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Nuclear Security Norms

A US-based organisation has placed India at as low as 28th among 32 countries in the world with respect to security of nuclear materials. How accurate is the ranking and how justifi ed is the defensive Indian anger at this low ranking?

COMMENTARY

Nuclear Security Norms

Where Does India Stand?

P R Chari

A US-based organisation has placed India at as low as 28th among 32 countries in the world with respect to security of nuclear materials. How accurate is the ranking and how justified is the defensive Indian anger at this low ranking?

P R Chari (prchari@gmail.com) is visiting fellow at the Institute of Peace and Confl ict Studies, New Delhi.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
march 24, 2012

N
ations are leery of being judged and, especially, of being judged along with their peers, unless it can be guaranteed that they will come out smelling of roses. Therefore, while predictions that India’s growing GDP ensures its manifest destiny to be the world’s third largest economy sends a warm glow through Indian hearts, when other indices place it among the upper ranks of nations in the matter of public corruption, illiteracy, infant and maternal mortality, and so on they are greeted with incredulity admixed with anger, before ending in denial.

All this revealed itself in local reactions to the Nuclear Materials Security Index published in January by the Washington-based think tank Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI). The index ranked the security of nuclear materials within nations after undertaking a baseline study of 176 countries, which was conducted by the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). Great incredulity and anger arose in New Delhi because the NTI index has ranked India 28th in a list of 32 countries in the world that possess more than 1 kg of weapons grade fi ssile material. China is ranked 27th, just above India. And, only Vietnam, Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea, in that descending order, are placed below India. Is this fair?

An objective analysis of the NTI index must proceed along two tracks. First, what are the parameters used to construct this index and what are the respective weights accorded to each of them? Second, how were these parameters applied to India? The NTI has clarified that a facility-by-facility survey was not undertaken, nor were their materials control and accounting practices reviewed. Instead: “The NTI index assesses and scores each state across a broad range of publicly available indicators of a state’s nuclear materials security practices and conditions”.

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Five factors thereafter guided the construction of the index, viz, the quantities of fissile materials present and the number of sites where they were stored (15); the protective measures emplaced for security and control (31); the global

norms or international commitments accepted (15); the domestic capacity available to implement these commitments (15); and societal factors like corruption or instability that could undermine these commitments and practices (23). The figures in parentheses reveal the respective weights accorded to each of these five factors. Value judgments had obviously to be made, but impartiality was ensured by the NTI placing the data generated by the EIU before an international panel of experts. A global perspective required a Martian view to be adopted; apparently, this was the charter guiding the international panel of experts.

Coming to India’s problematical low ranking, the NTI report states that it gave India high marks for its adherence to international obligations, physical protection of nuclear sites, and its response capabilities, but poor marks on factors like transparency, corruption and an independent regulatory authority. On issues like political stability, adoption of safeguards and domestic legislation to ensure nuclear materials security, India got average marks. These conclusions can, of course, be argued for and against.

But the NTI report also informs us that all states listed in its index had been sent the assessments made of their nuclear materials security for comments, if any. It is not clear if India chose to make any official response. Or, whether India felt it would be safer to maintain silence rather than get embroiled in what promised to become a public controversy, especially with the government having gone very much on the defensive over the last several months.

Meanwhile, Russia seems highly concerned with the poor scores received in the NTI index by India, Pakistan, but also Israel – all non-signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Mikhail Ulyanovsk, director of the Russian Security and Disarmament Department, has called upon

COMMENTARY

them “to guarantee effective resistance to illegal turnover of nuclear materials and technologies, the reliable safety of their nuclear materials and the improvement of the physical security of their nuclear facilities”. He added that the problem of sensitive technologies and materials falling into the wrong hands was “of a global nature and requires efforts of all countries and the international community on the whole”.

Consequently, the dismissal of the NTI index in India by the media and other organisations as motivated is not very helpful, but not surprising. The government is very sensitive to criticism of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), which has traditionally functioned in high secrecy, while enjoying privileged access to the highest echelons in the government. Any adverse criticism is therefore lampooned as being either motivated or deriving from ignorance. It must be admitted, however, that the Indian nuclear programme is far from being accident-free. Instances of workers being exposed to radiation beyond normal levels, leakages from waste-storage facilities, apart from a serious fi re in Narora and the collapse of a containment dome in Kaiga have occurred in the past. The AEC has, of course, counterargued that no accident has occurred in India comparable to mishaps like the Three Mile Island in the US or Chernobyl in the erstwhile Soviet Union, or Fukushima-Daiichi in Japan in March 2011.

Still, “Murphy’s Law” informs us that if anything can go wrong in a particular situation it will go wrong with the effl ux of time. The public resistance to new atomic power plants in different parts of India reveals the imperative need for the AEC to reassure a sceptical civil society regarding the safety and security of its nuclear materials. What should disturb everyone is the lack of an independent regulatory authority to oversee the nuclear infrastructure. An effort was made recently to rectify this situation by establishing a new regulatory authority to oversee nuclear security. But serious objections have been raised to this modality since its oversight council consists of officials who would resist, rather than promote, greater transparency in the AEC’s working.

And, this reality reinforces the contention made in the NTI report that indices and rankings apart, all nations can and should urgently review and improve the safety and security of their nuclear materials.

march 24, 2012 vol xlviI no 12

EPW
Economic & Political Weekly

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