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Uranium Theft in India

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Uranium Theft in India

Posing a threat of nuclear terrorism

The countries in the region including China and Pakistan have time and again called for strengthening regulations following repeated incidents of theft of nuclear material in India. Such incidents raised concerns about India which has, of late, emerged as a potential hotspot in illegal trade of nuclear technology and materials vital for a malicious nuclear supply chain for state and non-state actors.
According a timeline issued by The South Asia Strategic Stability Institute (SASSI), 18 incidents of nuclear material’s theft and lost were reported in India from 1994 to 2021, involving over 200kg nuclear material.
The Indian authorities recovered 2.5kg uranium in 1994; 111kg in 1998, also involving an opposition leader; 59.1kg in 2000; 200 grams in 2001; 225 grams in 2003; 4kg in 2008; 5kg in 2009; 9kg in 2016; 1kg in 2018 and 13.75kg in 2021 in multiple incidents.
According to a research paper jointly issued by SASSI President Dr Maria Sultan and the current Human Rights Minister Dr Shireen Mazari, the reports of Indian involvement in the theft of nuclear fissile material dates back to the early 1970s, the magnitude of the threat increased manifold in the 1980s and 1990s.
In the late 1980s, the CIA had concluded that India was trying to develop a sophisticated hydrogen bomb. In 1994, on a tip-off, a shipment of beryllium was caught in Vilnius, worth $24 million. “The material could fall into the hands of extremists and terrorists in India with disastrous consequences. The out-of-control material could also be a cause of concern due to the proliferation reasons. It is also the responsibility of global organisations and India’s partners to raise the standard of nuclear safety and security in the country and investigate shortcomings for maintaining tight controls on nuclear and radioactive materials,” said Sarman Ali, an Islamabad-based defence analyst.
Pakistan had repeatedly called for thorough investigation of such incidents and measures for strengthening the security of nuclear materials to prevent their diversion.
Foreign Office spokesperson said in a recent statement that such incidents were a matter of deep concern as they point to lax controls and poor regulatory and enforcement mechanisms, as well as possible existence of a black market for nuclear materials inside India.
He pointed to the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540 and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) which made it binding on states to ensure stringent measures to prevent nuclear material from falling into wrong hands.
Following the recovery of 7,100 grams of radioactive uranium by the police in Mumbai in May this year, China had called on all the countries to join treaties for non-proliferation aimed at ensuring nuclear safety. “The nuclear terrorism is the security challenge faced by the international community. All governments have the responsibilities to strengthen regulation of nuclear materials to combat nuclear trafficking to ensure the nuclear safety and security,” Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Spokesperson Hua Chunying said.
At least 11 states in India have uranium reserves with Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand and Meghalaya recording the largest reserves of radioactive material.
Nuclear safety and security is a national matter of any state; however, against the backdrop of the potential damage, which these weapons can bring, they have become an international concern. Specifically, to an extent, where states are sometimes criticized, lauded, and sometimes rewarded for their behaviour in this realm. In this regard, India appears as an exceptional case, where the formation of Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to stop such events in the future has its roots in Indian’s so-called peace nuclear explosion (PNE) in 1974. Ironically, a few years down the road, the same NSG gave a waiver to India for conducting nuclear export. Moreover, India was made part of many other regimes such as the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), Australia Group and Wassenaar Arrangement. Although, these decisions were carried out in lieu of geo-political realities, where the West regards India as a balancer against China, it gave a free hand to India. Even the US-based NTI’s Report on Nuclear Security Index gives India less score in nuclear safety and security regulations. At a time when many nuclear theft-related incidents have occurred in India in recent years, disgracefully, India still desires to become a member of NSG based on its so-called nuclear record.
To sum up the situation, the occurrence of back-to-back nuclear theft-related incidents has further exposed India’s nuclear credentials and its non-adherence to international practices of nuclear safety and security. If legal bindings such as CPPNM and Resolution 1540 would not be implemented in the future by India, the South Asian stability, as well as the international security, would be undermined. Moreover, if the international non-proliferation continues to remain lenient towards states like India, the rest would likely regard the international non-proliferation mechanism not just as discriminatory but even as hoaxing. Many states might prefer to proliferate for their own interests, which would not serve the non-proliferation mechanism and regime. A very candid example is that today even after two years of the last NPT review conference, the next has not been conducted and chances are that it might not be conducted this year.

The writer is a member of staff.

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