Originally Published 2014-05-30 06:31:39 Published on May 30, 2014
While India has instituted pretty stringent measures, some of which are lacking in even other key nuclear players, India has done a bad job of advertising to the global community of what it has done. This has meant poor appreciation of India's efforts in the area of Nuclear Security.
Reducing Radiation: Navigating Nuclear Security
"Security and safety of nuclear materials is an issue that has been gaining traction in recent years. While this has been an issue for India for several decades, the idea of nuclear security and the need for global architectures to regulate activities in this domain is now taking shape. There may be nothing as yet in terms of an architecture but there are debates on how to better streamline the processes and existing mechanisms to reduce risks associated with nuclear material. The two Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) since 2010 is a reflection of this worry.

For India, this is an important issue. India is situated in a particularly difficult neighbourhood for a variety of reasons. There is instability of all sorts around India, be it Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal or Sri Lanka. Pakistan has remained a major source of global terrorism. The problem of Left-wing insurgency that has gripped India acutely in the last one decade has escalated into a bigger menace. These challenges highlight the current vulnerabilities to India’s security. A nuclear incident could have far more dangerous consequences ranging from immediate annihilation to longterm environmental impact. Though nuclear incidents are highly unlikely, an incident, if it happens, will be very serious, which explains the anxieties of various governments.

India’s stand on nuclear security

How does India fare on the issue of nuclear security? Quite good actually, despite the recent NTI Index that ranked India way down at the bottom, even below Pakistan. Should this be of concern to India? The NTI Index is simply a think tank effort in quantifying some of the policies and practices in the area of nuclear safety and security. However, this should provide for an opportunity to revisit some of India’s practices in this backdrop.

Nuclear security is defined by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), as "the prevention of, detection of, and response to, criminal or intentional unauthorised acts involving or directed at nuclear material, other radioactive material, associated facilities, or associated activities." Nuclear Security in India, a report authored by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has listed out the measures that India has instituted in this regard in relation to the security of nuclear materials in India. It must be noted that India’s approach to nuclear security today is at par with the best practices around the world. According to the MEA report,there are five key principles that drive the Indian approach on nuclear security: governance, institutions, security practice and culture, technology, and international cooperation.

Governance, institutions and technology have remained important elements in India’s nuclear security. India has a well-established institutional and legal architecture that govern the safety and security aspects of India’s nuclear power plants. Key institutions governing India’s safety and security practices are the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC). In terms of the legal infrastructure, the primary legislation that regulates nuclear safety and security is the Indian Atomic Energy Act of 1962. It has been amended several times to further enhance the security practices from a legal perspective. In 2011, the government introduced the Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority Bill, which will replace the AERB with the Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority (NSRA). The bill also seeks to establish a Council of Nuclear Safety (CNS) under the leadership of the Prime Minister and also new regulatory bodies in the area of national security and defence. Technology has also played a key role in enabling nuclear safety and security in India. As highlighted in the MEA report, India uses "proliferation resistant technologies and procedures for nuclear fuel cycle technologies which reduce the risk of a nuclear security or safety breach." In addition, India’s closed fuel cycle ensures that plutonium is reprocessed for reuse, thus reducing the need for stockpiling and underground repositories. Technology is put to use also for tracking material while being transported. Sensors and access control barriers are deployed in order to track/ prevent intrusions into facilities. Also, most modern technologies and processes such as vitrification (the transformation of a substance into a glass) are used for disposing and decommissioning of materials.

International cooperation plays a vital role

International cooperation has also remained an important aspect of India’s approach to nuclear security. India has been active in some of the more recent global security initiatives including the Nuclear Security Summit that began in 2010. Prime Minister level participation at the first two summits indicates the level of importance India attaches to these initiatives. India’s cooperation with the IAEA and other major powers including some of the P-5 members, particularly in the area of nuclear safety is a reflection of New Delhi’s emphasis on international engagement. It is also party to 13 international agreements on the issue and has additionally taken several steps to implement the UN Security Council Resolution 1540, which also deals with nuclear security issues. One of the important Indian initiatives has been the establishment of a Global entre for Nuclear Energy Partnership (GCNEP), which has already conducted several off-campus training and international workshops on nuclear safety and security. GCNEP has the potential to emerge as a major platform for broader partnerships at the regional and global levels while providing India with an opportunity to share the best practices in these areas.

Importance of security culture

Coming to the five principles, security culture is of particular importance for a variety of reasons. Even as technology is important and there are many technological solutions being employed in the nuclear safety and security arena -- thus reducing the human element - technology has limitations. On the other hand, security culture and practices could go a long way in strengthening India’s security in this domain.

Some of the major highlights of the security culture and practices include defence in depth, personnel reliability programme, and design basis threat, among others.

Defence in depth principle is applied at every stage, starting from the construction to operation of a nuclear power plant. This principle is in line with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safety and security standards and is linked closely to the issue of physical protection of a facility. The IAEA has published a number of reports emphasising the importance of this philosophy at all stages including identification, design, construction and operation of nuclear plants. This idea is to be applied to and penetrated at multiple levels including institutional, individual, behavioural, and design of a facility. Keeping this principle in mind, nuclear power plants have instituted several access control mechanisms including physical measures such as spike strips and barriers, and also technology-aided systems such as biometric recordings.

Personnel reliability programme is another key component in ensuring India’s nuclear security, particularly significant from an insider threat perspective. This involves thorough vetting of a person’s background and is done for all staff and employees including those responsible for command and control. The background verification done at the time of hiring is followed up with periodic ones and also when an employee is being shifted to a more sensitive installation. However, it has been observed that while such exhaustive verifications are done up to the level of contractors, this may not hold true for sub-contractors who are temporary workers, who may work with a facility for a week, a month or so. While there are challenges to ensuring stringent background measures for these temporary wage earners, it does present a real challenge in terms of nuclear security.

Another key element in India’s nuclear security practices is the Design Basis Threat (DBT) approach that India has put in place. It is an effective measure wherein safety and security are integrated from the time of preparation of a nuclear installation design. There is a national DBT being produced which is further used for preparing the facility-specific DBT which takes into account all the safety and security concerns specific to a facility. The AERB is responsible for assessing the threats and challenges and recommending steps as preventive measures at the time of constructing a nuclear power plant. It also needs to be pointed out that the plants are designed in such a way that in the event of any physical attack, be it intended or unintended, structural barriers that have been erected prevent the release of radioactive activity outside the plant, as a means to minimise the impact on the public.

While India has instituted pretty stringent measures, some of which are lacking in even other key nuclear players, India has done a bad job of advertising to the global community of what it has done. This poor publicity on the part of India has meant poor appreciation of India’s efforts in the area of nuclear security among the global nuclear community. It might be good if India does take this aspect a bit more seriously and attempt to make others understand its security practices. This is important from the standpoint of gaining greater support among the global community as India reaches out to some of the technology export control groupings for memberships. Also in a globalised world, when India is dependent on other countries for a variety of things, it is good to have a good impression.

(Dr Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan is a Senior Fellow (Security Studies), Observer Research Foundation)

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Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Dr Rajeswari (Raji) Pillai Rajagopalan is the Director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology (CSST) at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.  Dr ...

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