At U.S. President Barack Obama’s initiative, a series of biennial Nuclear Security Summits begun in 2010 have sought to raise awareness about the need to tighten controls over nuclear materials. States participating in these summits have been urged to meet international best practices and to improve transparency so as to build confidence that their security systems would prevent nuclear materials from being stolen or diverted.

India is a participant in the Nuclear Security Summit process, but thus far the results of its engagement are mixed. The summits elicited commitments to stronger security measures but failed to convince New Delhi to increase transparency regarding its nuclear security practices. So far, the summits have proved unable to break through India’s penchant for secrecy on what it considers to be matters of national security, so the country’s nuclear security arrangements remain somewhat opaque.

Another summit is now on the horizon. As it looks toward the next meeting, scheduled for March 24–25 in the Netherlands, New Delhi should take steps to further improve its own nuclear security and to advance the goals of nuclear security summits more broadly.

The Nuclear Security Summit Framework

Nuclear security involves protecting nuclear materials in order to guard against theft or diversion and preventing sabotage of nuclear facilities. It entails physical protection, the deployment of guards to confront on-site threats and to respond from off-site to emergencies, as well as the use of automated systems to prevent unauthorized persons from gaining access to nuclear materials. 

These issues came to the fore after the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact in 1991 led to acute concerns regarding “loose nukes.” Great fears arose that chaotic conditions in the erstwhile Soviet Republics would invite nonstate actors to acquire nuclear materials and, perhaps, even operational nuclear weapons. 

In his historic Prague speech on nuclear weapons in April 2009, Obama highlighted the need to bring nuclear materials around the world under national and international control, and he set a target of four years to accomplish this task. Toward this end, Obama declared that “we will set new standards, expand our cooperation with Russia, [and] pursue new partnerships to lock down these sensitive materials.” 

This task has yet to be completed. The director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Yukiya Amano, confessed in 2013 that “over a hundred incidents of thefts and other unauthorized activities involving nuclear and radioactive materials are reported to the IAEA every year. . . . Some material goes missing and is never found.” His predecessor, Mohamed ElBaradei, previously revealed that “a large percentage of materials which are recovered have not been previously reported as missing,” suggesting that even the IAEA may not be aware of the dimensions of the problem. Fortunately, no nuclear terrorist attack has yet occurred. But the first such event would be as traumatic for the international system as the first use of nuclear weapons in 1945.

Still, there has been progress. Two nuclear security summits have been held since Obama’s Prague speech, one in Washington (2010) and a second in Seoul (2012). Both underlined the need for maintaining strict security over weapons-usable nuclear materials.

What were the broad conclusions of the first two meetings? The danger of nuclear terrorism was a focus of the Washington summit. To prevent this occurrence, all world leaders present at the summit agreed to pool their efforts to secure nuclear materials, particularly such materials on their own territory, as well as to jointly improve global nuclear security practices. In Seoul, the participants also resolved to protect radiological sources, which can be used to make a dirty bomb. These weapons spread radiation and potentially cause panic and massive social disruption. 

The summit process has achieved some success in decreasing the nuclear security challenge. The number of countries possessing 1 kilogram or more of weapons-usable nuclear materials—a criterion used by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a nonprofit organization dedicated to nuclear security and nonproliferation, to estimate the scope of the challenge worldwide—has dropped from 32 to 25 in the last two years. Thus seven states have removed dangerous nuclear materials from their territories. According to NTI data, some twelve other states have also reduced their nuclear material holdings and arranged for better security. 

The third summit is scheduled to be held in The Hague. The venue has symbolic significance because it is also home to the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court, which in theory could become engaged in future cases involving nuclear terrorism. Moreover, the Netherlands was witness to one of the greatest thefts of nuclear technology in history when Abdul Qadeer Khan, a Pakistani nuclear engineer employed by a uranium-enrichment plant in the city of Almelo, stole blueprints for centrifuges in the early 1970s that he then used to help establish Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. 

Several priorities will likely take precedence at this upcoming summit. The United States, the Netherlands, and South Korea are likely to seek to persuade participants to commit themselves to reduce the use of highly enriched uranium and plutonium in nuclear reactors; undertake more frequent reviews by IAEA nuclear security advisory missions; strengthen national registration and protection of radioactive sources; enhance the role for industry in nuclear security issues; and increase the transparency and availability of information on the steps states have taken to secure their nuclear materials and facilities. Another major objective will be gaining more adherents to implement the IAEA guidelines for protecting nuclear materials. These guidelines automatically become the national law in some Western countries, but this is not a universal practice. 

These priorities will help further the summit’s overarching mission of convincing states to further strengthen their own nuclear security practices. Yet in some countries such as India, the summits have met with only partial success on this matter.

India’s Mixed Record

It would be fair to say that India’s record in contributing to the goals of the nuclear security summits has been mixed. On the credit side, New Delhi has accepted its international legal obligations in regard to the security of its nuclear materials. India joined the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and ratified the convention’s 2005 amendment, which legally binds states to protect their nuclear facilities and material. New Delhi is also part of the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, a UN treaty that criminalizes acts of nuclear terrorism. 

In addition, India’s record in implementing UN Security Council Resolution 1540, which is concerned with preventing trafficking in materials, technology, and equipment relevant to nuclear security, has been exemplary. More significantly, no case of leakage of nuclear materials from India’s extensive nuclear program, inadvertent or advertent, has ever come to light. 

However, a penchant for opacity afflicts New Delhi’s bureaucratic machinery and has worked against the country’s larger political and international interests. For example, India has been reluctant to make public information about its on-site and off-site emergency response arrangements for its civilian nuclear facilities, although these procedures reportedly have been established and are believed to be working satisfactorily. Nothing can explain this reticence apart from a general preference for secrecy that stems from the ingrained belief that transparency compromises national security. 

Further, India has failed to fulfill some of the pledges it has made at previous summits. New Delhi committed at the 2012 nuclear security summit to establish an independent regulatory board to oversee its nuclear program. It laid out plans to do so in its Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority Bill, which came before parliament in 2011. However, this bill has not been passed and has lapsed now that the last session of parliament has ended in advance of general elections scheduled to begin April 7. Hopefully, the next government will accord priority to this matter. 

Some apologists for the Indian government eager to explain away its failure to meet this commitment have claimed that New Delhi already has adequate oversight provisions through its Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, an organization dedicated to ensuring that India’s use of nuclear energy does not harm the public or the environment. But because the board functions under the administrative control of the Indian government’s Department of Atomic Energy, there is skepticism among India’s NGO community and certainly among the international community about its independence.

At the 2010 summit, India volunteered to establish a “center of excellence” for training personnel in nuclear safety and security issues. Government officials have indicated that land has been acquired for this center in Haryana and that buildings and other infrastructure will be built soon. Apparently, the center’s charter of duties and mode of functioning have also been decided, but this information is not in the public domain. New Delhi should finalize remaining issues in order to make a public announcement and inform the summit accordingly.

In the Netherlands, India will need to provide a plausible explanation for why it has been unable to fulfill the pledges it made at previous nuclear security summits and detail how it intends to proceed in this regard. 

India’s Role at The Hague

How can India contribute to the success of the Netherlands summit? What can it do to strengthen its own nuclear security, which is the main objective of these meetings? And what are the positions India can adopt in the next meeting to refresh the nuclear security debate? 

A general issue that India should highlight in the summit is the dichotomy between words and deeds in the matter of nuclear security. Many countries subscribe to international agreements to protect their nuclear materials and establish regulatory authorities to oversee their nuclear programs. But several of these nations have also transferred nuclear materials, technology, and equipment clandestinely in violation of these prohibitions with impunity. 
 
In addition, New Delhi should continue its support of the IAEA. Its gift of $1 million to the agency has helped strengthen IAEA supervisory functions, and India could raise the agency’s relevance by making a further donation. It could also offer to train IAEA personnel once New Delhi establishes its center of excellence. 

At the same time, India should work to increase transparency regarding its arrangements for maintaining nuclear security. It is entirely possible to do so without adversely impinging on its national security interests. If New Delhi were to overcome its penchant for secrecy and become more forthcoming, it could agree to a “peer review” of its nuclear security arrangements by international experts or the IAEA. Some part of India’s present reluctance to accept this arrangement derives from the inability of the country’s nuclear establishment to coordinate its policies with the foreign policy and defense bureaucracies. 

Lastly, New Delhi could draw attention to the dangers involved in transporting nuclear materials and press the summit to establish international norms for different means of transporting nuclear and radiological materials. The importance of regulating this process will increase in the future as appreciation grows regarding the need to keep spent fuel away from nuclear facilities, drawing on the lessons of the March 2011 disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. India’s atomic power plants are situated along its coastline and are vulnerable to cyclones and other environmental turbulences, meaning New Delhi will need to strike a balance between nuclear safety and security in transporting spent fuel to separate storage facilities. This requirement for a balanced approach also applies to transporting radiological substances like Cobalt-60. In 2010, several people were injured after coming into contact with this substance at a Delhi scrap market.

These considerations should guide India’s policy declaration before the Netherlands summit. Emphasizing these matters will do more than help India improve its nuclear security record, which is already commendable. It will also raise important issues for debate at the summit and, by extension, strengthen global nuclear security. 

P. R. Chari is a visiting professor at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi, India. He is co-author of Brasstacks and Beyond: Perception and Management of Crisis in South Asia (Manohar, 1997) and Four Crises and a Peace Process: American Engagement in South Asia (Brookings, 2007), among other publications. A longer version of this article appeared in the Tribune (Chandigarh) on March 16.