The South Asia Channel

India’s Nuclear Dangers

India’s Nuclear Dangers

The upcoming Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) – the final such summit of Obama’s presidency and perhaps the last ever – provides a critical opportunity for high-level political engagement with the pressing issues of nuclear safety and security. South Asia is a key piece of this discussion because it faces significant terrorist threats, is home to large stockpiles of fissile material, and has some of the world’s highest population density. While international concerns about nuclear security in South Asia mainly focus on Pakistan, many of the conditions that make Pakistan so dangerous also apply to India. In particular, India is also susceptible to a terrorist attack on a nuclear facility, or the theft of nuclear materials to create a radiological bomb or crude nuclear weapon. India has made key steps to strengthen nuclear security, but recent incidents at nuclear facilities indicate an urgent need for improvement. As New Delhi continues to sign new civil nuclear agreements with leaders in the global nuclear energy sector, the NSS is an opportunity for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to prioritize nuclear material safety and security.

The threat of terror on the subcontinent alone is a concern. However, the security of nuclear facilities and materials in the region has even broader international relevance. The region has recently played host to local Islamic State start-up affiliate groups. Last month, India arrested 14 Indians, including the apparent head of IS in India: “Musab” or Mudabbir Mushtaq Shaikh. Shaikh was recruited by a former member of the Indian Mujahedeen, a domestic Indian terrorist organization, speaking to the ideological reach of “Islamic State” rhetoric. IS has expressed interest in large-scale acts of terror using weapons of mass destruction. Its spread to India and now Pakistan is a threat to global security.

India suffers from regular acts of terror, both domestic and sourced back to insurgents in Pakistan. The specter of nuclear material being used to create a radiological weapon, or “dirty bomb,” is of particular concern – both for nonproliferation and the likely panic an attack of this nature would generate. Experts also suggest that South Asia is exceptionally vulnerable to a terrorist attack on a nuclear facility. An estimated 83 percent of nuclear material around the world is classified as being for military use and, as such, is not subject to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. One such facility, the Bhabha Atomic Research Center (BARC) in Mumbai, is a salient case study of the intersection of terror and nuclear materials. It houses the Dhruva reactor, India’s major source of weapons-grade plutonium. An attack on a facility like BARC could constitute aggression against India’s nuclear weapons production and reconstitution capabilities. If such an act of terror were traced back to some part of the Pakistan government (like in the 2002 and 2008 crises), a crisis could escalate rapidly. Would key South Asian political leadership and third-party crisis management be able to prevent war in a future 2008 Mumbai-like triggering event if BARC were targeted?

A nightmare escalation scenario like this is not unthinkable. Terror suspects convicted in connection with the July 11, 2006 Mumbai train bombings (183 casualties) confessed to recruitment by ISI to gather reconnaissance on BARC. Later that July, Indian President Pranab Mukherjee and National Security Advisor M. K. Narayanan both spoke publicly of intelligence on a planned attack on a nuclear facility by Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). In 2007, Indian security forces thwarted a militant attack on an irradiation facility of BARC near Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir. The assailants threw grenades but there was reportedly “no spillage of radioactive yellow cake … [or] change in background radiation.” Testimony from convicted Pakistani-American terrorist David Headley suggested that plans for the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks originally included reconnaissance of BARC in Mumbai as a target. Headley claims the Mumbai attacks were coordinated by a handler in the Pakistani ISI, “Major Iqbal.”

A terror attack using stolen nuclear materials is more likely than a successful attack on a nuclear facility in India. Analysts disagree on how insecure Indian nuclear materials have been, but media reports have confirmed incidents of stolen uranium in October 1994, June and July 1998, August 2001, and February and September 2008. This list is not comprehensive because reporting is inconsistent and some incidents go unreported. (Additional sources for tracking incidents of nuclear and radiological materials insecurity in India include reports from Sandia, NTI, NPS, IPCS, IDSA, and CLAWS.)

The 2016 Nuclear Security Summit is an opportunity for Prime Minister Modi to declare India’s intention to continue the significant progress on nuclear safety and security measures it has made in the last two years, not least of which was its IAEA Additional Protocol entering into force. A commitment from Modi to pursue further progress on nuclear safety and security would strengthen India’s credentials as a responsible state with nuclear weapons. Specifically, a statement from Modi that commits India to quickly establishing an independent nuclear regulatory body would communicate his administration’s seriousness about addressing the threat of radiological and nuclear terror in India. Reported discussion of creating a specific security force for the security of nuclear facilities might provide another aspect of a statement of intent by Modi at the Summit. India has been building its case for international recognition as a normal nuclear state for years, seeking admission to the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Nuclear terror is not a national issue; its consequences do not respect state borders. At the final Nuclear Security Summit, the moment is ripe for India to take the lead in South Asia on tackling the threat of nuclear and radiological terrorism.

Adeel Halim/Bloomberg via Getty Images