On 14th February 2021, Indian authorities apprehended a group of men in possession of nearly 7 kilograms of Uranium. This discovery was followed quickly with affirmation from the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) that the material was indeed Uranium.
While troubling news, believe it or not, it doesn’t end here. This trail of smuggling and black-marketing of Uranium at various levels of purity has been endemic in India. There are stories going way back to the ’90s which even feature Uranium stamped with US marks.
These harrowing tales of bold smugglers and leaky control mechanisms might seem interesting had the material in focus not been radioactive. Uranium is a primary source of fuel for nuclear reactors, which may be used for benign ends such as powering a national electricity grid or, something as destructive as a “dirty bomb.”
The fact that this dangerous heavy metal with its known capacity for wreaking immense destruction is constantly discovered by the police being lugged around surreptitiously across the Indian countryside by not-so-smart people raises some serious questions regarding nuclear asset security in India.
As stated before, this incident is not a one-of-a-kind scenario, but, a recurring theme when discussing the Indian nuclear program. In June 1998, Police in the Indian state of West Bengal arrested an opposition politician who they say was carrying more than 100 kilograms of Uranium.
As recently as of 2018, a Uranium smuggling racket was busted by the Kolkata police. The smugglers were reportedly trying to sell Uranium worth about $440,000!
Scandalous natural uranium theft in India (worth $2.9 million) & its possible sale on the black market is not only a cause of concern for the region but also for the whole intl. community. Why is this incident still not recorded in IAEA’s Incident Trafficking DataBase (ITDB)? 1/2 pic.twitter.com/252jAoBt6x
— SenatorSherryRehman (@sherryrehman) June 20, 2021
The powerful Indian uranium black market
This consistent wave of incidents points to the threadbare nature of India’s command and control over its nuclear supply chain. It is usually argued by the Indians that the problem does not extend to refined Uranium however it is solely limited to the low quality and near useless ores taken from the infamous Jaduguda Uranium Mine.
Sadly, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The spillover of the black market into the mainstream markets has shown us that radioactive contraband can be found at various stages of refinement.
A while back, a group was apprehended while attempting to sell to a jihadi organization near the Bangladeshi border. The fact that the Indian establishment hasn’t been able to plug gaps in its nuclear security infrastructure even after 25 years of incident reports is hair razing and, creates a unique challenge to the entire region’s security.
The very fact that a burgeoning Indian black market for Uranium exists at all is alarming. Recovered quantities are reportedly from multiple sources ranging from the USA, Canada, and Kazakhstan. This trend is a clear indicator that the Indian Uranium black market is powerful enough to secure steady supplies and has a wide state and non-state actor clientele, non-state actor is the watchword.
Paradoxically, the international community specifically the US had signed off on a civilian nuclear cooperation deal with India circa. 2006. The logic behind the US decision to support India’s nuclear ambitions is primarily to keep China in check.
Humanity in danger
We will not delve into the validity of US foreign policy, however, as citizens of the world, we have the right to be safe and protected from the ravages of terrorism and, to question the wisdom of entrusting India with the region’s nuclear balance.
The 9/11 attacks demonstrated to the world how terrorism can impact even the greatest of superpowers. The proliferation of Uranium jeopardizes the safety of all nations and exposes them to the possibility of being attacked with primitive nuclear devices. The consequences of such an attack will be deadlier than any plane strike or suicide bombing, in fact, being likely to cause very long-lasting damage to the environment.
Moreover, even if these black-marketers can’t find buyers, the very fact that they possess nominally radioactive materials in an unsafe and unregulated manner is a danger to the lives and health of everyone.
Alliances and grand strategy aside, the general safety and security of the citizens of the world is a right guaranteed under Article 3 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.
“Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”
The proliferation and smuggling of dangerous radioactive materials are a serious threat to the health and safety of unaware citizens in any nation anywhere on the planet.
Therefore, it is imperative that the Biden administration take a deep look at India’s nuclear supply chain and ask Mr. Modi some tough questions about his country’s capacity to keep nuclear smuggling in check.
The author is a lawyer based in Multan. His area of interest is the junction of public policy and information technology. He also has a deep interest in politics and history. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.