How secure is India’s radioactive material?

The WikiLeaks revelation about Al-Qaeda trying to stockpile ‘dirty’ nuclear explosives and recruit rogue scientists to plot 9/11-like terror attacks in major cities of the world, should be a concern for India. Another revelation that shows that the threat is real is The Telegraph’s report that the West Bengal Governor MK Narayanan told the Americans when he was national security adviser that India had discovered a “manifest attempt” by jihadi groups “to get fissile material” to manufacture a crude nuclear bomb. Considering the motivations of terrorist groups, it is time India shifts its attention towards its nuclear safety. Due to the non-transparent nature of India’s nuclear energy sector, it is relatively difficult to estimate the actual state of safety and security.

Despite few contentious issues like the Nuclear Liability Bill, India’s nuclear rise has renewed hopes for meeting the country’s ever-growing power needs. As India embarks on its nuclear expansion, it is important to focus on the current state of India’s nuclear safety and security, and prudent to highlight the issues and accept the lacunae (if any) or retardation factors in terms of nuclear safety measures and practices.

The Indo-US nuclear deal signed in 2005 ended the three decade old sanctions regime (imposed after India’s 1974 nuclear test) and provided opportunities to buy nuclear reactors and dual use technologies from the global market. At the April 2010 Nuclear Security Summit, the Prime Minister projected an increase in installed capacity by more than seven fold to 35,000 MWe by the year 2022, and to 60,000 MWe by 2032. The degree of expansion projected will result in new facilities being created through the fuel cycle. While there are numerous issues pertaining to India’s nuclear safety, this article focuses on the issue of theft of radioactive material.

One of the possible terrorist acts involving radioactive material can be its dispersion through the use of a Radiological Dispersal Device, a mixture of dynamite, with radioactive powder or pellets. When the device is set off, the blast carries radioactive material into the surrounding area. Such a radiological weapon can be used by the dispersion of radioactive aerosol or by detonating radioactive material with conventional explosives. While terrorist groups have so far employed conventional weapons, the future nature of their attacks may not remain limited to the same. Osama Bin Laden has reportedly declared the possession of nuclear weapons as a religious duty. Adding to the scare was a fatwa issued by Sheikh Nasir bin Hamid al-Fahd, allowing the use of WMD, even if it involves killings of innocent Muslims.

A dirty bomb with minimum amount of radiological material if exploded may not cause enough physical damages but may lead to mass hysteria and panic. Additionally, there will be significant environmental clean-up costs and indirect economic damages, such as devaluation of urban property rates and loss of agricultural market share due to stigmatisation of the contaminated target area, even after successful cleanup operations. What is of more concern is that radiation detection devices are not widely used in India except in nuclear facilities and airports.

Therefore, India needs to keep the nuclear fissile/radioactive material impregnable. The current state of protection of radioactive material in India can best be gauged by the following instances of theft. This also calls into question the reliability of India’s Material Protection, Control & Accounting (MPC&A) programme.

In July 2002, a gamma radiography camera containing Iridium 192 with an activity of 729 GBq was stolen during transportation in Assam. The camera, a highly radioactive device, was left unlocked in the trunk of a public bus in a region plagued by insurgent activity. In August 2003, a large quantity of Cobalt 60 (Co 60) was stolen from a steel plant in Jamshedpur. Though the material was guarded by a sophisticated alarm system on the front door, the thieves simply bypassed it by breaking through the rear wall.

The Atomic Energy Regulation Board’s (AERB’s) Board of Radiation and Isotope Technology (BRIT) is the only government controlled institution that produces and supplies a variety of radioisotope products in India. AERB’s regulation may be comforting but a major problem lies in the lack of information with regard to radioactive material procured in India before the AERB was set up. This makes it difficult for AERB to be aware of any unaccounted material which may be in the public domain. Apart from this, there are other sources that may be exploited by terrorists for the acquisition of radioactive material in India. There are numerous facilities in India that use radioactive material for commercial purposes, and are believed to be stored in facilities that have lax physical protection measures for the material. Such places include hospitals or cancer treatment centres, research facilities in the universities, industries like road construction and gas exploration.

Another source of threats comes from almost 4000 tons of junk metal being imported into India on a daily basis. On paper, the guidelines governing the monitoring of junk imported looks good, but in reality, the enforcement practices and screening methods at the ports are poor. This may result in radioactive material getting siphoned for destructive use. The Mayapuri case was illustrative of the current scenario where imported scrap arrived without any check for radiation or any other lethal material at the Indian ports. Till the Mayapuri incident, the BARC, Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) and the Department of Atomic Energy or the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) had no control over such materials being shipped into India. Post-Mayapuri, the Home Ministry and NDMA devised plans but the same currently remain behind schedule.

One aspect that ails India’s nuclear security is the lack of acceptance that there is a lacunae in its security mechanisms. Instead of periodically asserting that the nuclear plants and material are completely secure, it is important for the authorities to undertake serious examination of the safety issues and work on areas that demand their attention. Additionally, too much secrecy about the current safety measures is also a source of public concern. M R Srinivasan, a former head of the DAE, asked the organisation to “adopt an enlightened policy of keeping the public informed at all times about safety aspects of its installations”. The persistent secrecy is bound to add to the public distrust and concern.


Notes: Rajesh M. Basrur, Friedrich Steinhäusler, “Nuclear and Radiological Terrorism Threats for India: Risk Potential and Countermeasure”, Journal of Physical Security,, accessed on 1 February 2011.

Sitakanta Mishra, “How Prepared Are We? India and the Challenge of Nuclear Terror”, IPCS Special Report 82, September 2009,, accessed on 1 February 2011.

Chaitanya Ravi, “The Nuclear Safety Culture in India: Past, Present and Future” IPCS Special Report 90, May 2010,, accessed on 2 February 2011.

Aditi Malhotra


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