There has been an increase in the detection of unauthorized possession and theft of uranium in India, the main ingredient to make a nuclear device. The latest of which was reported on June 3, 2021, when seven people were arrested for illegally possessing 6.4 kg of uranium ore in the Indian State of Jharkhand. It is the second such case within a period of one month where unauthorized persons were caught carrying uranium. Earlier, the police in the state of Maharashtra had arrested two individuals for possessing 7 kg of uranium ore. Dozens of incidents similar in nature have also been reported in the past few years where nuclear materials were not under the control of the Indian state.
The detection of such cases raises questions on not only the lax controls on such sensitive materials by the concerned authority in India, but it also puts a question mark on the commitment of the world community to uphold higher nuclear safety and security standards as committed during the four Nuclear Security Summits (NSS) from April 2010 to April 2016.
Nature of the detected Uranium
India has estimated uranium reserves of 184,964 tonnes in its ten states, and it has put in place mining facilities at dozens of places. The Indian State of Jharkhand, where the latest heist of uranium was detected, hosts the largest share of uranium deposits in India. The uranium deposits found in India are primarily low-grade. To meet the consumption demand of nuclear power plants, it also imports uranium from other countries. According to the Department of Atomic Energy, India had 19 nuclear power plants in the country in 2013, out of which nine use imported uranium and 10 use indigenous uranium. It means that there are equal chances of smuggling or stealing both indigenous and imported uranium.
Furthermore, the seized uranium from Jharkhand bears ‘Made in USA’ stamps on it. According to reports, thefts of both natural and semi-enriched uranium have been detected by India’s authorities. Detected low-grade uranium smuggled from one of India’s state-owned mines in 2008 could be used in the primitive radiation-dispersal device. In 2013, armed guerillas in northeast India had taken uranium ore from a milling facility and were caught by police making a crude bomb. The detected uranium in some cases has been found to be highly radioactive.
The bearing of ‘Made in US’ stamps on the seized uranium speaks volumes about the availability of both indigenous and imported uranium in the black market.
The detection of several of these attempted thefts by the Indian authorities is a promising development. Still, at the same time, it also raises alarms about several other possible cases of theft where the perpetrators have been successful. They also point towards the possible existence of a uranium black market in India, where the price of smuggled uranium is around $410,000 per kg. The bearing of ‘Made in US’ stamps on the seized uranium speaks volumes about the availability of both indigenous and imported uranium in the black market. India faces a number of insurgencies in its Eastern and Northern states. Stolen uranium could fall into their hands and be used for ulterior motives. Or it could be made available to terror outfits active in other countries.
Nuclear Safety and Security and India’s Ratings
Nuclear safety and security were the priority of the Obama Administration. It had called four NSS summits to strengthen safety and security measures globally. However, according to a report, the US government has not treated safety and security lapses in India with the degree of urgency that such matters deserve. It continues to sell military hardware and enhance trade with India. As quoted by the report, US experts had raised their concerns not only on the safeguards against the insider threat but also the movement of nuclear materials and weapons. This lack of stringent controls on the protocols of workers in the atomic facilities creates a conducive environment for the misappropriation of sensitive materials. But geopolitical interests do not let the US authorities press India harder against these compromised standards. The US hopes to expand nuclear cooperation with India. It had signed the Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear agreement of 2008. India has also been given a Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) waiver spearheaded by the US. The nuclear cooperation agreement and NSG waiver have given India the status of a de-facto nuclear weapon state. India, under the agreement, was eligible to receive dual-use materials and equipment that could make material for a nuclear bomb.
Despite the increasing cooperation with the US and other western states in the nuclear field or perhaps because of it, India’s nuclear safety and security standards have not fared well on various ranking indexes. According to the Nuclear Security Index 2020 by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, India has ranked only above Iran and North Korea with an overall score of 41 out of 100 against nuclear theft. Its domestic commitment and capacity in the same category scored 36/100. It also fared poorly against sabotage, ranking 38 out of 47 countries.
While India’s nuclear activities are growing, so are the number of unauthorized holding and smuggling of nuclear materials in the country. 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 organizations 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. The United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540 and the IAEA Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) bind India to tight controls on sensitive materials to stop them from falling into unauthorized hands.
This article was published in the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research (CSCR) on June 8, 2021.