Seizure of Radioactive Uranium in Indian and Depleting Nuclear Safety and Security

Nuclear security architecture: identifying emerging challenges and opportunities (WP1554)

By Ahyousha Khan      24 May 2021

Very recently, in the first week of May 2021, the Indian police have seized 7.1 Kilograms of illegally possessed Radioactive Uranium by two men in the state of Maharashtra. The material was sent to Bhabha Atomic Research Center to confirm seized material, and after confirmation from the center, the case was registered. The seized radioactive material was natural uranium, not even a “yellowcake,” but it was worth $ 2.9 billion in international markets. But the point of concern is the availability of Uranium to people who might have stolen it or came in illegal possession of it, which later on could be sold in the black market. The safety and security of nuclear material and facilities are the responsibility of a state. But, under the guidelines of international best practices and safeguards, states ensure that their nuclear materials and facilities are protected and secure. This incident has raised questions about India’s safety and security measures for the protection of its nuclear materials and facilities. Moreover, it highlights the fact there may be an existence of an active nuclear black market.

This is not the only incident that happened regarding the theft and stealing of radioactive material in India. If one goes down the history, 147 mishaps and security-related concerns were reported in Indian nuclear energy plants and reactors between 1995 to 1998 only; this has been revealed in one of the reports of the Indian Parliament. All these incidents were not minor; 28 out of them were of serious concern. In 2003, Indian authorities seized 225 grams of milled uranium that members of a terrorist faction got from a mining employee. Again in 2008, a criminal gang was captured by Indian authorities, trying to smuggle low-grade uranium that can be used for a primitive radiation-dispersal device. Later on, in 2009, an employee from an Indian nuclear reactor deliberately poisoned his colleagues with a radioactive isotope by taking advantage of gaps in a nuclear reactor. Then in 2013, again, leftist guerillas obtained uranium ore from a state-run milling complex.  These all above-mentioned incidents were reported in the report published by the Centre for Public Integrity, titled “India’s nuclear materials are vulnerable to theft, US officials and experts says.”  In 2016, again, an incident was reported in the media regarding the theft of nuclear material. Late in 2019, one of the biggest Indian nuclear power plants equipped with two Russian heavy water reactors came under a cyber-attack. These all incidents reflect that Indian nuclear safety, security, and regulatory bodies cannot maintain stringent mechanisms in place. Even today, the nature of theft of nuclear material hasn’t changed in India, and the recent incident is one candid example.

These incidents are not the only ones that have been highlighted and reported in the media. Other than the lack of internal security mechanisms for nuclear material safety and facilities, Indian private contractors are involved in the illicit procurement of goods and materials for use in unsafeguarded nuclear facilities. As India is the only country that the NSG has given the waiver to conduct nuclear trade with other states, it should put its civilian nuclear facilities under IAEA nuclear safeguards. However, India failed to do so, and materials produced from these facilities could be used to build more weapons. In this regard, the Federation of American Scientists has predicted that India’s ongoing missile proliferation will need to build more nuclear warheads for its missile program.  According to reports, these unprotected civilian nuclear facilities are involved in procuring goods and materials from other countries more often.

This scenario presents us with several takeaways; India should report its recent incident to IAEA’s incident and tracking database (ITDB) after a detailed investigation. Secondly, these incidents should be of great concern for the international community; even though they are of the same nature, they occur quite frequently in India. Thirdly, despite these incidents, which reflect the presence of the nuclear black market in India, ironically, the international community is granting Indians access to all kinds of nuclear materials and goods based on its so-called credentials. This raises the question of the norms of non-proliferation and reiterates that non-proliferation is an issue of realpolitik rather than rules-based norms and ethics. The leadership of the present government in India is also threatening, which has depicted time and again that to hold a pretense and animosity could go to any extent. Such a scenario reflects that there will be little transparency in these issues, and India will supply its uranium in the black market and use its waiver to build more and more warheads without any check and balance.

Hence, to sum up, the recent incident of theft of highly radioactive Uranium is undoubtedly evidence of Indian non-adherence to the international practices of nuclear safety and security. Unfortunately, this has been deliberately ignored by the proponents of nuclear non-proliferation time and again. This highlights the discriminatory approach of the global politics of non-proliferation. Thus, international silence on these matters is criminal for the international security and norms and ethics of non-proliferation. Last but not the least, if the international community, as usual, ignores this serious issue, the desire for nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament would be a “fool’s paradise.”

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