The security of nuclear and radiological materials has been a global concern since the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s Incident and Trafficking Database (ITDB) there were a total of 2,889 incidents of theft and other unauthorised activities involving nuclear and radioactive material between 1993 and 2015. The nuclear infrastructure and assets include in addition to the nuclear power stations, materials, weapons and their delivery systems, technologies and the nuclear scientists who possess this highly specialised knowledge. The threat to nuclear facilities and materials increased greatly with many terrorist organisations and non-state players trying to acquire such material. India, a nuclear power, with sizeable nuclear infrastructure, technologies, and strategic assets faces serious challenges securing these assets from getting in to the wrong hands. This article will highlight the threats to India’s nuclear assets which are widely spread all over the country and how and what measures are in place to secure these assets.
The Nuclear Infrastructure and Assets
India presently operates twenty-two nuclear power stations, a number of nuclear fuel cycle facilities related to fuel reprocessing, mining & milling and fabrication and a few nuclear research & development establishments. Additionally, there are about sixty- thousand radiological facilities involving use of radiation-generating units or use of radioisotopes in the field of research, industry, medicine, and agriculture. The Indian civil nuclear facilities are spread over more than fifty odd locations and an unknown number of locations house the strategic and related assets of the India’s Strategic Forces. India also has a large pool of both civil and military oriented scientific manpower with highly specialised knowledge in nuclear sciences and technologies.
India, like other nuclear powers, faces threats in the realm of nuclear security from terrorist organisations hostile towards India and operating out of its neighbouring country Pakistan. These organisations like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), have declared interest in acquiring nuclear capabilities. The left wing Maoists, operating in large parts of central and eastern India and the militants in the Northeast and in the State of Jammu & Kashmir would always look for an opportunity to cause damage to nuclear installations. This combination of organisations poses a serious threat to the physical security of nuclear facilities and materials. The possibility of sabotaging these facilities with the help of insiders cannot be ruled out. The threat of nuclear terrorism, including detonation of a radiological dispersal device or an aerial attack on a nuclear facility, is a possibility.
Cyber-attacks are as much a threat to India’s nuclear facilities as direct physical attacks. The use of cyber networks to attack a nuclear facility could render ineffective many current safety and security mechanisms. The kidnapping of nuclear scientists from the large pool of freely moving scientific manpower and forcing them to share their knowledge and expertise in making nuclear devices could be considered a possible threat. Attacks to steal material on the, not so well-regulated transportation systems used in transfer of nuclear material and equipment, cannot be ruled out. Threats during the disposal of nuclear and radiological materials at the end of their life cycles do exist.
Security Architecture: The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) document of 2014, provides an insight into India’s nuclear security approach driven by five key components: Governance; Nuclear Security Practice and Culture; Institutions; Technology; and International Cooperation. These components represent a good set of criteria for judging the state of safety and security of India’s nuclear materials and facilities. The Indian nuclear security architecture is based mainly on five pillars: national legal provisions in consonance with IAEA guidelines; oversight agency that stipulates the standard operating procedures at the facilities and during transportation of material; the security and intelligence agencies in charge of threat assessment and physical protection; the human element, the personnel with the responsibility of oversight or observance; and surveillance and detection technology for detection, delay, and response approach.
Institutions: India has established various institutions to ensure the safety and security of facilities and materials across the country. These include the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), Nuclear Controls and Planning Wing (NCPW) and the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) among others. While the AERB is primarily responsible for overseeing the civilian nuclear sector, the DAE and BARC also contribute on matters related to India’s strategic nuclear programs. A new bill called the Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority (NSRA) Bill is in the process of passage by the Indian parliament. The bill aims at constituting a Council of Nuclear Safety (CNS), under the leadership of the Prime Minister. When the bill is passed, the CNS will become the body which will oversee and review policies around radiation/ nuclear safety and security in India. The bill also includes a list of many offences which are punishable under the Code of Criminal Procedure.
Physical Protection: The physical protection system around Indian nuclear facilities is designed on the basis of their nuclear threat assessment, taking into account the Design Basis Threat (DBT) and Beyond DBT (BDBT) to create a layered protective envelope – consisting of inbuilt reactor security, material security, perimeter security, personnel reliability, material protection and accounting, transportation security, air and water front defence, emergency preparedness, legal provisions, and in extreme situations, the military protection, etc. India has put in place a comprehensive material protection control and accounting programme comprised of three basic elements: the legislative and regulatory framework; an integrated physical protection programme for facilities and materials; and a comprehensive “Nuclear Material Accounting and Control System” (NUMAC). A Nuclear Control & Planning Wing (NC&PW) was created in the DAE to take “the lead on international cooperation on nuclear security” by integrating DAE’s safeguards, export controls, and nuclear security related activities.
Practices: India’s nuclear security measures are comparable to best practices globally. Two concepts that stand out in particular are the personnel reliability programme (PRP) and the ‘Defence in Depth’ principle applied in India’s nuclear facilities. Stringent background checks undertaken as part of PRP are critical in mitigating the insider threat. The use of technology to minimise human element both to avoid possible errors as well as to deal with insider threats has been increased and the procedures during the disposal of nuclear and radiological materials at the end of their life cycles, have been made more stringent. Indian nuclear plants have also inculcated the principle of ‘Defence in Depth’ which includes a multi-layered system of security, thus strengthening physical protection systems and help delay in penetration and complement access control.
Transportation Security: Nuclear materials are transported with heavy security cover provided by multiple agencies. There are also coordinated patrolling by these different security agencies. Real-time tracking and monitoring technologies are used to ensure security of materials during transit, and standardised protocols are adhered to in order to ensure the security of materials that are being transported. Agencies also use other measures to ensure security.
Leveraging Technology: Technology enables India to achieve nuclear security in different ways. The first way is technological choices that reduce the risks of proliferation. For example, India uses a closed fuel cycle, which Indian nuclear scientists insist, carries less proliferation risks. Technology is also used to track materials in real time while in transit. Thermal cameras are also used to enable accurate video analytics. Sensors and access control barriers are also used to protect nuclear installations. These technologies are designed and developed indigenously by institutions such as the BARC. As technology rightly assumes an important role in securing the country’s nuclear facilities, it must be noted that they also present new vulnerabilities because the same technology is available to everyone, including non-state actors and terrorist groups. In that sense, Indian security establishments need to do more to be in line with the global technology trends and be more innovative in developing indigenous technologies.
Cyber Security: is a crucial component in ensuring safety and security at nuclear facilities. The Indian nuclear establishment including the nuclear power plants are live to the threat of cyber vulnerabilities. In Indian civilian nuclear facilities, such threats are being addressed by the Computer Information and Security Advisory Group (CISAG). The CISAG is responsible for conducting audits of information systems, framing guidelines and plans to mitigate cyber- attacks and its effects. More importantly, there is an effort to instil a culture of cyber security. Thus, even as India’s nuclear security establishment is alive to the threat posed by cyber technologies, there should be no room for laxity. Indian security agencies need to continuously monitor emerging nuclear security threats and come up with defensive measures. This is important since India has been one of the favourite targets of cyber hackers from around the world.
International Cooperation: As India attempts to integrate with the global nuclear community, cooperation is key, both with individual countries and multilateral organisations. This would entail more openness and transparency in India’s nuclear security regime. A more controlled transparency approach and a more proactive engagement outlining India’s broad strategy in the area of nuclear security has given multiple benefits for India.
India has adopted very robust security measures to protect its nuclear facilities and materials from terrorist and anti- national elements who are waiting in the wings for a freak chance of callousness and negligence on part of the organisations and security agencies securing the nuclear assets. There is never enough and is always much more to be done in the realm of nuclear security in the present hostile global environment.
Col Naidu Gade was commissioned in the Corps of Combat Engineers and commanded an Assault engineer Regiment. He is a qualified CBRN and C- IED Professional and has served as Joint Director for CBRN Defence. Presently, he is Chief Consultant with ‘CBRNe Secure India’ a‘forum and a knowledge centre’ for bringing in awareness on the threats arising from the use of CBRNe material and their disastrous consequences.