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Thursday, June 20, 2024

India’s nuclear theft: Analyzing the potential security hazards

There are several reports emerging from India about the theft of uranium and possible sale on the black market should be a cause for concern for the international community. Indian police have arrested members of a gang in the eastern state of Jharkhand who was trying to sell several kilos of uranium. If caught in the wrong hands' Uranium theft can cause severe security hazards.

The recent incident of India’s nuclear theft of natural uranium has again highlighted the poor security arrangement of the Indian nuclear program. Several nuclear thefts cases have come to light within the span of a month when 7 Kg and 6.4 Kg of Uranium were captured from unauthorized persons in Maharashtra and Jharkhand respectively. These are not isolated incidents as India’s history is replete with such evidence of possible involvement of national gangs in creating a black market for uranium trade.

Given its history, India is one of the most vulnerable states in the world with respect to nuclear safety and security. As a state with dozens of local insurgencies and movements, it is a matter of time when a non-state actor succeeds in acquiring sufficient fissile material that can be useful in harming others. The possibility of unreported nuclear theft is extremely high as above mentioned examples are where local police successfully caught the culprits. If organized groups are working to steal nuclear material from state facilities that means that some are caught and those in India who are not caught may have successfully traded illegal radioactive material.

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Why there’s a need for strict rules and actions regarding nuclear thefts?

Although the material caught by the police may not be enough to make nuclear weapons, it could be used in dirty bombs. Such bombs though do not cause much destruction but can create chaos and contamination at a limited scale. Although many Indian writers claim that state security against nuclear theft is top-notch, papers published by western scholars estimate differently. Independent institutions of the U.S like the Belfer Centre for Science and International affairs have published disturbing reports on India’s poor nuclear security apparatus, India’s security practices are ranked lower than that of Pakistan and Russia.

The security of these states was previously perceived to be lax but now India is on the radar for similar reasons. Independent report says from the Center for Public Integrity, have also shown concerns with regards to poor security arrangements at the Indian nuclear plant Bhabha Atomic Research Center (BARC). The report noted that checkpoints were inadequately staffed and many of the engineering departments had little or no security.

The cases of nuclear theft in India may be owing to the poor nuclear security culture that exists in its nuclear facilities. Unauthorized persons seem to have relatively easy access to India’s nuclear facilities. The main source of theft is suspected to be from two places. First, the Jaduguda uranium mine to which nuclear theft is traced back. Jharkhand is also one of the states in which the Naxalite–Maoist insurgents active and frequently commit attacks against the Indian military and police forces. Secondly, many nuclear reactors in India use imported fissile material. A report published in Indian Express pointed out that many Indian nuclear research laboratories from which the nuclear materials were stolen are guilty of negligence.

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In India, the nuclear material confiscated originated from domestic sources

Examples include uranium stolen by two men from a Shillong government facility in April 2005. Similarly, while attempting to sell 2.5 kg of natural uranium in Meghalaya’s West Khasi Hills area, four Indian villagers were apprehended in October 1994. Two persons were detained, and 6 kg of uranium was confiscated by the CBI in July 1998. Furthermore, Indian security authorities intercepted 225 kilograms of yellow cake en route to Bangladesh in August 2001. These thefts are the result of poor nuclear security of radioactive material in India.

When the University of Delhi’s Gamma Unit was decommissioned in breach of regulations, the material ended up in the hands of a West Delhi scrap dealer. This resulted in the death of one person due to exposure to extreme Radiation and few others reportedly suffered radiation poisoning. This group of people was treated at New Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). All five patients were diagnosed with acute radiation syndrome, as well as localized cutaneous radiation injury.

With intensive and supportive care, four patients with doses between 0.6 and 2.8 Gy survived. However, the patient with the highest exposure of 3.1 Gy died on Day 16 after hospitalization owing to acute respiratory distress syndrome and 101 multi-organ failures. In this case, it was clear that Delhi University had not followed the proper processes stipulated by the AERB, and the consequences of that negligence were serious.

The agency responsible for the protection of nuclear power plants in India is the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) which currently deploys over 148,000 paramilitary troops and has a budget of over a 1.4billion dollars. According to many senior officials within the Indian Military and civilian government, the force is ill-equipped, short-staffed, and inadequately trained. Additionally, CISF is overburdened with other responsibilities, while it is stretched thin within the civilian government.

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Why Pakistan has to keep an eye on India’s actions?

Pakistan perceives a threat to its security mainly from India, its eastern neighbor. Both Pakistan and India hold parts of the state of Jammu and Kashmir which causes conflicts from time to time. Irrespective of the positions of the two countries, it is necessary to assess the quantum of the threat from the nuclear material theft from Indian nuclear facilities which it poses to Pakistan’s security.

After joining the so-called “war on terror” Pakistan was plagued with terror attacks from which no city in the country was safe. If a dirty bomb is used against Pakistan with uranium stolen from an Indian facility, it would have severe regional implications and could potentially ignite a war between nuclear-armed Pakistan and India. Conversely, if a nuclear bomb whose radioactive material was stolen from local Indian research labs, is detonated in India by someone from around 39 banned indigenous armed militant groups active in India, the Indian government would quickly point fingers at Pakistan. That would further aggravate already tense relations between the two adversaries.

India calls some reactors which are outside IAEA safeguards “strategic” meaning its intended purpose is unknown. This vague stance also creates space for India to use them for military purposes. As India is not a party to NPT, it is not subjected to complete IAEA safeguards, however, the nuclear facilities which have imported nuclear material are subjected to IAEA safeguards. This means that dual-use nuclear material of India could be used freely without any accountability and the same material which is used for civilian purposes could be used for military purposes. This also means that if nuclear material is stolen from any of the facilities, IAEA could not act upon it unless the state of India allows action.

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The nuclear theft in Indian nuclear facilities may be a security hazard for not just the state of India but for the region. The establishment of a nuclear safety and security system is a national responsibility for a state, and India has demonstrated no inclination to fulfill this obligation. Extremist religious ideology, inadequately unguarded nuclear facilities, an aggressive nuclear posture, maybe contribute to creating an irresponsible nuclear culture. Link to the black market, and exceptional international access and cooperation all contribute to India’s current stance. On the other hand, Pakistan has outperformed other countries like India, Israel, Iran, and North Korea in its nuclear safety and security structure. It has independent regulatory authority and robust domestic nuclear material security legislation in place.


The writer is currently an intern at the Centre for International Strategic Studies Islamabad CISS. He can be reached at shamilabdullah08@gmail.com. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.