India’s nuclear materials at risk of theft

India’s nuclear explosive materials are vulnerable to theft, U.S. officials and experts say. But Washington has chosen not to press for tougher security while its trade with India is booming, Center For Public Integrity,  By Adrian LevyR. Jeffrey Smith 17 Dec 15  “……..  officials here and outside India depict as serious shortcomings in the country’s nuclear guard force, tasked with defending one of the world’s largest stockpiles of fissile material and nuclear explosives.

An estimated 90 to 110 Indian nuclear bombs are stored in six or so government-run sites patrolled by the same security force, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, an independent think tank, and Indian officials. Within the next two decades, as many as 57 reactors could also be operating under the force’s protection, as well as four plants where spent nuclear fuel is dissolved in chemicals to separate out plutonium to make new fuel or be used in nuclear bombs.

The sites are spread out over vast distances: from the stony foothills of the Himalayas in the north down to the red earth of the tropical south. Shuttling hundreds of miles in between will be occasional convoys of lightly-protected trucks laden with explosive and fissile materials — including plutonium and enriched uranium — that could be used in civilian and military reactors or to spark a nuclear blast.

The Kalpakkam shooting as a result alarmed Indian and Western officials who question whether this country — which is surrounded by unstable neighbors and has a history of civil tumult — has taken adequate precautions to safeguard its sensitive facilities and keep the building blocks of a devastating nuclear bomb from being stolen by insiders with grievances, ill motives, or in the worst case, connections to terrorists.

Although experts say they regard the issue as urgent, Washington is not pressing India for quick reforms. The Obama administration is instead trying to avoid any dispute that might interrupt a planned expansion of U.S. military sales to Delhi, several senior U.S. officials said in interviews.

The experts’ concerns are based in part on a series of documented nuclear security lapses in the past two decades, in addition to the shooting:

  • Several kilograms of what authorities described as semi-processed uranium were stolen by a criminal gang, allegedly with Pakistani links, from a state mine in Meghalya, in northeastern India, in 1994. Four years later, a federal politician was arrested near the West Bengal border with 100 kilograms of uranium from India’s Jadugoda mining complex that he was allegedly attempting to sell to Pakistani sympathizers associated with the same gang. A police dossier seen by the Center states that ten more people connected with smuggling were arrested two years after this, in operations that recovered 57 pounds of stolen uranium.
  • In 2008, another criminal gang was caught attempting to smuggle low-grade uranium, capable of being used in a primitive radiation-dispersal device, from one of India’s state-owned mines across the border to Nepal. The same year another group was caught moving an illicit stock of uranium over the border to Bangladesh, the gang having been assisted by the son of an employee at India’s Atomic Minerals Division, which supervises uranium mining and processing.
  • In 2009, a nuclear reactor employee in southwest India deliberately poisoned dozens of his colleagues with a radioactive isotope, taking advantage of numerous gaps in plant security, according to an internal government report seen by the Center.
  • And in 2013, leftist guerillas in northeast India illegally obtained uranium ore from a government-run milling complex in northeast India and strapped it to high explosives to make a crude bomb before being caught by police, according to an inspector involved in the case. 

The paramilitary Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), which has a total of 95,000 personnel under civilian rather than military control and a $785 million budget, is supposed to keep all these nuclear materials from leaking from India’s plants. But it is short-staffed, ill-equipped, and inadequately trained, according to a confidential, draft, Home Ministry report about the force’s future, dated November 2013, seen by the Center for Public Integrity…….

This critical account roughly matches what the U.S. intelligence community has stated in its annual classified rankings of global nuclear security risks, based on detailed assessments of safeguards for materials that could be used in explosives or “dirty bombs” laced with radiation, according to three current or former senior Obama administration officials.

They said that India’s security practices have repeatedly ranked lower in these assessments than those of Pakistan and Russia, two countries with shortcomings that have provoked better-known Western anxieties……….

A U.S. nuclear safety official, also on the visit, who still works in the field and was not authorized to discuss it, told the Center in an interview that “laborers wandered in and out of the complex, and none of them wore identification.” He said that “the setup was extraordinarily low key, considering the sensitivity,” explaining that guards could not see camera footage from other locations. There is little evidence that conditions have changed much since then, officials say.

U.S. and Indian officials also have privately expressed worry about the security surrounding India’s movement of sensitive nuclear materials and weaponry. An industrialist who provides regular private advice to the current prime minister about domestic and foreign strategic issues said in an interview, for example, that due to India’s poor roads and rail links, “our nuclear sector is especially vulnerable. How can we safely transport anything, when we cannot say for certain that it will get to where it should, when it should.”

The adviser said that as a result, fissile materials in India have been moved around in unmarked trucks that “look like milk tankers,” without obvious armed escorts. He called this “urban camouflage,” meant to avoid the clamor that would ensue if a security convoy attempted to navigate traffic-choked roads like the one leading from a nuclear fuel fabrication plant in Hyderabad, in south-central India, to a test center for India’s nuclear submarines on the coast at Visakhapatnam. An armed convoy, he said, might need 14 hours to traverse that 400-mile distance……..



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