Providing nuclear safety and security– to the nuclear reactors/ plants in order to counter the risks of radioactive radiation as well as the theft of nuclear material—remains one of the core objectives of the nuclear states. Conversely, the fact on record is: India has been unable to render its nuclear security invulnerable. Therefore, because of its decimated nuclear security system, India justifiably loses its claim to acquire the NSG membership in future.
According to the anti-terrorism squad ATS in India’s Maharashtra state, the nuclear confiscated material is worth around $2.9 million and an investigation into the case is under way. “We had received information that one person identified as Jigar Pandya was going to illegally sell pieces of uranium substance, a trap was laid and he was arrested,” the Maharashtra police said. Since illicit trafficking and theft of nuclear material could lead to nuclear proliferation and the possible construction of improvised nuclear devices or radiological dispersal and exposure devices, measures to detect and respond to such acts are essential components of a comprehensive nuclear security programme.
Yet, it appears that India has not fostered any such comprehensive nuclear security progarmme. Dozens of incidents of collective and individual uranium theft and smuggling have taken place in India over which several countries, including the United States and the Organisation for the Prevention of Nuclear Terrorism (NTI), have had expressed their due concern. 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.
In 2010, The International Commission on Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament (ICNND) expressed its “concerns about the terms of the exemption approved by the Nuclear Suppliers Group for India’s nuclear programs.” In a statement, the commission said that it was concerned that India’s exemption “did not require a strong new commitment to disarmament and non-proliferation objectives and measures.” The commission promptly recommended that in future any exports of nuclear equipment and technology to countries outside the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) should be accompanied by two conditions — that the recipient country will “not conduct any nuclear test and implement a moratorium on the production of fissile material for weapon purposes, pending the entry into force of a fissile material production ban.”
Indeed, nuclear India’s vulnerable safety and security record raises questions on the security measures around its nuclear facilities, which at the moment are in the control of a nationalist-religious extremist government. Don’t these instances demonstrate that the country has yet to go a long way to become a responsible nuclear power—aspiring to become a bona fide member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG)? Since 2012, India has been engaged in nuclear mining exploration. Interestingly, in the seventh review meeting of the CNS, held last year, India made a declaration that the convention should cover both civilian and military nuclear power plants.
Needless to say, in recent years, India’s nuclear security policy has come under increasing scrutiny. The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), in its Security Index, painted India quite poorly. There is an inevitable need for the atomic energy agencies to fashion appropriate training programmes that should involve everyone from a lab janitor and researcher to control room operators, technicians, and security guards. This could also become an important initiative among global nuclear players where the states could share information about security lapses that may have occurred and preventive actions taken, which could be useful to all states.
And notably, in the five Indian states, 13 uranium mining projects are currently in different stages of exploration the two processing plants at Jaduguda and Turamdih prepare the yellow cake and send it to the Nuclear Fuel Complex at Hyderabad for further processing into uranium oxide pellets. The plant at Jaduguda has the capacity to process 2500 tonnes (one tonne is equal to a metric ton, or 1,000 kg) of ore per day. India continues to make progress in finding new uranium resources in the country through extensive exploration work.
China objects to the Indian nuclear exploration project in Arunachal mining project, as it seats in the disputed territory which China fairly claims. India’s exploration of minerals in southern part of Tibet in China is illegal, and is a stubborn manifestation of India’s mindset of occupying the disputed area to justify its claims,” said Qian Feng, director of the research department at the National Strategy Institute at Tsinghua University.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has estimated that a dirty bomb attack could cause more than 2000 immediate and long term deaths and billions of dollars in property damage if a cask of spent fuel rods were dispersed in Manhattan at midday. Pakistan did not raise the matter with the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog (IAEA), because it has been the government’s policy that security of nuclear material is a national responsibility. Despite the fact that India today boasts to have practiced the two important concepts, the personal reliability programme (PRP) and the defense in depth principle, the Indian administration has been completely failed to provide a foolproof safety to its nuclear enrichment material—thereby welcoming scowling threats of nuclear terrorism within and outside India.
Paradoxically, despite the cracks exposed in India’s nuclear safety and security system, the western powers remain engaged in boosting India’s nuclear profile by extending their unqualified nuclear cooperation with New Delhi. France’s latest support to construct nuclear reactors in India is the case in point. Last month French state-controlled power group EDF has made a binding offer to build six third-generation EPR nuclear reactors at the Jaitapur site in India’s Maharashtra region.
Faltering India’s nuclear security status notwithstanding, New Delhi has been lobbying with the western powers for securing the NSG bid, albeit it was unjustifiably accorded a waiver to engage in nuclear trade as far back as 2008. While India’s candidature for the NSG has been supported by the major powers including the US, United Kingdom, and France, India’s entry has been justifiably vetoed by China, a member of the NSG and the UNSC. Most notably, non-adherence to the NPT remains the most serious stumbling block to India’s acceptance in the NSG.
The writer, an independent IR researcher, and international law analyst based in Pakistan is a member of the European Consortium for Political Research Standing Group on IR, Critical Peace & Conflict Studies. He is also a member of the European Society of International Law (ESIL)