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How secure is Indian nuclear program?

17 October, 2006

By Adnan Gill

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A brief answer is, marginally!

India already enjoys the dubious distinction of running the most unsafe nuclear program, now it can hold the crown for running the most insecure one too. The Indian nuclear program has become a serious threat to world security. By large, the security threats posed to its nuclear reactors stem from within. It is a ticking time bomb waiting to be tripped by the numerous insurgencies and separatist movements plaguing India, or by natural disasters. Well over half of India is virtually controlled by insurgent groups, like the Naxalites, where the government's control is minimal to non-existent. Other security threats emanate from the Indians choosing to construct their nuclear facilities on coastlines prone to natural disasters like the monstrous tsunami of 2004.

India is afflicted with countless insurgencies. Over 53 per cent of its geographical territory is under the control of insurgents and separatists. A debilitating insurgency in the Indian-Controlled-Kashmir is still carried strong by groups like All-Parties Hurriyat Conference. The Sikh Khalistani movement seeks to create an independent Sikh State out of India's breadbasket state of Punjab. Northeastern India is bled by at least 50 separatist movements, out of which, the most prominent and oldest one is Naga militant group/National Socialist Council of Nagalim. However the most serious threat to Indian national security is posed by the leftist Naxalite separatists. Prime minister, Manmohan Singh, described this Maoist insurgency as "the single biggest internal security challenge ever faced by our country".

Once dismissed as little more than an irritant, the Maoist movement is gaining ground in India. The Naxalites are fighting the Indian government in states like Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Karnataka, Kerala, Uttaranchal, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh. Over 45 per cent or two-fifth of Indian territory is now under Naxalite influence which extends to 15 States, affecting 509 police stations. Currently, as few as 25 battalions of military and central paramilitary forces are fighting the armed Naxalites who have a presence in 220 districts and are in absolute control of over 160 districts, and spreading wide and far. They have over 55,000 well-trained, well-armed and highly motivated cadres, hi-tech weapons in plenty and a well-honed fighting strategy. Indian intelligence agencies believe that Maoists of India and Nepal have also begun joint operations. Sri Lanka's LTTE and French Maoists are providing full support to the Indian and Nepalese Maoists. In return, the Indian Maoists provide shelter and training camps to Nepal's Maoists.

Apparently, the separatist/Maoist sympathizers have successfully penetrated all sort of government organization, including Indian military and its state-owned Ordinance Factories. As recent as, October, 2006, Indian army recovered a massive cache of state manufactured arms and ammunition in the eastern city of Kolkata. Three people, including a soldier, were arrested in connection with the seizure of arms. The hoard included anti-personnel mines and ammunition. According to an October 3, 06, BBC report, "An army spokesman said the cache of arms was meant for Maoist rebels and other terrorist groups active in and around eastern West Bengal state." The report added, the Army spokesman Wing Commander RK Das said "the arms were meant for supply to Maoist and other terrorist groups active in the region, and that this was one of the largest recoveries of arms in recent times." Das further added, "The anti-personnel mines are very powerful and a single mine can kill many". In 2005 too, the police in southern Andhra Pradesh seized a huge cache of arms, including 800 rocket shells, which they said were meant for Maoist rebels.

A day after the British police said they foiled a major plot to attack transatlantic airliners, and exactly a month after Mumbai, India's commercial hub, was hit by a series of bomb blasts, the U.S. embassy in India warned American citizens of possible attacks in or around New Delhi and Mumbai. The U.S. embassy spokesman warned, "Likely targets include major airports, key central Indian government offices, and major gathering places such as hotels and markets." Judging from the September 8, 2006, horrible bomb blast in Malegaon (Maharashtra), which claimed at least 37 victims, it would be safe to assume that the warnings issued by the U.S. embassy were based on credible information. Even though the public warnings issued by the Americans did not include direct threats to the Indian nuclear facilities, still the Indian government deployed 38 elite commandos at its Kalpakkam fast breeder reactor in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. At the same time, the Press Trust of India reported additional commando deployments at other nuclear facilities. It reported, "The armed forces were given the responsibility of securing [nuclear] facilities and NSG commandoes were deployed at many nuclear plants."

Few details are available regarding the security standards in place for the Indian nuclear program, but they are believed to be primitive and outdated at best. Depending on the sensitivity of materials, it is generally believed that different levels of security are in place, including fencing and sentries. Physical barriers are installed at nuclear facilities in an effort to deny access to the sensitive areas, and access control is maintained over personnel by visually verifying paper laminated identity cards.

Security experts believe a well conceived attack on Indian nuclear assets by any number of highly-motivated insurgents and/or their sympathizers can potentially materialize in any of the following scenarios:

Scenario # 1: The insurgents steal an intact nuclear weapon from Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) and detonate it in the middle of Mumbai.

Though highly improbable, of all the separatist threats facing India, perhaps the gravest is the possibility of militants obtaining a fully assembled nuclear weapon and detonating it in a metropolitan. Insurgents could potentially acquire nuclear weapons through one of two plausible ways. They could steal an intact nuclear weapon from existing arsenals, or they could buy a stolen weapon. If an Indian separatist group exploded just one nuclear weapon in a major metropolis, hundreds of thousands of Indians could die and millions will be seriously injured.

Scenario # 2: The insurgents fashion a crude nuclear weapon by stealing fissile material from the Kalpakkam Atomic Reprocessing Plant (KARP) and explode it in Chennai.

In November/December 2004, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reported that India possesses 300-470 kilograms of plutonium, enough to produce up to 120 nuclear weapons, and a reasonable amount of highly enriched uranium (HEU). According to the report by David Albright and Kimberly Kramer titled 'Stockpiles still growing', "India may now be producing HEU in significant quantities at a gas centrifuge plant it has been working on for many years."

Since only a relatively small amount of HEU or plutonium is needed to build a bomb, separatists could potentially steal enough material to build one or more nuclear weapons. A crude nuclear weapon would need 40-50 kilograms of HEU. However, a more sophisticated design would use approximately 12 kilograms of HEU or 4 kilograms of plutonium. The theft of HEU from uranium enrichment plants like the ones at Trombay and Mysore would be especially worrisome, because it is relatively straightforward to make a bomb using this material. The insurgents could acquire enough fissile material to build a nuclear weapon and the expertise to construct a workable bomb.

Scenario # 3: The insurgent sympathizers smuggle highly radioactive material out of the Nuclear Fuel Complex to detonate a radiological dispersion device or 'dirty bomb' in Hyderabad.

In an example of a security blunder that could have resulted in the theft of fissile material, in August 2006, security was tightened in and around the Narora nuclear power plant after three men working there were arrested for giving fake addresses at the time of their appointments. Unbelievably, the men were given access to the facilities without first conducting thorough background checks.

The problem is that India does not only have 22 declared -- including under construction -- nuclear reactors, but it also has about 60 -- less secure -- agencies connected with nuclear activities. India is well-known for lax security and overworked systems; security experts believe smuggling of radioactive materials to be highly probable.

If the Maoists can recruit Indian military and ordinance factory personnel to smuggle out state owned military weaponry, then one can safely assume Maoists could one day get their hands on radioactive material to be used in dirty bombs, or in worst case, they could potentially steal nuclear weapons too.

Scenario # 4: Naxalites sabotage KARP facilities to cause large release of radiation in Chennai.

Security experts think the nature of specific threats to Indian nuclear facilities may include an attack with explosive laden trucks. These trucks could be driven through the security parameters to be exploded next to the nuclear reactors or next to the turbines spun by highly radioactive steam. In past, such tactics had been employed with marginal success by the Iraqi insurgents who breached the Green Zone (Baghdad) security wall by exploding a truck next to the wall. A second truck drove through the hole in the wall and exploded inside the Green Zone by the second suicide bomber. India is no stranger to suicide bombings. In the first recorded instance of suicide bombing in South Asia, the Indian Ex-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a Tamil suicide bomber. 

Insurgents may even employ other innovative tactics like mounting an aerial attack using an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) or an aircraft in a suicide mission. Naxalites are believed to be armed with short and long-range rockets. An attack on the nuclear facilities with rockets is also a realistic possibility to cause panic to facilitate breaching of security parameters.

The consequences of such attacks could include release of radioactive matter such as contaminated heavywater, pressurized radioactive steam, uranium dust clouds, iodine or cesium, and the associated fires and explosions could cause catastrophic structural failures. In fact, the Indian nuclear program has a history of structural failures. For example, in 1994, owing to faulty design, the concrete containment dome of the Kakrapar Atomic Power Station (KAPS) collapsed.

Scenario # 5: The most realistic scenario. In the aftermath of a massive tsunami, insurgents effortlessly get their hands on unguarded nuclear weapons stored at the unsecured military bases, and fissile materials from the KARP, BARC and/or Tarapur Atomic Power Stations and disperse these weapons and fissile materials all over India. They also sell the loot and stage multiple nuclear attacks.

The December 26, 2004 tsunami devastated the coastal stretches of Tamil Nadu. The unimaginable force of the tsunami literally uprooted or flattened every security boundary that was supposed to protect the peripheries of the 500-MW prototype fast breeder reactor coming up at Kalpakkam. The security personnel at the facilities were either killed or fled, virtually leaving the nuclear reactor insecure and unguarded for days to come.

In March 2006, the under construction 1,000 MW Koodankulam nuclear power plants were rocked by earthquake tremors. The tremors were strong enough to create severe panic and fear among the local population about the safety and security of the nuclear power project. According to a statement released by the People's Movement Against Nuclear Energy and the South Asian Community Center for Education and Research, "The quake, very close to the Koodankulam reactor site, raises urgent and important questions about the safety of the plants and the security and well being of the people in Kanyakumari and other southern districts of Tamil Nadu and Kerala". The statement further addressed the slacked attitude of Indian authorities towards the safety and security of its nuclear plants: "The local people's concerns about the impacts of these plants on their safety, health, livelihoods and well-being have all been simply dismissed so far." Arguably, their fears are not unfounded. It's not if, but when someone will take advantage of a natural disaster by stealing the fissile materials and/or nuclear weapons from the Indian facilities?

Unfortunately, that's not where Indian nightmare scenarios will end. In its mad pursuit to become a mini-nuclear power, India is going to ridiculous lengths to amass nuclear technologies in an amateurish hope to enhance its ability to generate additional fissile materials for its nuclear stockpiles. In an example of ultimate irresponsible and reckless behavior, Indians have tried to negotiate with Russians to build nuclear reactors even in the open seas. On November 19, 2003, the Indian news daily, The Hindu, reported a conversation between the Indian national security adviser Brajesh Mishra and the Russian atomic energy Minister Alexander Rumyantsev on a Russian offer to India of floating nuclear plants in international waters off the Indian shores, because then, the ownership of the plants can remain with the supplier. How India and Russia planed to protect the floating nuclear power plants in open seas against hurricanes, accidental collisions, terrorist attacks, aerial or underwater attacks, or sabotage is anybody's guess.

As a member of the Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials and under UN Resolution 1540, India is required to establish the highest standards of security for its fissile materials. Sadly, so far, the security standards at Indian nuclear facilities are believed to be rudimentary and primitive at best.

The Indian nuclear program is fast becoming a serious threat to world security. Rising radioactive plumes from the sabotaged Indian facilities or nuclear explosions will certainly poison the food and water supplies in the Subcontinent. Depending on the time of the year, the radioactive dust from India can be carried by the prevailing upper atmosphere winds all the way around the world to Western Europe, or even to the United States!

Realistic threat to the world security from the insecure Indian nukes is marginalized by the world leaders, like U.S. President Bush, who remain obsessed with assumed-threats like the one from Iran. President Bush's tendency to be distracted by self-conceived threats has already resulted into a North Korean nuclear test, while the threats from India remain ticking.

Courtesy: The Defence Journal



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