Evaluating Nuclear Security in India

India, the seventh nuclear power in the world, is striving to become a regional power. A survey conducted by the Stimson Center between April and May this year showed that around 68% of Indian nationals supported India having more nuclear weapons than its adversaries. Per the Stockholm International Peace and Research Institute (SIPRI) estimates, India currently has around 160 nuclear weapons and is continuously focused on stockpiling its nuclear material. The US-Indo civil nuclear deal signed in October 2008 strengthened the enhancement of Indian defence posture. The rivalry and hostile relations between India and China and between India and Pakistan are fundamental aspects of the Indian possession of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons, since their inception, have been considered the best tools of national security. Yet, countries and nations that desire to enhance their nuclear weaponry also need to ensure the existence of robust security mechanisms. The capability of nuclear weaponry could be considered a tool of long-term peace, particularly between the conflicting states, as has been experienced during the Cold War era. However, the spread of nuclear weapons could pose a serious threat to global peace with regard to nuclear incidents and accidents, thefts, and the unauthorised use of force.

Proliferation risks and unlawful use of nuclear material and associated technology have long been an international concern due to the dangers it presents to international security and stability. Since nuclear security is a global concern, its imperatives are a mix of tangible and intangible aspects to ensure nuclear security responsibilities. INFCIRC 225/Rev.5 indicates that “physical protection” has been used to describe what is now known as nuclear security. Also, nuclear security is more comprehensive than physical protection, as physical protection can be considered a subset of nuclear security.

In South Asia, Pakistan and India have put in place crucial mechanisms and management strategies to ensure rigorous nuclear safety and security for the overall management of their nuclear capabilities and infrastructure. As per the nuclear security learning curve, there are critical factors to analyse South Asia’s nuclear security mechanisms. These factors include the evolving and dynamic regional security environment and dealing with stockpiles of fissile material for civilian and military purposes.

The recurring incidents of security lapses, including the theft of enrichment material, clearly indicate that India’s security mechanism and nuclear doctrine have serious loopholes, which should be a concern for the international community.

Hence, against this backdrop, various nuclear experts are apprehensive that besides India’s gradual technological advancement of military equipment, it lacks sufficient security measures for its nuclear arsenal and related material. India, aspiring for a leading role in South Asia as well as in the international realm, has experienced many nuclear accidents in the past, that include the lapses in Kalpakkam nuclear power generation in 1987, Tarapur nuclear power plant in 1989 and 1992, Narora fire incident in 1993, Rajasthan Atomic Power Station (RAPS) leakage incident in 1995, Kalpakkam incident in 2002, and Mayapuri incident in 2010. The security of nuclear material is, however, not limited to the power reactors only, as India has a track record of various nuclear material theft incidents since the early 1990s, other than the above-stated accidents.

The Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) strictly holds to the legal obligations of the safety and protection of nuclear material during transportation or storage. As a signatory of CPPNM since 2002 and 2005, it is the prime responsibility of India to ensure robust security mechanisms, particularly in dealing with sensitive material. However, over the last three decades, more than 20 attempts of theft of uranium and radioactive-like material have been reported from India.

Despite lapses, India does not seem to focus enough on safeguarding its nuclear arsenal and related material. Theft of uranium and related materials is becoming a common trend in the country. The most recent incident of uranium theft in India was reported in February this year when two Indians were arrested in Nepal for possessing a uranium-like substance. The frequent theft of uranium-like material and leakages of the radioactive material can have grave security and safety repercussions which cannot be ignored at any stage.

Thus, nuclear security culture is of utmost importance to which India ostensibly adheres. However, it has significantly failed to protect its nuclear power plants and combat the illicit trafficking of uranium and radioactive material that has been caught several times. Additionally, as per the joint agreement concluded between India and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 2009, India has around twenty-two nuclear power reactors, out of which eight nuclear power reactors are not within the scope of IAEA safeguards.

The recurring incidents of security lapses, including the theft of enrichment material, clearly indicate that India’s security mechanism and nuclear doctrine have serious loopholes, which should be a concern for the international community. Moreover, if these lapses persist, they can continue to pose a devastating nuclear threat to the entire region. This enrichment material can always land in the hands of illicit entities or non-state actors, particularly when India is already facing numerous insurgencies in its various areas. Likewise, such lapses in the nuclear domain do not show India as a responsible nuclear state; hence the Indian desire to emerge as a regional power is debatable.

Rahat Iqbal

Dr Rahat Iqbal is an Associate Director at the Center for International Strategic Studies (CISS), Islamabad.

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