External Affairs

India Must Tackle Global Concerns on the Independence of its Nuclear Regulator

India has managed to create a space for itself at the nuclear high table despite global apprehensions over its nuclear security policy. But it may be time to address these concerns.

File photo from 2009 of the Kudankulam nuclear power plant under construction. Credit: Kirstie Hansen / IAEA

File photo from 2009 of the Kudankulam nuclear power plant under construction. Credit: Kirstie Hansen / IAEA

Washington: Prime Minister Narendra Modi will attend the fourth Nuclear Security Summit this week with two basic aims – to mark India’s presence in the front row of responsible nuclear powers and to bolster its case for entering the clubs that do nuclear commerce from which it remains barred.

The main thrust of these summits, initiated by US President Barack Obama in 2010, has been to find ways to better secure all nuclear materials and sites, and prevent terrorists from getting anywhere close to them. The idea is to eliminate the potential for theft, sabotage or any other compromise in security through voluntary pledges, called “house gifts”, and joint efforts by like-minded countries, called “gift baskets.”

World leaders see the threat of nuclear terrorism as real since both al-Qaeda and ISIS are known to be in pursuit of radioactive material to make a “dirty bomb” by combining it with conventional explosives. Late last year, an AP investigation in southeastern Europe revealed the existence of a black market for nuclear materials.

The safety and security question

It can’t be good news that just as Modi is getting ready to hobnob with Obama, a nonpartisan US-based organisation has said India’s nuclear security and safety procedures leave a lot to be desired. The 2016 nuclear security index by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) ranks India low with an overall score of 46 on a scale of 100. Even though India scores high on certain metrics such as cyber security, response capabilities, on-site protection and compliance with UN resolutions, its overall ranking comes down due to one reason: India “does not yet have an independent regulatory agency, and it has regulations that lack key requirements for security materials.”

The only other countries with weapons-grade material and no independent oversight are North Korea and Iran. India is clearly not in good company. Even Pakistan has an independent regulatory agency, for which it scored a full 100 on the scale. But it has more political instability, corruption, governance deficit, cybersecurity problems and other issues, which brings its overall score down to a low 42.

When asked for comment, an Indian official dismissed the index, questioned its methodology and doubted its conclusions. Every country’s security protocol is its own and best executed and judged by insiders, he said.

Another official said the index is a motivated endeavour. Information on how India manages the regulatory scenario through the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board is available on its website. There is constant review and assessment through inspections.

The NTI index may not be the most accurate reflection of each country’s nuclear reality but it is regarded as a credible resource put together by a team of experts, most of whom are well known in their field.

It then becomes a delicate task for officials to explain how India takes nuclear security with utmost seriousness yet runs its nuclear programme in secrecy. The first can be achieved by joining the circle of summits like the one Obama is hosting this week, but the other raises more questions than any high-flying summitry can answer.

These questions keep bubbling through the subterranean world of nuclear experts whose opinions sometimes shape official thinking and influence outcomes to a greater degree than imagined. The difficulty India faces in becoming a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) can be partially attributed to low-grade hostility of the international nuclear community towards New Delhi.

This hostility among non-proliferation experts originated with the 2008 Indo-US civil nuclear deal, which legitimised India’s nuclear weapons programme for all practical purposes, much to their discomfort. The feeling that India got away too easily has sustained through the years.

The Obama administration, in sharp contrast to the Bush administration, has been lukewarm in taking the next steps after inking the nuclear deal and pushing India’s entry in the four export control regimes – the NSG, Missile Technology Control Regime, the Wassenaar Arrangement and the Australia Group.

Apart from publicly affirming that India is ready for the NSG, Washington hasn’t moved the ball much. But this may be changing as US officials realise it is a legacy issue that must be tackled in the time remaining, especially since India has completed the necessary steps to address complaints that the nuclear deal did not result in business for American companies.

In the meantime, China has managed to float the idea that India can’t come into the NSG without Pakistan. The idea originated in Islamabad and traveled to nuclear conferences where a few Washington nuclear experts sympathetic to Pakistan embraced it. Pakistan knows it can’t get into the NSG because of its history of proliferation, but by twinning itself with India it can try to delay or scuttle New Delhi’s candidacy.

Washington’s non-proliferation community working with key officials in the Obama administration last year also pushed for “normalising” Pakistan’s nuclear programme through a nuclear deal similar to the one with India, a proposal that made New Delhi see red. The idea was ultimately squashed in the face of opposition from various quarters, including the US Congress.

Time for a change?

India is at an important moment in its ongoing quest to be fully accepted and integrated into the global non-proliferation architecture as a responsible nuclear weapons power. So far it has managed to stand alone, bend the international community to its will with patient diplomacy, get the US on its side with the civil nuclear deal and create space for itself at the nuclear high table.

But perhaps it’s time to try a different tack and respond to the international community’s continuing concerns about the Indian policies governing nuclear security and why the lack of an independent regulatory authority should not matter.

George Perkovich, a nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment, says the “absence of a truly independent regulator who is not dependent financially or politically on people being regulated raises questions about democratic principles.”

“Culture of safety is not very big in India, yet people are expected to believe that the performance of state organisations in one aspect of national life (nuclear security) is far superior to other aspects of life,” he adds.

An Indian official countered, “Where is the culture of safety in the US with the number of guns in private hands? Can you then extrapolate that the US government can’t take care of its nuclear facilities? This is an absurd way to judge.”

Ironically, India has accepted the inadequacy of the AERB as a regulatory body by signalling its intention to create a more independent and robust Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority. However, legislative moves to replace the AERB with the NSRA have been hanging fire the past five years.