Written by Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan.
The security of nuclear and radiological materials became a global issue afterthe end of the Cold War, when there were fears of Soviet nuclear materials and expertise falling into the wrong hands. However, the concern gained global attention only after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States. There were genuine concerns that terrorist groups would acquire nuclear materials. Since then, there has been a galvanization of efforts to tighten the existing regimes or formulate new instruments that will plug some of the loopholes and vulnerabilities relating to nuclear security.
Asia has been home to many of these concerns, be it in the South Asian or the East Asian context. Living in a particularly dangerous neighbourhood, India has been vigilent regarding the security of its nuclear materials, facilities and installations for several decades now. India has had to fight both internal and external security issues, including cross-border terrorism. Terrorist attacks in Mumbai in November 2008 reflected the growing capabilities and capacities of terrorist groups to carry out command-style and coordinated attacks against India. Acknowledging this reality, India has established both institutional and legal mechanisms, originally developed in the 1960s and 1970s, which have been updated frequently, depending on the evolving regional and global scenario. India cannot, however, become complacent and has to remain vigilant and dynamic regarding its nuclear security policies.
In recent years, India’s nuclear security policy has come under increasing scrutiny. The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), in its Security Index, painted India quite poorly. However, a study conducted by the Observer Research Foundation in 2014-15, which I led, found that India has a fairly strong nuclear security policy. Nevertheless, it is important to analyze how these policies are implemented on the ground and if the compliance process is vigorous or not. The ORF study revealed four key findings about India’s nuclear security policy:
While atomic energy agencies and security managers across states in India are conscious of the threats and challenges associated with nuclear security, there are still variations in the perception, responses and policy implementation. The variation in threat perception has prevented more streamlined policies. In addition, it has led to insufficient human resource and financial allocation, which is required for capacity building to tackle threats effectively. The police in one of the south Indian states, Andhra Pradesh, are a case in point. Though they are alert to nuclear security challenges, their priority is to battle left-wing extremist violence, which they have to do on a daily basis.
A second major challenge India might face, is in its ability to deal with a crisis. While this can be a challenge for any country, the challenge is much greater for India because India’s urban spaces are densely populated, and also because the coordination and synergy among different security agencies to respond in a unified manner is questionable. Each of the security agencies undertake drills and exercises on a regular basis, but they do not do enough integrated drills involving multiple agencies. Indeed, Indian atomic energy agencies acknowledge the need for more synergized exercises involving multiple security agencies.
A third major finding relates to the general global evaluations and how India compares in the global rankings. India has put in practice some of the key global nuclear security concepts such as the Personnel Reliability Programme (PRP) and defence-in-depth principle that are vital for delaying any intrusion and enhancing the response time for security agencies. PRP has become particularly important in the context of increasing internal threats to nuclear installations. Rigorous background verification and continued monitoring (out-of-office social interactions, medical and mental health history even after being employed) reflect the stringent nature of the Indian PRP. Similarly, India’s defence-in-depth principle is comparable globally with its layered system of security, including access control mechanisms such as cement and steel barriers and spike strips as well as biometric systems that aid in delaying access to the core of a facility.
The fourth and the most important finding was about India’s outreach and articulation of its security policies. India has been more open and transparent to nuclear safety issues, and has been open to collaboration with other global nuclear players such as France. However, India has remained somewhat circumspect when it comes to nuclear security issues. This is surprising given that India’s record and performance in this area is quite good and something it can be proud of, and it may even contain lessons for other nuclear powers. This is possibly because India has had an uneasy relationship with the global nuclear order, having been under international sanctions for decades following India’s peaceful nuclear explosions in 1974; a relationship that has only improved somewhat over the last decade.
New Delhi is also concerned that terrorists and criminals might acquire vital information regarding India’s policies. On the other hand, though there cannot be total transparency, a controlled and limited transparency effort can go a long way in strengthening India’s case significantly. India, for instance, can outline in broad terms the tenets and implementation of its nuclear security policy. Otherwise, for all the rigorous steps that it has taken, India will continue to get poor nuclear security rankings. The steps India has taken remain unknown among the wider global nuclear community. Details of key measures India has adopted such as PRP need to be publicized because, in the absence of such an outreach, even partners such as France have remained ignorant of India’s nuclear security accomplishments. India has to find a fine balance between nuclear security and transparency. This becomes especially important as it takes steps to integrate with the global nuclear architecture.
While these are some positive attributes that need to be articulated, India has to also address some of the weaknesses and gaps. One, India must establish a fully independent nuclear regulator. Even the appearance of not having a truly autonomous regulator has hurt India’s case in the global nuclear community. India’s efforts to establish the Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority (NSRA) has not made much progress in the Parliament. A Bill to this end was originally introduced in the Parliament in September 2011 but it has yet to be taken up following its lapse after the 2014 general elections.
This is an important measure that must not be delayed. The Bill seeks to replace the current Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) with the NSRA. It seeks to do so by establishing a Council of Nuclear Safety under the leadership of the Prime Minister. Even though this is progress over the current AERB, it has come under some criticism. Critics argue that the autonomy of the new mechanism is not well-articulated in the new Bill. There have also been questions about the composition of the members but that reflects a larger problem faced in the Indian nuclear domain. Much of the available nuclear expertise in the country has links to the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). However, it is interesting to note that under the current system, those who go to the AERB do not come back to the DAE, thereby avoiding potential conflicts of interest. In addition, it might also be useful for India to establish an independent regulator because it could also produce real benefits in the area of nuclear safety and security.
A second major issue is the need to establish a separate nuclear security force. Although the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), which is responsible for protecting India’s nuclear facilities, has done a good job, it would be good for India to consider a dedicated security agency meant for nuclear security alone. This might be considered because CISF has a wide mandate and is engaged in everything from airport security to the security of major oil and industrial installations. This should be done also because India’s civil nuclear sector is likely to grow, which will then strain the CISF’s capacity.
A third area of focus must be on the account and audit of nuclear materials. The AERB maintains a list of the entire Indian nuclear inventory, and the audit process has been strengthened in the wake of the Mayapuri incident. Even as there have been further tightening of the regulations following the incident, involving the University Grants Commission and the AERB, more work needs to be done. For instance, awareness camps among scrap dealers was suggested to increase their knowledge of potentially hazardous waste material that might come their way. The AERB undertook a few such camps even in Mayapuri, but they have not been followed up on a regular basis. The licensing as well as monitoring of the end-of-life disposal processes for nuclear material must also be tightened.
Lastly, India must put greater focus on strengthening the PRP in defending against insider threats, which is becoming more common globally. PRP for instance, must extend to all, including short-term temporary labourers who are attached to a plant. While there have been no major insider threat issues so far in India, the impact of a lapse will be severe. Therefore, there is a need for the atomic energy agencies to fashion appropriate training programmes that should involve everyone from a lab janitor and researcher to control room operators, technicians and security guards. Also, the trustworthiness programmes need to be reviewed on a regular basis and must be made more dynamic. This could also become an important initiative among global nuclear players where the states could share information about security lapses that may have occurred and preventive actions taken, which could be useful to all states.
Dr Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan is Senior Fellow and Head of the Nuclear and Space Policy Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. She tweets @raji143 . Image credit: CC by Marko Mikkonen/Flickr.