Come clean on nuclear security

This week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will touch down in Washington, DC for the fourth and final Nuclear Security Summit, a biennial conference series initiated in 2010 by the Barack Obama administration. Mr. Modi will no doubt seek to showcase India’s nuclear regime as one that adheres to the highest standards of transparency and safety through rigorous regulation of nuclear products and institutions. Although that would be welcome, what Mr. Modi’s interlocutors in the U.S. may be hoping for is that he will break with India’s tradition of maintaining a masterful silence on two questions surrounding its nuclear policy. First, how can India address disquieting signals that have emerged in recent times, which point to growing concerns over the security of its nuclear materials? Second, at a time when India’s macro strategy of rapid economic development is premised on a climate of neighbourly peace and stability in the region, is it not appropriate that Mr. Modi call for an end to the nuclear arms race in Asia, and address environmental risks of India’s covert weapons plants?

“The need for heightened nuclear security has now become urgent.” Picture shows the Kudankulam power plant in Tamil Nadu.— Photo: N. Rajesh

Let us consider each of these questions in turn.

India’s nuclear security

First, the need for heightened nuclear security has now become urgent, especially with the emergence of global jihadi threats such as the Islamic State. In this context, three potential nuclear terrorist threats relate to extremists making or acquiring and exploding a nuclear bomb; the danger of radioactive material being fashioned into a “dirty bomb”; and the risk of nuclear reactor sabotage.

The first and second scenarios are vectors of imminent concern in Pakistan, with analysts citing as examples a series of terrorist attacks in 2007 on nuclear weapons facilities in that country, including a nuclear missile storage facility at Sargodha and a nuclear airbase at Kamra.

However, a paper published earlier this month by Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government cautioned that U.S. officials ranked Indian nuclear security measures as “weaker than those of Pakistan and Russia”, and U.S. experts visiting the sensitive Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) in 2008 described the security arrangements there as “extraordinarily low key”. Further, the Harvard report notes, there are concerns about threats within Indian nuclear facilities stemming in part from “significant insider corruption”, and what appears to be inconsistent strength of regulation. An example that the report cites relates to the 2014 case of Vijay Singh, head constable at the Madras Atomic Power Station at Kalpakkam, who shot and killed three people with his service rifle. According to the report, this event may have been avoided had the Central Industrial Security Force’s personnel reliability programme been able to detect Mr. Singh’s deteriorating mental health, which it failed to do “despite multiple red flags, including his telling colleagues that he was about to explode like a firecracker.” With a scarcity of data points on insider threats and the attendant concerns about sabotage and nuclear accidents, the unsurprising conclusion of the report was: “Given the limited information available about India’s nuclear security measures, it is difficult to judge whether India’s nuclear security is capable of protecting against the threats it faces.”

Weapons development programme

This brings us to the second question, which relates to India’s clandestine weapons development programme.

Set within the broader context of nuclear deterrence vis-à-vis Pakistan and China, it has quietly steamed forward since the 1998 Pokhran-II tests. Recent evidence that this shadowy realm of government activity has been proceeding apace beyond the scrutiny of the media and public surfaced in June 2014 when IHS Jane’s, a U.S.-based military intelligence think tank, discovered satellite imagery showing efforts underway to extend a Mysore nuclear centrifuge plant constructed in 1992 at the Rare Metals Plant at that location. According to Jane’s, the purpose behind this extension may have been the covert production of uranium hexafluoride, which could be channelled towards the manufacture of hydrogen bombs or naval reactors to power India’s nuclear submarine fleet.

One month later, another U.S. think tank, the Institute for Science and International Security, revealed additional satellite imagery suggesting that India was building a Special Material Enrichment Facility, including constructing an industrial-scale centrifuge complex in Chitradurga district in Karnataka. Some time during 2009 and 2010, approximately 10,000 acres of land were allegedly diverted at that site for various defence purposes, including 290 acres in Khudapura allocated to the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) for developing and testing drones.

A few years later, in December 2015, a study by the Centre for Public Integrity (CPI), reported in Foreign Policy magazine, confirmed that India’s under-radar ambition to acquire thermonuclear weapons at the Chitradurga site had advanced much further than many had suspected.

There are likely to be a number of other such walled-off weapons development zones across the breadth of the country, and this begs two critical questions. First, what are the broader implications of India’s covert nuclear programme for the triangular standoff vis-à-vis Pakistan and China? Second, while the Nuclear Liability Law protects its citizenry from the potentially catastrophic fallout of a nuclear accident in the civilian nuclear sector, what guarantees do we have that India’s nuclear black sites do not endanger the health of the people and the environment?

On the first question, India’s search for thermonuclear weapons certainly exacerbates the nuclear arms race with its neighbours, specifically by sparking dangerous games of tit-for-tat weaponisation, loose talk about tactical superiority and theatre nukes, and growing doubts about deterrence stability. The region is already a potential hothouse of nuclear posturing — a fact corroborated by the independent Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s estimates that India has something in the range 90-110 nuclear weapons, Pakistan has around 120, and China has close to 260.

Environmental impact

On the question of environmental impact, evidence suggests that the Chitradurga and Khudapura sites may be degrading the surrounding grassland ecosystems called kavals, which are habitats for critically endangered local species such as the Great Indian Bustard, the Lesser Florican and the Black Buck, not to mention the livelihoods source for thousands of pastoral communities.

In February 2014, NGOs in Karnataka including the Environment Support Group complained about government land acquisitions for DRDO and BARC in the Challakere in Chitradurga, and obtained a direction from the National Green Tribunal to halt construction activity that had commenced without securing permission from the Karnataka Forest Department and the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests.

Since then, it is unclear whether the government ever paused its weapons development activity to conduct proper environmental assessments, but the CPI study indicates otherwise, citing as evidence an October 2012 letter marked “Secret” from the Ministry to atomic energy officials which suggested approval of the Mysore site’s construction as “a project of strategic importance” that would cost nearly $100 million.

When he meets Mr. Obama at the end of this month, Mr. Modi may come laden with a “house gift” as a sign of India’s sustained commitment to nuclear security. If this could be an indication that India is willing be more open about discussing its nuclear weapons programme with a view to ultimately denuclearising the neighbourhood, it would by far be one of the most courageous contribution that India could make towards a lasting subcontinental security.