Professor Siegfried Hecker, former director of Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory once said, “Security is a journey not a destination.” In other words, it is an ongoing process which requires persistent oversight and improvements in line with the evolving nature of threat and developments in technology.
Specialised nuclear materials are scarce. Only a few states are endowed with any significant deposits of these rare and costly materials. Their safety and security are a national responsibility. India seems to be failing in that responsibility.
Within one month there have been two incidents of uranium trafficking involving 7.1 and 6 kilograms of natural uranium respectively in two different states. Arrests were made and the news was widely covered in the Indian media.
Later, news came that India’s Department of Atomic Energy had confirmed the material seized in Jharkhand was not uranium. Be that as it may, there have been previous incidents of nuclear materials theft in India.
Pakistan has legitimate reasons to be concerned, not only because such incidents are hazardous but also because it has been the target of international scrutiny for imaginary threats to its nuclear assets for decades.
However, there is deafening silence on the evident lapses in nuclear security in India. India’s Quad partners, US, Japan and Australia – champions of nuclear non-proliferation and security — seem to be totally oblivious to the happenings in India.
While it is important to keep an eye on such developments and also point out the double standards that inform the functioning of the international order, it is equally important not to lose perspective.
Let us examine these two recent incidents of trafficking of uranium in India, which incidentally are not the first of their kind. In fact, as pointed earlier, there is a long list of similar leaks in India’s nuclear security architecture in the past. A careful analysis of the technical aspects of the incidents is in order here.
The nature of the material from all available evidence suggests that in both cases it was natural uranium, raw and unprocessed which means that it is neither highly radioactive, nor of any use as nuclear explosive material.
Uranium, as it occurs in nature, contains 99.3 percent of U238 and 0.7 percent of U235 which is the bomb material, provided one could enrich it to 90 percent or above of U235 content – a highly complex and costly process in itself. The two consignments themselves would not yield any significant amount of nuclear explosive material but are symptomatic of the loopholes and weaknesses in India’s Nuclear Security Architecture which still relies on Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) – a third line security force.
This is in sharp contrast to Pakistan’s purpose-built Nuclear Security Force comprising 30,000 personnel with air and maritime components and counter-intelligence teams. These incidents raise many important questions.
First, do the people caught in these two illicit trafficking incidents belong to the same criminal network or are they members of different criminal gangs? If the answer to the first part is in affirmative, it indicates the presence of a well-coordinated criminal network of national or international proportions. If it indicates the second possibility, it means there is a proliferation of criminal enterprises within India involved in this dangerous business. Both have serious ramifications.
Second, who were the prospective customers of this illicit material; individuals, entities local or foreign or some state? Again, each of these possibilities will have their own peculiar ramifications.
Third, were these two consignments intended for the same customer or were destined for different customers? Here again if it is the former, it indicates that someone is accumulating large stockpiles of special nuclear materials by receiving these in small manageable batches; if latter, that will have its own implications.
Fourth, was the material stealthily pilfered from some uranium mine, uranium processing and refining facility or have the traffickers created a secret stockpile of material of their own from where they are dishing out material in convenient packages? Again, all these have very disturbing connotations varying in intensity depending on each individual possibility.
Fifth, was the material intended for use for nefarious activities within India or was it intended to go across the borders? Both have serious connotations but cross-border smuggling of illicit materials is even more serious given that in the past one such consignment was caught in Nepal, while another was intercepted at the Indo-Bangladesh border. India is not known to have installed any radiological detection devices on its land border crossings.
Pakistan, on the other hand, has installed radiation detection portals at all border crossings to prevent illicit trafficking of radiological/nuclear materials. This extensive effort was undertaken years ago by Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Authority and the Security Division of National Command Authority in collaboration with the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Finally, how much material has already leaked through the system undetected? This may not be easy to determine but has the most serious consequences.
There have been demands in Pakistan for the international organisations, especially the IAEA to investigate these incidents and hold India to account. These demands ignore the fact that IAEA has no jurisdiction in such matters other than providing technical assistance if asked for by the country concerned. India is a state party to the Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials (CPPNM) and its additional protocol which obliges it to ensure the safety and security of nuclear materials at its nuclear installations and in transit. It is also a member of the Nuclear Safety Convention which obliges member states to establish an autonomous regulatory authority which India has failed to do. The UNSCR-1540 also makes it incumbent upon all states to tighten their legal and administrative structures to prevent access to dangerous nuclear materials by non-state actors and unauthorised persons. However, despite this the 1540 committee has no jurisdiction to investigate such security lapses.
It is a universally accepted principle that nuclear security is a national responsibility but there are other ways and means by which states should be evaluated before granting them privileged status in the nuclear regime. States that energetically pursued the grant of exceptional NSG waiver to India and have been supporting its entry into the group since then need to pause and think. It is evident that President George W. Bush, while formally signing the US-India nuclear deal in 2006 had prematurely given India the certification of a ‘responsible nuclear power with advanced nuclear capabilities.’
The writer is a former brigadier of Pakistan Army and served as Director Arms Control and Disarmament Affairs at the Strategic Plans Division