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June 10, 2021

India’s nuclear recklessness - Part I

Within one month two stories of illegal possession and sale of uranium being caught by Indian police have surfaced. Of course, any attempt to smuggle radioactive material must be a cause for concern and Pakistan should report these to the IAEA and question why these incidents have not been recorded in the IAEA’s Incident Trafficking DataBase (ITDB) – because the last one checked they were not there. However, it is not just these particular instances in themselves that should have aroused Pakistan’s and, in fact, the international community’s concern.

What should also be of concern is the fact that this incident is simply one more in a history of nuclear materials going missing or attempting to be smuggled out of India. Unfortunately, the international community has chosen to remain silent on India’s nuclear transgressions, of which there have been many. The fast pace and largely indigenous inputs into its nuclear facilities created safety issues from the start.

According to an Indian parliamentary report, 147 mishaps or safety-related unusual occurrences were reported between 1995 and 1998 in Indian atomic energy plants. Of these, 28 were of an acute nature and 9 of these 28 occurred in the nuclear power installations. In a paper presented at the IDSA, New Delhi, on October 10, 1988, Leventhal and Chellaney pointed to structural design and operational problems that were troubling India at that time.

In the context of nuclear material theft, reports emerged of uranium theft on August 27, 2001 – when police in West Bengal revealed that they had arrested two men with more than 200 grams of semi-processed uranium. According to Indian press reports, Indian intelligence officials believed that a uranium smuggling gang was operating in West Bengal. While reports of Indian involvement in the theft of nuclear fissile material date back to the early 1970s, the magnitude of the threat increased manifold in the 1980s and 1990s. In the late 1980s, the CIA had concluded that India was trying to develop a sophisticated Hydrogen bomb. In 1994, on a tip-off, a shipment of beryllium was caught in Vilnius, worth $24 million. The buyer was thought to be either from India or North Korea – though the shipment was caught before it could reach the buyer.

In July 1998, India’s Central Bureau of Intelligence (CBI) unearthed a major racket in the theft of uranium in Tamil Nadu, with the seizure of over 8 kg of the nuclear material in granule form and the arrest of three men. The contents of this theft were sent to the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR) for preliminary analysis and the Centre declared that there were two kinds of substances found in what they said was 6 kg of uranium – natural uranium (U237and U238) and U 235, which is weapons grade uranium.

The investigations also led to cases of further seizure of uranium on July 31, 1998 – of 31 grams in addition to 2 kg, caught from another accomplice of the two engineers. The approximate abundance of uranium U235 in the samples indicated a 1.40 percent and 2.20 percent of enrichment. This showed that the uranium was neither an ore of uranium nor depleted uranium, but had its existence in an atomic research centre. Meanwhile, the director of the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research denied the possibility that the uranium could have come from the Madras Atomic Power Station (MAPS) at Kalpakkam near Chennai. However, later, when the CBI vowed to go ahead with the investigation, MAPS stated that the substance caught was not uranium but limenite – a non-strategic substance with ordinary applications.

The shift in the stance of the research centre, from their initial report of a relatively high level of uranium enrichment to its total absence in the substance, caused a considerable problem for the prosecutors as they could not pursue charges against the persons. Later, as a result of this lead, the CBI seized 2 more kilograms of uranium and 31kg of platinum. However, due to the change of statement by the atomic research centre, the case was buried.

Again, on May 1, 2000, Mumbai police seized 8.3 kgs of uranium. The uranium was termed as depleted but radioactive uranium by the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC). In this instance, the source of this uranium theft – as cited by the police – had been a local hospital, the Lilavati Hospital, in Bandra. The fissile material had been found in the custody of scrap dealers who were caught and charged under the Atomic Energy Act. However, the Lilavati Hospital authorities maintained that no fissile material/uranium was missing from the hospital. The consistent denial by the hospital authorities and the fact that no material was found missing from the hospital equipment indicated that the source of the material was not the hospital. All radioactive materials from the Indian hospitals are technically accounted for and are to be returned to the relevant nuclear research centre. So how could it have found its way to the scrap dealers?

When the stolen material was sent for further analysis to establish the exact nature of the radioactive substance, BARC stated that the material found was primarily a shielding material used as counterweight in aircrafts and had no relevance to nuclear weapons technology. Despite the fact that the material was radioactive and could pose health hazards, K S Parsatarathy, the secretary of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) stated that the 8.3 kg material seized contained merely two percent of uranium U235, which made the material depleted, having a zero weapon value.

The incident might have been an exception, but on November 5, 2000, the CBI recovered 25 kg of radioactive uranium from a person in the Bibi Cancer Hospital – the material was to be returned back to BARC. The person singled out in this case of uranium seizure was also a scrap dealer. According to the scrap dealer, he had bought a machine from the hospital as scrap and was, therefore, the natural owner of the radioactive substance found in the machine. Yet, according to the restrictions imposed on hospitals by BARC they are not allowed to sell radioactive materials to scrap dealers and the hospital had stated that the material was accounted for. The material once again, according to BARC, was depleted uranium. In this case, as in the earlier case, the Bibi Cancer Hospital in its initial statement denied the charges levelled against the hospital but later the hospital withdrew from its earlier stance and admitted that it had sold parts of the machine. Interestingly, the Bibi Cancer Hospital’s record did not show the use of any such machine that used uranium as a radioactive substance.

On November 13, 2000, the IAEA reported that the Indian police seized three uranium rods and arrested eight persons on charges of illicit trafficking of nuclear material. The critical question here is: where did the rods come from? The suspicion was that the civil nuclear facilities were vulnerable to such thefts. Again, on November 7, 2000, according to the IAEA, the Indian police seized 57 pounds of uranium and arrested two men on charges of illicit trafficking of radioactive material. Once again, the radioactive material was traced back to a nearby hospital, which denied any reports of missing uranium from its stocks. The fact that the seized radioactive material had been found in the form of three uranium rods reflects the possibility that the origin of these rods may be from a civilian nuclear power plant, or from one of the rapidly expanding Indian nuclear research facilities – rather than from a hospital.

While reviewing the various cases of uranium theft in India, certain disturbing questions arise as to how and why, in most cases, the uranium was found in the hands of scrap dealers. Why were charges not leveled against those found in possession of the radioactive material? Why, in a number of cases, did the hospitals change their position on the thefts? Who are the potential buyers for the scrapped radioactive material in India, and is the material intended for internal or international buyers? In fact, one can legitimately wonder whether there is a nuclear mafia present in India. Equally of concern are the issues raised about the security of the Indian nuclear facilities, including their research facilities.

When one puts all the reported theft cases together, some patterns can be discerned. Most of the accused have been scrap dealers who are obviously used as front men, which may well indicate the prevalence of organised crime relating to nuclear materials. Again, in almost all the cases, the charges were dropped against those found in possession of the material, and in most of the cases the initial assessments of the material were later altered. The source of origin, in most cases, as stated by the police, have been cancer hospitals – although the nature and quality of the uranium found in the use of the hospitals has differed from case to case. But in all the cases involving hospitals, the latter have denied any material going missing or being stolen. In any case, the amounts supposedly stolen from hospitals are far more than the normal requirements of these hospitals.

So, the focus has to shift to Indian nuclear facilities and the whole issue of their safety – especially in relation to theft and nuclear terrorism. This, in turn, raises concerns about the employees of these facilities and their links to possible mafias. Also, the whole issue of safety of transportation of nuclear materials from the mining stages to the spent fuel storage becomes critical in the dynamics of nuclear theft and technical safety of the facilities. While the rising incidents of nuclear theft create the possibility for a lucrative underground market for potential terrorists, unsafe nuclear facilities create risks for the surrounding populace – which has to live in constant terror of a nuclear accident.

To be continued

Data for some of this paper has been derived from a Monograph co-authored by Mazari & Sultan, entitled ‘Nuclear Safety & Terrorism: A Case Study of India’, for the ISSI. The views expressed are the writer’s own.

The writer is the federal

minister for human rights.

Twitter: @ShireenMazari1