India’s nuclear material theft is risky for international security

India’s nuclear material theft is risky for international security

Short Url

The probability of nuclear and radiological terrorism exists despite the absence of any precedent and rigorous safety and security measures at nuclear facilities globally. Indeed, the likelihood of a nuclear terrorist attack could be relatively low but the repercussions of such an attack would be dreadful.  

The probability of nuclear terrorism is increasing due to various factors, including the vulnerability of nuclear power and research reactors to sabotage by insider assistance and nuclear materials theft with the collaboration of facilities operators.  

With stolen nuclear material, a militant group does not construct a functional nuclear device-- but could manufacture a dirty bomb, also known as a radiation dispersal device (RDD). In RDD, conventional explosives are used to disperse radioactive materials to augment the injury and property damage caused by the explosion.  

On May 5, the Indian anti-terrorism squad arrested two persons in Nagpur, India, and confiscated from them 7.1 kg (15.4 pounds) natural uranium worth around $2.9 million. 

The lethality of the recently seized material by Indian law enforcement is debatable. Scientifically speaking, natural uranium is not radioactive, but the depleted uranium is toxic. The alarming fact about the said nuclear material is that the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) located in Mumbai, pointed out that the apprehended natural uranium was “highly radioactive and dangerous to human life.”

Indian analysts have been struggling to prove that the stolen uranium was natural and therefore, was not radioactive. Nevertheless, BARC categorically declared that the confiscated uranium was highly radioactive.  

The large quantity of uranium was stolen from the nuclear facility or illegally mined. In either case, it is alarming. The Indian investigating agency might have learned about the source of the stolen uranium, but may be purposely concealing it from the public.

The alarming fact is that despite institutional and statutory arrangements, India's non-proliferation record is problematic, and the safety and security of the country’s nuclear infrastructure and arsenal remain questionable.

Dr. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal

Ironically, the smuggling of uranium takes place in India on a regular and recurring basis. There are numerous recorded incidents. For instance, in 2003, Indian security forces arrested members of Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen possessing 225 grams of milled uranium. In December 2016, around 9 kg of radioactive depleted uranium was confiscated from two persons in Thane, Maharashtra. In 2018, the Kolkata police seized one kg of radioactive material worth $440,000. In March 2021, four Nepalese were arrested in Kathmandu for possessing 2.5 kg of unprocessed uranium. Investigations revealed that the material was probably smuggled from India to Nepal. 

New Delhi maintains a non-transparent policy in illegal nuclear material trafficking cases. The international community, including Canada and Kazakhstan (uranium suppliers to India), are tight-lipped over the frequent incidents of uranium material missing in India. This uncommunicative approach over the loopholes in Indian nuclear safety and security apparatus is detrimental for national, regional, and international security.    

The security of nuclear material is a national responsibility. According to a brochure released by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, the nuclear security approach is driven by five key components: Governance, Nuclear Security Practice and Culture, Institutions, Technology, and International Cooperation. Theoretically, it seems appropriate, but practically it is infeasible. 

The Indian parliament enacted the Weapons of Mass Destruction, and their Delivery Systems Act in June 2005 to ensure the safety and security of nuclear material in compliance with the United Nations Security Council Resolution. The resolution was legislated to prevent a rogue nuclear scientist or employer of a nuclear facility to transfer the world’s deadliest radioactive nuclear material to the world's most dangerous people: militants who would not think twice about killing themselves and hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians.

The alarming fact is that despite the institutional and statutory arrangements, India's non-proliferation record is problematic, and the safety and security of the country’s nuclear infrastructure and arsenal remain questionable.  

The theft of nuclear material and its trafficking across the border calls into question the credibility of the Indian nuclear industry’s safety and security apparatus. Besides, the recorded incidents of the seizer of uranium impugned India’s reputation as a responsible nuclear-capable state.  

India ought to have a comprehensive surveillance system over nuclear infrastructure. Therefore, it must improve its human and personnel reliability program and the defense-in-depth, which includes a layered system of security to strengthen the physical protection of nuclear facilities and mines. 

The international nuclear establishment also needs to help the Indian government consolidate and secure its nuclear material and infrastructure for national, regional, and international security.

– Dr. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal is an Islamabad-based analyst and professor at the School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-i-Azam University.
E-mail: [email protected]

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view