Friday, April 16, 2010

India is also high on the hit list

The nuclear security summit that ended today in Washington is just one element in the US’ ambitious strategy to retain the centrality of nuclear weapons in its security, and at the same time minimise, if not eliminate, the danger it faces from the nuclear weapons held by other countries, “loose nukes” from some rogue state’s arsenal, or a dirty bomb made from easily available nuclear materials.
As things stand, India would be the second country to be the target of a loose nuke or a dirty bomb. Israel, of course, would be a close competitor. But if you were to prioritise the countries by the ease with which such a horrific act of terrorism could be executed, India would, unarguably head the list.
The US and Israel have created elaborate shields. They may fail, but at least they will have had the comfort of believing that they did all what was possible. On the other hand, India has not even been trying. It is yet to secure its land and sea border from the movement of terrorists and smugglers, and though its airports are reasonably secure, there is little or nothing being done for its sea ports.


Whether concern for this issue is what persuaded Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to take time away from a somewhat full plate of crises back home and go to the US is not clear. Certainly, there is little in the actions of the government to suggest that the possibility of a dirty bomb or an illicit nuke is something that it worries about. Experts now say that the cobalt wire whose radiation has made six men seriously ill in New Delhi last week was, in all likelihood, imported as scrap. That means it came through one of the country’s ports, and came through undetected. It would have been a trivial task to check such a cargo considering that the radiation would have triggered off a dosimeter, had one been there in the first place.
Given the high levels of security at nuclear weapons storage sites, the chances of weapons falling into the hands of the bad guys are low. In addition, most modern weapons have systems that can disable a device should it fall in wrong hands. There has been no known leakage of Indian fissile material that could be used to make weapons or even a dirty bomb. But there could always be a
first time.
According to physicist R. Rajaraman, as of 2008, India had produced some 779 kg of weapons grade plutonium, of which 130 had been used for making weapons. In addition there was some 2,550 tonnes of spent fuel from India’s unsafeguarded power plants as of 2007.
Dirty bombs have not been used in any terrorist incident as such. But security officials worry about the psychological and, possible actual harm caused by a conventional IED in which fissile material is packed instead of the usual nails or ball bearings. Most countries, including India, now have specific rules about disposal of medical and other devices using radioisotopes. But the scrap industry around the world often gets medical scanners, food irradiating devices and mining equipment going back to the 1970s containing radioactive metals such as cesium 137 or cobalt 60.
India, is a well known destination of scrap material and it does not even have a perfunctory check for radioactive contamination. A match-head sized piece of cesium 137 may not do much if it touches your hand, but if it gets into your lungs, you are bound to die. By the same measure, a speck of weapons grade plutonium is enough to kill a human being.
The biggest threat in this context that India confronts is containerised cargo coming from abroad. The country has some 12 major and 200 minor ports. As of now there is no screening of the cargo that comes enclosed in containers. It’s been four years since a decision was taken to install scanners in Indian ports. Today even the big ones like Kandla do not have scanners, leave alone the smaller ports. Even physical checks are limited, given the sheer volume of traffic. The customs officers or police usually open the container, peer inside, and that’s about it. As it is, the IAEA’s sleuths have pointed to the fact that some contaminated scrap is often smuggled inside lead-lined boxes or beer kegs to prevent their detection.


Last February, the then Indian Navy chief Sureesh Mehta, at a seminar on maritime security, called for urgent measures to step up port security. He pointed out that nuclear materials are just one aspect of the problem. The huge containers can and many officials believe, are, being used to smuggle weapons, ammunition and explosives.
In 2004, ten people were killed in a scrap plant when some of the scrap, which was actually disused mortar shells, went off in a Ghaziabad steel plant. In the hue and cry thereafter, it was discovered that there were over 30 containers lying in Kandla port that had been seized by officials because the scrap contained war materials in the form of mortar shells and artillery ammunition that had been left over from the Iran-Iraq war.
The interlocking elements of the US plan to protect itself from the nuclear threat are contained in the proliferation security initiative and the container security initiative. The PSI is quite straightforward in that it involves the seizure of ships or aircraft carrying nuclear material. The CSI is more complex. Besides screening every container entering the US, it involves American customs agents being located in foreign ports to clear cargo destined for the US.


Both the projects look reasonable at first sight, but are plainly geared at securing the US first. The PSI has clear political overtones since it appears to be targeting countries designated as “rogue” by the US. But it could land India in difficulties since one of the “rogues” happens to be Iran with whom India has to conduct significant geopolitical business. Despite its awful record, Pakistan has been handled with kid-gloves in this matter.
Pakistan poses a unique problem not just for the world, but India. The reaction of some Pakistanis to the Mumbai attack has shown that there are many in the country who have little sympathy for India. It is not just a matter of schadenfreude, but a positive hatred for India. In this context it is not far-fetched to imagine a scenario where a rogue official, of the A.Q. Khan variety, leaks nuclear material or, horror, a weapon, to a
jehadi group.
The CSI is a model that India could consider because if applied to Indian ports and Indian cargos, it would directly enhance Indian security. If India can afford it, it should get its own security personnel to certify cargo traveling to Indian ports. But the least we can do is to scan every container coming into Indian ports. It is not as though the plans are not there. But they remain to be implemented. In this context it is important to note that cargoes in all ports which receive imported goods must be scanned because the chain will be only as strong as its weakest link.
Summitry is well and good as things go. But when it comes to national security, substance must always be privileged over style and symbol. The US is thinking ahead to secure itself, so should we, keeping our peculiar circumstances in mind.
This appeared in Mail Today April 14, 2010

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