The immense potential of nuclear power is both seductive and scary. In the early years of the nuclear age, the scary aspect led the scientific community to raise the banner of nuclear disarmament, but the seductive component proved too strong for political leaders to ignore.
With the age of bipolarity dominating the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union cooperated to create a new narrative in which what was scary was the threat of proliferation. By the end of the 1960s, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty had been concluded, and the 1970s saw the birth of nonproliferation-related export control regimes.
The proliferation threat became more pronounced with the breakup of the Soviet Union. And after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the threat narrative underwent another change. Credible intelligence revealed that global terrorist networks were actively seeking weapons of mass destruction, particularly fissile material and radioactive sources, leading to a renewed interest in nuclear security. This theme received a push from U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2009 Prague speech that, in addition to calling for nuclear disarmament (an appeal that has gone largely unheeded), urged the securing of all vulnerable nuclear material in four years.
The next year, the United States hosted the first Nuclear Security Summit. Follow-on summits were held in 2012 and 2014 in Seoul and The Hague, respectively, and the cycle will conclude with another summit in Washington from March 31 to April 1, 2016.
The Washington summit is likely the last in what has been a productive series. For India and the rest of the participants, the primary challenge now will be how to sustain the momentum generated by these summits thus far.
Global Terrorism and Growing Concerns
Nuclear security is not a new objective; it has always been an integral part of nuclear safety. But with the emergence of global jihadi threats like al-Qaeda and the self-proclaimed Islamic State, it has taken on a new profile that is unlikely to diminish. In 2016, guaranteeing nuclear security includes preventing unauthorized access to nuclear materials, facilities, and technologies; ensuring timely detection were a breach to take place; and, finally, establishing effective responses to acts of terror and sabotage.
There are three potential types of nuclear terrorist threats—that terrorists could acquire and set off a nuclear bomb, sabotage a nuclear facility leading to a nuclear accident, or create radioactive dispersion using a dirty bomb. A crude explosive device can be made with sufficient fissile material. For terrorists acting with the help of a radicalized expert working on the inside, sabotaging a nuclear reactor with the attendant fallout may prove even easier. Radioactive devices are widely used in hospitals and research laboratories, and their malicious use can generate widespread panic while costing billions of dollars in terms of radiological cleanup.
Al-Qaeda documentation indicates it has considered and pursued all three options. Intercepted communications suggest that al-Qaeda has access to nuclear experts, and that it undertook experiments using conventional explosives in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda has been weakened in recent years, but the Islamic State harbors similar ambitions.
The Indian Fuel Cycle and Legal Framework
India’s nuclear program today involves all aspects of the fuel cycle, covering mining, uranium enrichment and reprocessing, nuclear power, and breeder reactors. In addition, as a responsible nuclear-weapon state, India operates a military fuel cycle with attendant facilities. Although military fuel cycles are excluded from the purview of the Nuclear Security Summit process, nuclear-weapon states bear a national responsibility for ensuring the highest level of security at these facilities, too.
The legal framework is provided by India’s Atomic Energy Act under which rules and notifications are issued periodically. All nuclear materials and activities are reserved for the state under the act. The rules address radiation protection, disposal of radioactive waste, nuclear transfers, network security for control systems, and material accounting protocols that focus on both safety and security.
India’s Foreign Trade (Development and Regulation) Act of 1992 and the Weapons of Mass Destruction and Their Delivery Systems (Prohibition of Unlawful Activities) Act of 2005 control nuclear trade and transfers. Though India is not a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, its export control lists and rules are consistent with NSG guidelines. Every nuclear facility devises its physical protection system using the Design Basis Threat document, which undergoes periodic revisions.
While these measures take care of material accountancy and physical protection of materials and facilities at all stages, increasing attention is also being devoted to developing a more robust nuclear security culture in India. The 2012 breach of the Y-12 National Security Complex near Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was a global wake-up call about the dangers of complacency undermining the most efficiently designed systems. India is tightening and expanding personnel reliability programs to cover a wider time frame and range of activities. A new law that gives teeth and greater autonomy to India’s Atomic Energy Regulatory Board by converting it into a Nuclear Safety and Regulatory Authority is in the cards. Self-assessments, continuous training of customs officials, smart border controls, dedicated security details, and lessons from best practices are necessary to create a seamless security envelope that cocoons facilities and materials at every stage. India has a countrywide environmental radiation monitoring network that analyzes information about radiation levels in real time, comparing them with the national database and referencing background environmental radiation levels. Emergency control rooms have been set up at different locations to ensure quick responses, and environmental impact assessments are continuously updated.
While this is only one technological aspect of nuclear security, another, more significant part is the development of proliferation-resistant technologies that reduce the risk of a nuclear security or safety breach and mitigate its effects. This is why India is pursuing a closed fuel cycle that reprocesses spent fuel for reuse. It avoids the buildup of stockpiles and also the need for large, spent-fuel storage sites. Vitrification of high-level waste is the most secure means of storage today to prevent a potential terrorist from using radioactive waste to fabricate a radiological dispersal device. In addition, researchers are working on proliferation-resistant fuel cycles and reactor designs such as the Advanced Heavy Water Reactor that use thorium and uranium-233 as well as fast breeder reactors. The basic objective here is to use nuclear chemistry and physics to address the challenge of nuclear materials’ security. While some of these reactor designs possess enhanced security features, new technologies also need greater attention to different safety features.
India’s Nuclear Power Program and Global Engagement
India has been heavily invested in the civilian nuclear energy program, and for compelling reasons.
India’s nuclear power capacity as of February 2016 is 5,780 megawatts, consisting of 21 reactors, including two light-water reactors and one water-water energetic reactor, with the balance made up of pressurized heavy-water reactors. The total is a meager 2 percent of India’s installed power generation capacity of 288 gigawatts.
India is also an energy-deficit society, with one-quarter of the population lacking access to electricity. Energy poverty has been identified as a hindrance to economic growth. According to the Integrated Energy Policy approved in 2008, electricity generation capacity will have to expand to 1,200 gigawatts by 2032 in order to sustain an annual GDP growth rate of 9 percent. Even with this growth rate, India’s per capita energy consumption will rise from the current 1,000 kilowatt-hours to 2,600 kilowatt-hours, much less than China’s per capita electricity consumption in 2016 at 4,000 kilowatt-hours or the average for countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, estimated at 15,000 kilowatt-hours.
India’s nuclear power generation capacity is expected to be 63,000 megawatts in 2032, an impressive increase in absolute terms and a modest but critical 5 percent of the overall installed capacity. It is critical not just in meeting energy needs but also in mitigating carbon emissions and enhancing energy security by reducing dependence on imported fossil fuels. A significant part of this expansion will depend on international agreements with France, Russia, and the United States, for which negotiations are under way.
Nuclear security is vitally important for India because any breach in nuclear security or safety could undermine public confidence in nuclear energy, challenging India’s long-term energy planning. Incidentally, the target for electricity generation from renewable sources is even more ambitious, at 400 gigawatts.
Nuclear safety and security requires international cooperation, and in recent years, India has expanded its activities in these fields. The country is a party to all thirteen international instruments widely accepted as benchmarks for multilateral cooperation in this field. In fact, the very first consensus resolution in the UN General Assembly on terrorism and WMD was piloted by India in 2002 (Resolution 57/83) and remains a consensus resolution. It laid the groundwork for the legally binding UN Security Council Resolution 1540 on nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. India is a party to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and has also ratified its 2005 amendment and the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism. India has adopted the International Atomic Energy Agency’s guidance on physical protection and its 2003 Code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources. World Association of Nuclear Operators groups and IAEA Operational Safety Review Teams have visited Indian facilities. Naturally, the pace of these exchanges has picked up since the 2008 NSG waiver that helped restore India’s position in international civilian nuclear trade and commerce and expanded the framework of civilian nuclear cooperation to meet domestic goals for power generation, keeping climate change concerns in view.
To give these exchanges a greater impetus, India announced that it was setting up a Global Center for Nuclear Energy Partnership during the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit. The center is meant to be a platform for developing proliferation-resistant technologies with enhanced security and safety characteristics. More than a dozen national and international courses have already been held at the center, even as a brand-new 250-acre campus is being established on the outskirts of New Delhi. Eventually, the center will have five schools: Advanced Nuclear Energy System Studies, Nuclear Security Studies, Nuclear Material Characterization Studies, Radiological Safety Studies, and Studies on Applications of Radioisotopes and Radiation Technologies.
From Summit to Process
The Nuclear Security Summit began as President Obama’s initiative in 2009 and with the follow-on summits has assumed the shape of a process. In terms of diplomatic practices, it was apparent that a multilateral negotiating process was unlikely to be productive—the long-running impasse in the Conference on Disarmament that has prevented the commencement of negotiations on a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty because of opposition by one country is a cautionary example. In addition, observers familiar with the contentious discussions that take place every five years during the NPT Review Conferences to conclude a final declaration know the potential minefields that can derail any well-intentioned initiative in the nuclear arena. To register a positive outcome, the nuclear security initiative needed to have a narrow focus, and President Obama had to be personally invested in it.
The next challenge was to ensure a concrete outcome rather than an omnibus declaration that would be like a Christmas tree, reflecting the favorite themes of all the participating states. This was achieved by the creative use of so-called house gifts, named after guests bringing presents to a dinner party. Invited states were encouraged to announce measures that they would be able to undertake voluntarily to address nuclear security threats. With the follow-on summit in Seoul in 2012, this concept further evolved into gift baskets—open-ended joint initiatives launched by a group of like-minded countries that other countries were invited to join. Some house gifts constituted new initiatives while others were recycled or reiterations of earlier announcements or pledges. Nevertheless, they helped create awareness about nuclear security and enabled high-level attention to be focused on it. The follow-on summits created the semblance of a process in which progress could be made on the establishment of centers of excellence, the growth of Nuclear Security Training and Support Centers set up by IAEA, the launch of the Nuclear Security Fund (to which India has contributed $1 million), and deliberations about outreach programs.
The drawback of such a politically driven process is the absence of a legally binding outcome, a gap that subjects the process to the vagaries of major power politics. In the run-up to the 2016 Washington summit, which is widely expected to be the last in the series, Russian President Vladimir Putin has already announced that he will not be present. The reason is not differences over the issue of nuclear security; Putin’s absence is fallout from deteriorating relations after disagreements regarding the developments in Crimea, Ukraine, and Syria.
Because the process went forward without an omnibus declaration, there was little interest in or even possibility of creating any dedicated institution to govern it. Consequently, five existing institutions have been tasked with carrying forward the progress registered. First, the UN (including both the General Assembly and the Security Council) is expected to sustain the political momentum by ensuring follow-up to Security Council Resolution 1540 and the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism. Second, the IAEA maintains the Incident and Trafficking Database, which provides information on activities related to certain nuclear materials. It can be made more efficient by reducing the period of time allowed for reporting events and increasing the amount of detail required for incidents. The IAEA could also link its efforts to best practices in nuclear forensics and explore new cooperation in cybersecurity challenges relating to nuclear facilities. An annual or a biannual ministerial conference can be one way to sustain political attention. Third, Interpol is the lead agency for tackling threats relating to the smuggling of radiological sources and materials. Fourth, the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism has been traditionally co-chaired by Russia and the United States, and while its annual meetings might sputter along, the initiative’s success will depend on the larger political relationship between the two countries. And the fifth related institution is the G7 Global Partnership. India has been an active participant in all of these groups except the last.
Achievements and Sustainability
Global stockpiles of highly enriched uranium and plutonium are estimated to be 1,400 metric tons and 500 metric tons, respectively. Military stockpiles, which are outside the purview of the Nuclear Security Summit process, account for over 80 percent of HEU and 50 percent of plutonium.
Yet, significant achievements have been registered—twelve countries have been declared to be HEU-free; 15 metric tons of HEU have been down-blended to low-enriched uranium; a number of reactors using HEU have been either shut down or converted to use alternative fuels (India has converted its research reactor Apsara in this way); and fuel repatriation to source countries has been accelerated. One target that has been missed is the entry into force of the 2005 amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material that expands the responsibility of states to protect nuclear facilities and nuclear materials during domestic use, storage, and transit (the scope of the original treaty only covered international transit).
In absolute terms, the achievements may appear to be modest, but without Obama’s initiative, even they would not have been possible.
The challenge now for the 50-plus states that have been attending the summits is to sustain the process after the Washington summit and after Obama leaves office in 2017. Crafting clearly identifiable deliverables, however incremental, is difficult without the associated driver of high-level political commitment. Voluntary announcements and house gifts need summitry.
India’s engagement with the Nuclear Security Summit process began under former Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh and has continued under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who will be attending the Washington summit. Two reasons underlie this continuity. First, given India’s growing energy needs in which nuclear power plays a key role, the country has to ensure domestically that its nuclear program is both safe and secure, in keeping with international best practices. Second, India has to demonstrate its nonproliferation credentials as a responsible nuclear power to its international partners, particularly the United States, which was crucial in the exceptional waiver granted to India by the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
While the safety and security issue is an objective driven by India’s domestic needs, the nonproliferation concern reflects the distance India and the United States have covered in their bilateral relationship in this area. Today, the strategic dimension of the relationship enables both countries to find pathways for civilian nuclear cooperation while adhering to their national and global nonproliferation commitments.
India’s profile at the Nuclear Security Summit is also in keeping with its unequivocal stand against terrorism (India has been pushing for negotiations for a comprehensive convention) and, more specifically, against the threats posed by terrorists seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Given this background, it is very likely that Modi may bring some house gifts to Obama’s concluding summit. To date, India has been reluctant to be associated with the joint statements emerging from groupings of like-minded states, more due to procedural than substantive differences. New announcements by Modi may well finesse this as a way to sustain the political momentum generated by the Nuclear Security Summit process.
Rakesh Sood is a former diplomat who served as India’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Nepal, and France. He was also India’s permanent representative and ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva and the special envoy of the prime minister on disarmament and nonproliferation until 2014.