Be bold at the Nuclear Summit

Nuclear security is not about nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation, or nuclear safety. This leads some to downplay its significance or suspect that it is a ploy to constrain India’s nuclear programme

March 25, 2016 01:22 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:45 pm IST

"Today, given the distance travelled, Prime Minister Modi is well placed to pursue his nuclear diplomacy with a far greater sense of confidence and purpose." Photo: R.V. Moorthy

"Today, given the distance travelled, Prime Minister Modi is well placed to pursue his nuclear diplomacy with a far greater sense of confidence and purpose." Photo: R.V. Moorthy

Next week, >Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be in Washington, DC for the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) , the fourth and the last in a series that was launched by U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington in 2010. Follow-on summits have been held in Seoul and The Hague in 2012 and 2014, respectively. India has played an active role in the process with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh attending the first two summits. A voluntary contribution of a million dollars to the Nuclear Security Fund has been made. More significant has been the initiative for establishment of a Global Centre of Excellence for Nuclear Energy Partnership, which has already conducted more than a dozen national and international courses in relevant fields.

A natural role>India’s profile in the NSS process is natural given our concerns about global terrorism and the growing threat posed by terrorists seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Since 2002, India has been introducing a resolution on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction in the United Nations General Assembly, adopted by consensus every year. It laid the groundwork for the legally binding Security Council Resolution 1540 adopted in 2005. Therefore when President Obama highlighted this threat in his famous Prague speech in 2009 and called upon the international community to ensure the securing of all vulnerable nuclear materials within four years, a positive Indian response was natural.

There is another reason too. Nuclear power today constitutes a small part in India’s electricity generation, but this is due to change. Currently, the twenty nuclear power plants in operation have a capacity of 4.8 GW, out of a total installed power generation capacity of 240 GW. A quarter of India’s population does not have access to electricity and energy poverty has been identified as a major obstacle to economic growth. The Integrated Energy Policy visualises the installed capacity rising to 1200 GW by 2035, with nuclear power contributing 60 GW. This will be 5 per cent, but it is critical in terms of reducing fossil fuel dependence and mitigating the carbon footprint. Any breach in nuclear safety or security that could undermine public confidence in nuclear energy would have grave repercussions on India’s long-term energy planning. For India, therefore, nuclear security is not a new objective, but has always been a priority along with nuclear safety.

Threat of nuclear terrorism With the emergence of global jihadi threats like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, nuclear security has taken on additional urgency. Three potential nuclear terrorist threats have been identified. First is the threat of terrorists making or acquiring a nuclear bomb and exploding it; second is the possibility of sabotaging an existing nuclear facility to create an accident; and finally, third is the possibility of use of radioactive material to create a ‘dirty bomb’ or a radiological dispersal device.

The last is often considered the easiest for a suicide squad, given the fact that there are millions of medical devices and other equipment that contain small amounts of radioactive substances (cobalt-60, americium-241, caesium-137) which are widely distributed and do not have the kind of security normally associated with nuclear reactor facilities. Irrespective of the number of fatalities, a dirty bomb can create widespread panic and cost billions in cleaning-up operations. Insider support by a radicalised sympathiser could render a nuclear facility vulnerable to sabotage. It is well established that in the past al-Qaeda has not only considered and pursued all the three options, but also had access to nuclear expertise. Al-Qaeda may have been weakened today but the IS is also known to harbour similar ambitions.

Often there is some confusion in India about our role because nuclear security is neither nuclear disarmament nor non-proliferation, nor is it nuclear safety. This leads some to downplay its significance or suspect that it is a ploy to constrain India’s nuclear programme. Neither perception is correct; in fact, as a responsible nuclear weapon state, it is incumbent on India to ensure that all nuclear materials and facilities (both civilian and military) are subjected to the highest levels of security. Simply put, it would cover preventing unauthorised access to nuclear materials, facilities and technologies; timely detection, were a breach to take place; and finally, effective responses to such acts of terror and sabotage.

Barack Obama’s initiative President Obama’s initiative relied heavily on his personal outreach to other leaders. Next week, leaders from over fifty countries will be in Washington. Two countries not invited are Iran and DPRK, and this time President Putin will also stay away though this has more to do with differences over Ukraine than over nuclear security. Rather than attempt to negotiate a new treaty, the NSS process has focussed on urging states to tighten national laws, rules and capabilities by using best practices and international cooperation. Establishing global centres of excellence (like the one in India), launching the Nuclear Security Fund, and >expanding the activities of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA’s) Nuclear Security Training and Support Centres are some of the outcomes.

In concrete terms, about 15 MT of highly enriched uranium (HEU) have been down- blended to low-enriched uranium, a number of reactors using HEU have either been shut down or switched their fuel, 12 countries have given up all HEU, and fuel repatriation to source countries has been accelerated. The biggest achievement has been that the somewhat technical subject of nuclear security has received sustained high-level political attention. However the major drawback of this process is that there is no legally binding outcome at the end of six years.

The big subject for discussion in Washington will be about sustaining the process and political engagement. Since there is no new organisation being set up, three existing institutions are expected to adopt specific action plans. The UN will sustain the political momentum and continue to monitor the implementation of UNSCR 1540; the IAEA will strengthen its database of cases of illicit trafficking of nuclear materials and a Contact Group will be set up in Vienna for follow-up which would include a ministerial-level conference, possibly every two years; and Interpol will act as the nodal agency to deter nuclear smuggling. In addition, the U.S. and Russia will continue to co-chair the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT), which is a voluntary grouping of 86 states with working groups on nuclear detection, forensics and mitigation. A G-8 Global Partnership to combat the spread of weapons of mass destruction has been another initiative but clearly what G-8 or GICNT can achieve will depend on political ups and downs between major powers.

An innovative diplomatic practice was the use of ‘house gifts’; in 2010, leaders were encouraged to announce measures to address nuclear security threats at a national or wider level. The concept evolved further to ‘gift baskets’, or joint undertakings by a group of like-minded countries that others were invited to join. Some gifts involved new commitments but some were recycled pledges.

Prime Minister Modi has carried forward the nuclear diplomatic agenda that was begun in 1998: to establish India as a responsible weapon state and ensure its participation in civilian international nuclear trade and cooperation. Shortly after the NDA came to power in 2014, India completed its procedures for adherence to IAEA’s Amended Protocol, and last month announced ratification of the Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage which had been part of the understanding reached on nuclear liability issues during President Obama’s visit in January 2015.

Mr. Modi’s ‘house gift’ Given that Prime Minister Modi will be attending the NSS for the first time, it is likely that he will carry a ‘house gift’ for his ‘good friend Barack’s farewell diplomatic banquet. There is merit in adhering to undertakings relating to the ‘Centres of Excellence’ and tightening measures to prevent nuclear smuggling. An additional financial contribution to the Fund to be disbursed over a period of time, subject to defined benchmarks being met, is worth considering. Since nuclear weapons and nuclear technology are here to stay, we should call for shifting the focus from insecure materials and facilities to research in proliferation- resistant technologies. The Indian Centre of Excellence could take the lead in this and encourage work on new reactor designs and use of the closed fuel cycle. Before 1998, when India would be seeking to safeguard its ‘nuclear option’, India’s nuclear diplomacy had to be more complicated and cautious; today, given the distance travelled, Prime Minister Modi is well placed to pursue his nuclear diplomacy with a far greater sense of confidence and purpose.

(Rakesh Sood, a former Ambassador, was the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation from September 2013 to May 2014.)

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