The Indian nuclear program, begun in the late 1940s, is among the oldest in the world, certainly among developing nations. Its inception was followed by a series of legislative, procedural and regulatory measures to govern different aspects of the program including safety and security. Much of this was done well before fears of nuclear terrorism drove a heightened global consciousness about nuclear materials security in recent decades. There has been no publicly known case of any major breach of security in India’s nuclear facilities.
Therefore, it was a bit shocking for the Indian strategic community to learn in 2012 that an index devised by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) had ranked India very low with respect to nuclear security. It was rated 28th out of 32 nations possessing significant amounts of nuclear material (see Table 1), one rank below China and just two ranks above Pakistan.
What were the actual nuclear security measures put in place by India? How did such a large gap develop between the Indian perception of its nuclear security measures and the evaluation by the NTI Nuclear Security Index? How did the Indian establishment, on the one hand, and NTI, on the other, react to this discrepancy? What steps did India take to close the gap in subsequent versions of the index in 2014 and 2016 and what were the results? These are the questions I will address in this article.
STATUS OF NUCLEAR SECURITY IN INDIA
The full set of items to be secured are nuclear materials, both fissile (weapons-useable) and radiological, and nuclear installations.
India’s main ingredient in its weapons has been weapons-grade plutonium (WGrPu) with over 93 percent plutonium-239 content, produced by running at “low burn” two reactors, Dhruva and CIRUS, located at its Bhabha Atomic Research Centre complex in Mumbai.
Based on their reactor characteristics, the International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM) has estimated India’s WGrPu stockpile to be between 400kg and 750kg.1This is roughly between 80 and 150 warheads’ worth. The uncertainty in the estimate comes from lack of public information on capacity factors, past consumption and other factors. They are intended to provide a rough idea of the amounts involved. For security to be meaningful, the inventory must be far more accurate, much better than up to 5kg of plutonium, the typical amount needed for one warhead. Presumably, the relevant Indian officials know the exact inventory, even if, understandably, they will not tell us.
India’s 21 power reactors also generate plutonium, but such Reactor Grade Plutonium (RGrPu), containing only 50-60 percent plutonium-239, is not ideal for making weapons. However, it is possible to make a weapon with it of uncertain yield and reliability. Indeed, Pakistan refers to all of India’s RGrPu as weapons-useable. IPFM estimates that India has produced about five tons of RGrPu.2 These figures correspond to plutonium “separated” in reprocessing plants. Unseparated plutonium sitting inside spent fuel rods cannot be used directly to make weapons.
There is also a uranium enrichment plant at Rattehalli near the city of Mysore, where about three tons of 20-45 percent highly enriched uranium (HEU) have been produced, reportedly for the core of nuclear submarine (SSBN) reactors. One such SSBN reactor has already been built with fuel from the plant. A few more SSBNs are under construction, as is another enrichment facility at Challakere to feed them.
Non-fissile radiological materials are disbursed in tiny quantities at hundreds of locations such as hospitals and universities. They emit radiation and therefore need to be secured. They can also be accumulated to produce a “dirty bomb.”
Of the nearly 50-odd facilities in the nuclear establishment, those that contain nuclear materials are:
• The reactors — Dhruva (100 MWth); the Fast Breeder Test Reactor (13 MWe); the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (500 MWe); eight power reactors that feed plutonium into them (all unsafeguarded); and 14 safeguarded civilian power reactors.3 (The CIRUS reactor closed in 2010).
• Three plutonium reprocessing plants.
• The uranium enrichment plants at Rattehalli and Challakere.
• All separated plutonium stocks.
EXISTING REGULATORY FRAMEWORK
India has an elaborate system of laws and procedures governing nuclear security.4The Indian Atomic Energy Act, enacted in 1948 ahead of most other countries, and updated in 1962, governs the functioning of all nuclear facilities. This has since been augmented by other legislation including the Environment (Protection) Act of 1986, the Atomic Energy (Factories) Rules of 1996 and the Electricity Act of 2003. Several safety and security rules and procedures flowed from these acts:
• Guidelines for Nuclear Transfers (Exports) (2006);
• A Design Basis Threat document at each facility;
• Personnel reliability measures designed to prevent insider collusion;
• Specially trained paramilitary forces at all facilities, rotated regularly;
• Real-time tracking systems and secure communications during vehicular transportation of nuclear materials;
• The Information and Security Advisory Group, which gives guidelines to counter cyber threats;
• Environmental Survey Laboratories at every plant for pre-operational surveys of baseline radioactivity followed by periodic analysis of air, water, soil and vegetable samples;
• Solid/solidified low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste disposed in stone lined and reinforced concrete trenches in access-controlled areas; and,
• High-level waste managed through vitrification within reactor campuses stored in vaults for 30 to 40 years, to be finally disposed of at specially designed geological disposal facilities.
The responsibility for overseeing these measures lies with the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), established in 1983. The board conducts, at least twice per year, safety audits and inspections on all civilian nuclear plants. After the 2011 Fukushima disaster, they all went through fresh comprehensive safety audits by the board. The AERB’s Radiological Safety Division controls all radiological materials in the country. Any institution requiring such material has to possess a valid license and a justified purpose for its use. The facility is accountable to the AERB for any loss of materials and is liable for prosecution in case of negligence.
The AERB, however, is not independent of the Department of Atomic Energy that it is supposed to oversee. The government is taking steps to correct this anomaly. A Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority Bill was placed before the Parliament in 2011, well before the first NTI index, calling for an independent body, the Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority, to replace the existing AERB, along with a Council of Nuclear Safety, headed by the prime minister. The Bill has not been passed so far only because of parliamentary dysfunction and not for lack of seriousness by the government.
PARTICIPATION IN INTERNATIONAL REGIMES
India was an active participant in the Nuclear Security Summits of 2010, 2012 and 2014 and has fulfilled the commitments that it made there. A Global Center for Nuclear Energy Partnership was established to develop, with international participation, intrinsically safe, secure, proliferation-resistant and sustainable reactor designs. The HEU fuel from the Apsara (1 MWth) reactor was removed as promised. It will henceforth run on indigenously-made non-HEU fuel under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Although not a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, India has been adhering to its guidelines on nuclear transfers. It has also joined the Conventions on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM), the IAEA-US Regional Radiological Security Partnership and the International Convention on Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (ICSANT), the latter signed and ratified in 2006. India supports the fifth revision of the recommendations contained in the Information Circulars of the IAEA (INFCIRC/225) and the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism.
India has signed and ratified the IAEA’s India-specific Additional Protocol. It also invited the IAEA’s Operational Safety Review Team to review the Rajasthan Atomic Power Station. The review identified certain good practices, which were then shared with the IAEA and the global nuclear industry. Peer reviews were also conducted by the World Association of Nuclear Operators.
THE GAP IN PERCEPTION
In the first NTI index published in 2012, India scored a very poor 49 out of 100, ranking 28th among a total of 32 countries that possessed significant amounts of fissile materials at the time. This was completely at variance with the Indian government’s perception of the security measures it had in place, summarized in the previous section. Understandably, the Indian strategic establishment was not happy with the NTI rating. That Pakistan scored even lower, with a rank of 31 and China just one rank higher at 27, was hardly sufficient consolation. How did such a disparity in perception take place? We can offer some general comments.
There is no reason to suspect prejudicial intent on the part of the NTI or among the international panel of experts who designed the 2012 index (disclosure: I was a member of the 2012 panel). They were not out to name and shame India. The aim of the index was only to promote better security consciousness globally and identify possible security gaps in individual countries. But broad cultural differences between panelists from the Western democracies and those from other countries unavoidably came into play, especially on issues like corruption, social factors, political stability and judging the risk environment.
Besides, although the identification of criteria and their weights were determined by the NTI panel, the all-important awarding of scores to each country under those headings was done by a different group, the Economist Intelligence Unit. Thus, it was to some extent a joint NTI-EIU index. The role of the EIU was not just to tick yes or no in little boxes. They had to exercise their own judgment on subjective sub-indicators like corruption, bureaucracy and more, without having the benefit of regional nuances. For instance, while corruption is widespread in India, there have been few instances of this having resulted in sabotage or threats to national security.
Under “groups interested in illicitly acquiring materials” in the 2016 index, India scores 0 while the US and UK score 1. Surely, there have been militant cells in the UK and US interested in precisely that. On what grounds has it been determined that there are more such groups in India? True, strong homeland security measures have prevented terrorists from succeeding in the US after 9/11, but does that mean there are no terrorist cells in that vast country? Have the scorers distinguished between terrorists interested in conventional attacks from those interested in nuclear attacks? There are more such examples where perhaps subjectivity on the part of the EIU scorers may have worked against India.
If the various security measures instituted by India were not widely recognized outside, that was partly because India has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and in that way is not part of the international nuclear community. Sanctions, lifted only in 2008, also prevented nuclear commerce and inhibited communication with the outside world. Having said that, it must be recognized that India also contributed to its poor showing through its own opacity on nuclear security and its unwillingness to engage with the NTI. While preparing the 2012 index and before making it public, NTI is believed to have approached the Indian government more than once to discuss and check out its findings, but was either ignored or rebuffed.
As a sovereign country, India certainly has the right not to discuss its nuclear security with non-governmental organizations. But times have changed from the days of traditional diplomacy. Public perceptions and media coverage now have an important role in shaping geopolitics. Reports from well-known international NGOs such as NTI are widely quoted, particularly in the context of the ongoing series of biennial Nuclear Security Summits. So, if the NTI index did betray incorrect perceptions about India’s nuclear security measures, it may have been better for the Indian government to provide NTI with the official facts.
INDIA’S RESPONSE TO THE NTI INDEX
After the 2012 index was released, both sides responded in different ways to its poor reception from the Indian establishment. The latter, while totally unwilling to engage with the NTI during the generation of the index, did eventually react once the media and other NGOs started taking note. Government-funded think tanks generated scathing criticisms of the index. A more positive outcome was the government’s release of a brochure summarizing the various steps India has taken on nuclear security.5 It also encouraged New Delhi’s Observer Research Foundation to bring out a comprehensive report on nuclear security in India.6 These put in the public realm the various security measures that India has taken over the years.
NTI also reacted to India’s hostile response. For their subsequent indices in 2014 and 2016 they replaced the Indian expert on their panel, with his consent, with a different expert — a retired diplomat with much experience in representing India on nuclear issues. This was done in the hope that it would help the NTI liaise better with the Indian government.
Despite these moves by both sides, the Indian rating was not very much better in the 2014 and 2016 indices (see Table 1 above).
Note that as compared to 2012 and 2014, the 2016 analysis separated security risks into a “theft” and a “sabotage” category. The latter refers to the dangers of civilian nuclear facilities being sabotaged. India’s rank may appear to have improved from 28th in 2012 to 21st in 2016 (on theft) but the total number of countries evaluated had gone down from 32 in 2012 to 24 in 2016 because eight countries had shed their highly enriched uranium stocks. Thus, India has remained just a few places from the bottom. The only improvement in India’s score is on global norms, presumably due to India’s ratification in 2014 of the Additional Protocol with the IAEA on nuclear information sharing and security. Under other indicators, the changes were not significant.
The continued poor rating in 2016 on indicators including design-basis threat and security during transport, even after information about these measures had become publicly available, is a bit surprising. Similarly, on having an independent regulator, India got a mark of zero while some totalitarian regimes scored 100 out of 100 just because they formally had one, though it would be difficult to argue that the latter would be any more independent than the one in India. So India has reasons to be aggrieved at some of the methodology and judgments used in evaluating its security measures.
At the same time, the NTI index has also benefitted India by making its security procedures more transparent. Hopefully, it has also prompted India to be introspective and quietly ensure that the steps it has taken are sufficient. Not to do so would be churlish. Finally, it would be good if despite the problems that confront the Indian parliament, the government is able to push through the new Nuclear Regulatory Bill soon.
R. Rajaraman, Ph.D. Cornell, is emeritus professor of theoretical physics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
1 See the Annual Global Fissile Material Reports of the Panel at www.fissilematerials.org
3 Note that security and IAEA safeguarding, although related, are different things.
4 A thorough account of India’s nuclear security measures can be found in Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, “Nuclear Security in India,” (New Delhi: Observer Research Foundation, 2015), http://securitystrategyrajagopalan.blogspot.in. See also the official pamphlet, Government of India, “Nuclear Security in India” (New Delhi: Ministry of External Affairs, 2014).
5 Government of India, “Nuclear Security in India.”
6 Rajagopalan, “Nuclear Security in India.”
The above article was published in Global Asia, Volume 11 No. 1. To read the article in the Global Asia website, please click here. To download the pdf version, please scroll to the top left section of this page.