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG). Even without being a member of the NSG; thanks to the waiver it already enjoys, it has multiple bilateral nuclear cooperation agreements. These incidents raise very serious concerns regarding the safety and security of nuclear-related materials.
The theft or loss of nuclear material is a nightmare scenario for the international security establishment and the international non-proliferation regime. A dirty bomb does not require a sophisticated nuclear plant or multiple expensive scientific experiments to perfect. It does not need a seasoned expert nor does it require stable radioactive material. A dirty bomb uses radioactive material to magnify the impact and carnage of conventional munitions. If this is the standard of security of nuclear material in India; the questions would be asked of the export control regime of the Indian Nuclear program.
And it should be the international community who must ask these questions. One wonders, what’s up with the international community? The news of this incident for some reason hasn’t raised the level of concern. The biggest proponent of nuclear non-proliferation; the US is a major partner of the Indian nuclear program. The U.S-India nuclear agreement provides New Delhi with unofficial yet virtual status as a member of the international nuclear regime. Its civilian nuclear installations are under the remit of IAEA security and inspection mechanisms. It would certainly be a part of the Nuclear Supplier Group if not for China’s opposition to India’s inclusion in the group.
Before India can be considered for coveted membership of the nuclear club, its regulatory structure must be addressed. There exist federal laws and regulations that firmly deal with nuclear theft and misuse but the rules, regulations, and laws are poorly implemented at state and local levels. This is as much down to incompetence as it is to lack proper training and infrastructure. Indian policymakers consider nuclear energy an important component in the development of the Indian economy. It plans to build more nuclear plants and for that, it requires more uranium. The suppliers need to ensure strict due diligence before conducting transactions of nuclear material.
The duplicity and hypocrisy of the international nuclear non-proliferation regime cannot be more visible. Pakistan has made significant strides in improving the security and safety of its nuclear program. Yet it still causes the segment of the international strategic community to question Pakistan’s commitment to non-proliferation. Pakistan’s record in nuclear security and control measures has been lauded in the report published by Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) in 2020. But the segment of the non-proliferation regime continues to find problems with Pakistan’s nuclear program.
Well, it doesn’t matter to them that the rules and regulations regarding the security and safety of Islamabad’s nuclear program have ensured no such incident occurs in Pakistan. But the opposition and hostility against Pakistan’s nuclear program are not just about the security of nuclear material or proliferation of nuclear technology. Because if this was the case then the Indian track record leaves plenty to be concerned about.
These incidents are not just a concern for regional security and strategic stability but it endangers complex geopolitical compulsions. The current batch of Indian leadership envisions India as a global power. As the saying goes, “With power comes responsibility”, it is incumbent on Indian policymakers to ensure foolproof security of nuclear material. Moreover, the nuclear non-proliferation regime must act without prejudice and hold India to higher standards of security and control measures.
The writer is Senior Research Fellow at Strategic Vision Institute (SVI), Islamabad. He can be reached at @dtarriq.