India must explain uranium theft to the world – Senator A Rehman Malik

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India has proved to be a careless and irresponsible nation in the recent past. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the nuclear sector and the sale of uranium on the black market, thereby increasing the risk of dirty bombs. Yet such instances of proliferation are going unnoticed. The relevant international authorities appear the least bothered and the media in Pakistan has half-heartedly picked up this story. Of course, if anything of this magnitude happened in Pakistan – the Indian media would leave no stone unturned to excoriate us.

The recovery of 7.1 kilogrammes of highly radioactive enriched uranium worth $2.9 million from two Indian citizens – Jigar Pandya, 27, and Abu Tahir Afzal Husain Choudhary, 31 – should have triggered serious concerns globally. Given the gravity of the situation, I wrote a letter on May 10, 2021 to Mr Rafael Mariano Grossi, Director General International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and urged him to take grievous and immediate notice of the continuous nuclear proliferation by India. After all, it was not, as I explained, the first time that such highly radioactive substance had been seized by the police in recent years. In 2016, a 9-kg (19.8lbs) cache of depleted uranium was recovered from the Thane area of Maharashtra. It is evident, therefore, that India is either involved in illicit nuclear proliferation activities or else its safeguards are not intact.

The theft of uranium and its subsequent sale to unauthorised customers is not only dangerous for India, its neighbours but the whole world. Not least because this material will likely find its way to the black market before ending up in the hands of non-state actors and terrorists. This timely warning and necessary legal action aim to prevent the aforementioned.

These recent developments remind us that despite not being a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), India was able to secure a waiver from the IAEA; owing to its supposed “excellent record in nuclear security”. However, the facts speak for themselves. I am both a close observer of and am familiar with nuclear-related issues since I remained a member of the National Command Authority (NCA) for five years during my tenure as Interior minister.

I requested the IAEA to refer the case of Indian nuclear proliferation to FATF (Financial Action Task Force), as it is too serious to be ignored and poses a far greater threat than actual terrorism and money laundering

It was in this capacity that I attended, as chief guest, one of the IAEA’s international programmes on nuclear proliferation in Islamabad in 2011. I warned the world about India’s faulty nuclear security system, which is a matter of record. That country’s nuclear programme is in the hands of irresponsible and inexperienced civilians, namely the extremist BJP regime with its links to the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh). Pakistan, by sharp contrast, boasts an outstanding nuclear safety and security record; duly verified by the nuclear watchdog.

Unless India strictly regulates nuclear material, it will be considered complicit in the proliferation of the same. The IAEA is aware that, as of November 2020, India has 22 operational nuclear reactors in seven nuclear power plants, with a total installed capacity of 6,780 MW. New Delhi is party to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM), and according to Articles 7 and 8 of the Convention, the signatory States (India) are obliged to declare theft of nuclear material as an offence. Similarly, under Article 39 of the UN Charter, it constitutes a direct threat to international peace and security, if a country is found to be non-compliant with its safeguards. Such loose state control shows that India has to go a long way to before becoming a responsible nuclear power and member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).

The proliferation of nuclear material cannot happen without the active connivance of state operators. Thus, India must now prove its credibility by enhancing the internal administration and security of its nuclear plants. It also needs to introduce stringent legislation by enhancing punishment for nuclear proliferation. The private sale of uranium has to be prohibited; otherwise, every dirty bomb that falls into the hands of terrorists and non-state actors will unleash carnage worse than that executed by Osama Bin Laden or Daesh.

The IAEA needs to view the latest case of illicit uranium smuggling, as well as others which have not yet been reported, as a wake-up call since it has further endangered nuclear security.

Considering all the above, the IAEA should examine the following in order to safeguard against the threat of a dirty bomb:

1. The IAEA must conduct a detailed investigation since the extremist BJP government cannot be trusted.

2. All previous incidents of nuclear proliferation inside India need to be made public since New Delhi has always remained mute on this front.

3. The IAEA must call an emergency meeting with western countries and apprise them of this new trend whereby India is commoditising uranium, which is being openly traded by private dealers. There has not been any reaction thus far from the UN, the IAEA or the international community, including the US. As a politician, I am saddened to note the double standards in the treatment of Pakistan.

4. I requested the IAEA to refer the case of Indian nuclear proliferation to FATF (Financial Action Task Force), as it is too serious to be ignored and poses a greater threat than actual terrorism and money laundering.

5. It is high time that the IAEA review India’s safeguards against nuclear material proliferation while withdrawing all waivers forthwith. In the meantime, a total freeze on the operation of these nuclear plants may be imposed. The nuclear watchdog should then seal and take over all materials and equipment made available to India or resulting from the assistance provided to it under a comprehensive safeguards agreement. In the event of Indian non-compliance, all international military aid by UN member states may be suspended and sanctions placed on nuclear plants and staff.

6. India must be questioned as to why it deliberately failed to report these gross violations to the IAEA.

7. India must be urged to immediately to report this theft of uranium, as well as others, within a given deadline to the IAEA’s Incidents and Tracking Database (ITDB).

India would do well to come clean on this matter. There is no use even thinking of dismissing this as fake news or else pointing the finger at a neighbouring country. The time has come for New Delhi to explain this nuclear mishap to the entire world.