The need to pre-empt nuclear terrorism

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:01 pm IST

Published - April 04, 2016 01:05 am IST

The world’s major nations seeking to develop nuclear power, with one notable exception, gathered in Washington last week for the Barack > Obama administration-led Nuclear Security Summit (NSS), a platform to discuss strategies to block terror groups such as the Islamic State from obtaining radioactive material and setting off a “dirty bomb”, or worse. The > absentee from the high table was Vladimir Putin , the President of Russia, which houses the largest number of nuclear weapons — some 7,300 warheads, compared to the U.S.’s 6,970 and India’s 120. Russia’s absence, apparently owing to Mr. Putin’s diplomatic stand-off with Mr. Obama over the crisis in Syria and Iraq, to an extent doomed the fourth and final NSS to piecemeal rather than dramatic goals. Nevertheless, the Summit saw the 50-odd participant-nations celebrate the creation of a strong legacy in detecting, intercepting and securing vulnerable and illicitly trafficked nuclear materials, including pre-emptively safeguarding stockpiles of highly enriched uranium (HEU). Mr. Obama has doggedly > pursued the vision of a de-nuclearised world that he outlined in his 2009 Prague speech. Following this vision, at least 2,965 kg of civilian HEU, the equivalent of 100 or more bombs, has been moved to safeguarded sites in the six years since the NSS began. Even if this only constitutes 2 to 3 per cent of total supplies, with nearly 98 per cent remaining in opaque military stockpiles, it is a good start.

India’s achievements in the realm of improving nuclear security have been > considerable during this time, including in establishing a rigorous legislative framework for developing nuclear resources and a Global Centre for Nuclear Energy Partnership, the contribution of $2 million towards the Nuclear Security Fund, and participation in UN and IAEA joint mechanisms to strengthen nuclear security. However, along with Russia, China and Pakistan, India has been frustrating the West as a hold-out that refuses to sign a 2014 Nuclear Security Implementation initiative. The pact was joined by more than two-thirds of the participating states and is arguably the most significant instrument to build a robust nuclear security system based on national commitments to the application of international principles and guidelines, including peer reviews. In closed-door meetings, New Delhi may also have been questioned on disquieting signals suggesting that its nuclear materials may be less than secure. A March 2016 Harvard University study cautioned that after inspecting nuclear reactors, American officials had ranked Indian nuclear security measures as “weaker than those of Pakistan and Russia”. Worldwide, the alarms for nuclear terrorism are likely to be blinking red: a case in point is the discovery by the Belgian police that IS conducted surveillance of the home of an officer at a Belgian nuclear site that held large stocks of HEU. India cannot be complacent over securing vulnerable nuclear material, and the first step has to be a willingness to speak openly about the risks of terrorism and sabotage posed by its clandestine nuclear weapons development sites, and not just on its safeguarded civilian nuclear energy programme.

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