Indian Nuclear Black Market, Why is the World so Quiet?
As reported by Indian media, seven people were arrested for theft of seven kg of uranium in Jharkhand, the top Indian state in Uranium production. This follows another incident last month, as highlighted by Seema Sengupta in Arab News in May, the seizure of seven kg of highly radioactive uranium, worth 210 million in Indian currency, from a scrap dealer in India’s commercial capital Mumbai earlier this month has put the focus back on the safety of weapon-grade nuclear material available in the country.
The frequent cases of arrests of smugglers with radioactive material indicate the loopholes in nuclear safety record of India. India's projection of robust nuclear safety and security standards may not be able to convince the international community, as cases of theft of Uranium and allied nuclear materials keep appearing every year.
This paper analyses Indian Nuclear Black Market, the health of miners working in Uranium extraction mines, poor safety standards, the misuse of radioactive and hazardous materials, and obligation of International community to raise the red flags.
The health of miners working in Uranium extraction mines:
An Al Jazeera report in 2014 highlighted spontaneous abortions and miscarriages of families working in Uranium mines. Radioactive waste generated by three government owned mines – Narwapahar, Bhatin and Jadugoda – spurred fears of a health crisis in the region. Residents stated that they suffered from a number of diseases linked to radiation pollution, including congenital deformities, sterility, spontaneous abortions and cancer – yet mining continued unabated near these Indian villages, without proper security measures in place.
Dumping of radioactive waste by the roadside or near the villages may have been putting even more people at risk. Many women in Jadugoda who suffer from radiation-related health problems said they were treated as social outcasts, including Jingi Birulee, 42. She was born with conjoined middle and ring fingers on both hands. “Initially, it did hurt when all my friends got married one by one, and I was left alone to lead a life of isolation and rejection,” Birulee told Al Jazeera.
Poor Safety Standards:
Times of India report in Feb 2021 on Chamoli Glacier disaster indicates how poor safety record of disposal of hazardous materials created a humanitarian and ecological disaster. Villagers of Raini village in Tapovan area of Chamoli that lies near the area which saw the maximum destruction caused by Feb flash floods had expressed concerns that the flash floods may have been the result of heat being produced by a radioactive device that was lost in 1965 during a secret expedition to Nanda Devi Mountain located in Uttarakhand state.
The expedition was conducted by American intelligence agency CIA and the Indian government’s Intelligence Bureau (IB) to plant nuclear-powered surveillance equipment on the summit of Nanda Devi, India’s second-highest mountain range (after Kanchenjunga) for spying on China. However, the mountaineering team conducting the expedition got caught in a blizzard and had to return, leaving the device at the base of the mountain. A year later, when they went back to the area, they could not find it; subsequent expeditions have also not been able to trace the device, which has a life span of over 100 years and is believed to be still somewhere in the area.
In Feb, the flash floods struck the area near Raini village, which is situated in the buffer zone of Nanda Devi Biosphere, villagers said they noticed an extremely pungent smell in the air as muck and rubble from the mountain came rolling down and fell into the Rishiganga river.
Another aspect of nuclear safety is the protection of nuclear installations and uranium mining sites. In India, nuclear facilities are guarded by Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) and CISF guards have admitted many times that security at the installations needs more enhancements. Repeated and mysterious deaths of Indian nuclear scientists in these installations is a matter of concern as some were reported suicide and some were murdered. The possibility of nuclear secrecy gets out in the hands of terrorists cannot be ignored. Nuclear facilities must be guarded closely and the people who are working in these facilities must maintain secrecy.
However, The Naxalites – India’s Maoists from the Communist Party often target the police and military bases. Though most terrifying revelation was by the EU report that seven Indian companies were involved in funding to ISIS for making bombs. Previously Indian companies were involved in illicit nuclear trade with Iran, Iraq and Libya. So the situation will be a lot worst if the Indian companies provide any chemical, biological or the nuclear material to ISIS
As stated by a seasoned Pakistani journalist, Imtiaz Gul, there have been 30 instances of theft of nuclear materials in India, India has to be investigated as it is a major beneficiary of Nuclear Suppliers group and is also a member of International Atomic Energy Agency. India is being ruled by a radical and fundamentalist political party which has earned to reputation of Neo Nazism at international level.
Misuse of radioactive and hazardous materials:
Amjed Jaaved, while writing in Modern Diplomacy on 9 May this year highlights the misuse of radioactive materials in India. He states that India media scarcely report such incidents. However, Indian government sometimes reports such incidents to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to meet disclosure requirements. According to international media reports (February 25, 2004), India reported 25 cases of “missing” or “stolen” radio-active material from its labs to the IAEA. Fifty-two per cent of the cases were attributed to “theft” and 48% to the “missing mystery”. India claimed to have recovered lost material in twelve of total 25 cases. It however admitted that 13 remaining cases remained mysterious. India’s reports such incidents to the IAEA to portray itself as a “responsible state”. It is hard to believe that radio-active material could be stolen from nuclear labs without operators’ connivance.
Amjed Jaaved goes on to elaborate the cases of misuse of hazardous materials in India. Nine computers, belonging to India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation establishment at Metcalfe House, New Delhi, were stolen. India communicated 25 cases of ‘stolen or missing’ uranium to the IAEA. In different incidents, uranium in varying forms and quantities continue to be recovered from scrap dealers and others by Indian authorities. The recoveries include fifty-seven pounds of uranium in rod form, eight kilograms in granular form, two hundred grams in semi-processed form, besides twenty-five kilograms in radioactive form, stolen from the Bibi Cancer Hospital.
The ‘thieves’ stole three cobalt switches, worth Rs. 1.5 million, from Tata Steel Company laboratory at Jamshedpur (Jharkhand). A shipment of beryllium (worth $24 million), was caught in Vilnius, on its way to North Korea. Taiwanese authorities had intercepted a ship carrying dual-use aluminium oxide from India to North Korea. A New Jersey-based Indian engineer Sitaram Ravi Mahidevan was indicted for having bypassed US export procedures to send blue-prints of solenoid-operated valves to North Korea. We know that the Taiwanese authorities had intercepted a ship, carrying dual-use aluminium oxide from India to North Korea. The oxide is an essential ingredient of rocket casings and is, as such, prohibited for export to “rogue” countries.
Earlier in Sep 2008, BBC reported that Police in the north-eastern Indian state of Meghalaya had arrested five people on charges of smuggling uranium ore. ABC report of 23 Dec 2006 stated that Police in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand were hunting for a container packed with highly radioactive material stolen from a research facility. "It carries uranium and radiation could have an adverse effect in an area of 1.5 kilometres," then Jharkhand Chief Minister Madhu Khoda warned. Mr Khoda said the "uranium-filled analyser" went missing after being moved to a site near the densely-populated town of Rajrappa from a federal atomic facility near Mumbai.
Obligation of International community to raise the red flags:
The United States and India signed a landmark 123 agreement in 2008 which gave India access to western technology and nuclear fuel, despite warnings from critics that demand tighter security measures to prevent proliferation.
Seema Sengupta report published in Arab News on 15 May this year points to an alarming trend of why the international community is keeping its eyes closed on poor track record of theft of nuclear materials in India. The seizure of seven kg of highly radioactive uranium, worth 210 million in Indian currency, from a scrap dealer in India’s commercial capital Mumbai earlier in May has put the focus back on the safety of weapon-grade nuclear material available in the country. While the government did report such incidents occasionally to the global nuclear regulatory watchdog IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) to meet disclosure requirements, the very fact of more than half of the cases being attributed to theft leaves a wide scope for strengthening the monitoring mechanism, apart from introducing domestic nuclear regulatory reforms.
She decries that India being a responsible player in the domain of atomic energy, ‘I can recall the eminent nuclear scientist Dr. Anil Kakodkar advocating radical improvement in governance and decision-making structures at the utility level, during a conversation with me. A nation aiming to be a major nuclear design-cum-manufacturing hub and a leading player in global nuclear commerce surely cannot let her guard down to bolster a flourishing black market of sensitive radioactive elements. It is absolutely undeniable that a huge amount of uranium in varying form – including rod, granular, semi-processed and radioactive, has found its way into the shadowy unregulated space often controlled by the underworld.’
The 2014 Kalpakkam (Madras) Atomic Power Station shooting brought to the fore a critical question concerning internal sabotage. Global experts wondered if India, with its history of civil tumult, is adequately prepared to safeguard the building blocks of a devastating nuclear bomb from being stolen by insiders out of grievances or ill motive. There is enough documentary evidence on nuclear security lapses spread over the last few decades that should make the policymakers and strategic security community sit up and take notice. From criminal gangs getting hold of several kg of semi-processed uranium belonging to a state-owned mine in Meghalaya, federal politicians orchestrating an operation to siphon 100 kg of uranium from Jharkhand, mining employees selling milled uranium to militant groups to leftist guerrillas strapping uranium ore obtained from government-run milling complexes– all lay bare the skeletons of India’s security practices in nuclear installations.
Seema Sengupta goes on to state that as we debate the safety of India’s nuclear explosive materials, one issue that raises serious concern is the phenomenon of smuggling rackets associated with illicit snake venom trade getting hold of a highly radioactive substance like radium. The law enforcement agencies in my home province Bengal have been diligently tracking a spurt in the use of radium-laced distilled water for preserving illegally obtained snake venoms worth billions of dollars in the international market. Investigators also discovered that specially imported containers made of Belgian bullet-proof glass are being used as carriers to smuggle toxins extracted from live snakes, which eventually adds value to contraband drugs like marijuana and cocaine.
To conclude the international community must take into account the track record of Indian nuclear and hazardous material safety; especially when India is under a hardliner regime which could threaten international peace.
The theft of uranium and other radioactive materials is not possible without money laundering and smuggling, something that falls into preview of the FATF. The international watch dogs like IAEA and FATF must come forward to check this unhealthy trend of theft of radioactive materials in India, before it is too late.