Both India and Pakistan need to work harder on nuclear safety and security, a recent seminar hosted in London by The Democracy Forum was told. Jessica Macfarlane reports


If there is a threat of terrorists, saboteur groups or lone operators – known as ‘non-state actors’ – getting their hands on nuclear weapons or other agents of mass destruction, the danger is greatest in South Asia.

This was the view of speakers at a London seminar entitled ‘Acquisition and tactical use of nuclear devices by non-state actors: odds and implications’, organised by The Democracy Forum and chaired by Dr William Crawley, of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies.

Shashank Joshi, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, said that there were concerns over nuclear safety and security even in organisations such as NATO, but where non-state actors were concerned, the debate was largely about India and Pakistan. Both states scored very poorly in international Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) rankings.

Apart from NTI criticism of gaps in the way Indian regulation is conducted, India’s weak protection regulations, and external risk factors such as levels of corruption, Mr Joshi pointed out that India’s arsenal is changing rapidly, in terms of both the number and types of weapons and delivery systems. For years nuclear weapons were kept ‘de-mated’, with different agencies controlling different parts of the system. Now, however, India’s most recent weapons are ‘canisterised’ – ready to fire in a short space of time, without needing to be assembled first.

There are renewed international concerns too about India’s nuclear programme, and with its ballistic missile submarine beginning sea trials, these will be exacerbated as centralised command and control is inevitably weakened. But in the RUSI fellow’s view, Pakistan is a greater source of concern. In recent years it has focused on short-range, low-yield devices, likely to be used in volatile situations where command and control may be less certain, and which may be vulnerable at a time of battle movement – posing a much bigger risk of unauthorised access. Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy, Distinguished Professor of Physics and Mathematics at Forman Christian College, Lahore, agreed that the consequences of a nuclear attack by Pakistan on Indian troops in Pakistani territory would be completely unpredictable.

The main dangers concerning non-state actors and nuclear or radiological weapons were identified by Dr Beyza Unal, a research fellow in the International Security Department at Chatham House, London. They included:

  • the insider threat – someone, such as a worker in a power plant, turning against a government or institution;
  • technological/scientific capabilities – cyber techniques becoming a problem as well as a benefit;
  • dual use – radioactive materials increasingly found in both military and civilian institutions, often not properly secured;
  • state sale of nuclear material to militants;
  • loss of state control of nuclear plants or systems, increasing their vulnerability to non-state actors.

Dr Unal, co-author of a recent Chatham House report (Use of Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Weapons by Non-State Actors: emerging trends and risk factors), warned that the threat is dynamic, not static, as the world and technologies are changing. Examples she cited of potentially dangerous developments included nanotechnology, miniature devices such as drone technology, which could be used to penetrate airbases, and 3D printing.

Professor Pervez Hoodbhoy
Professor Pervez Hoodbhoy

The possibility of a nuclear device being used by a terrorist group or organisation was remote, said Dr Unal, but because the impact would be catastrophic, it must be considered, and resilience created. The danger is generally seen as being highest in Pakistan, but Dr Hoodbhoy argued that the threat had diminished significantly, and that India, with superior technology, also had a substantial responsibility to stop feeding the arms race.

The Lahore-based academic thought Pakistan’s army was concerned about the insider threat and the security of nuclear weapons, despite its assertions that there was no danger. Safety and security measures included devices to prevent a warhead being activated in case of explosion or accident, and a Personnel Reliability Programme, focused on identifying radicalisation. Such a programme is extremely difficult to implement effectively, but assurances of success had to be believed for lack of alternative evidence. Dr Hoodbhoy pointed out that the Pakistan army had lost more men to Islamic terrorists than to all the wars fought against India, raising the question: who was the real enemy?

BBC Foreign Correspondent Humphrey Hawksley described Project Sapphire, an operation aimed at restraining nuclear proliferation. About 60 countries are developing some form of nuclear power source, and want to process their own fuel, increasing the risk that it could fall into the wrong hands. They are reluctant to trust international supplies, in the light of what happened when India carried out its nuclear test in 1974 – its nuclear fuel supply was cut off, and the country went to the nuclear black market.

Project Sapphire began in 1993, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, with the discovery of a warehouse in Kazakhstan full of weaponised uranium. This was eventually flown to the US, in a highly secret and complex operation, but Kazakhstan’s decision not to sell the material elsewhere has led to the development of an ‘international nuclear fuel bank of last resort’.

If a country falls foul of the international community, but still needs nuclear fuel for civilian-use power stations, it will be possible to obtain it from the Kazakhstan facility, which becomes international diplomatic/UN territory, run under IAEA and UN auspices. Supplies will be guaranteed regardless of politics, and countries in need will not have recourse to the black market. Consequently, Kazakhstan is benefiting from good international relations and significant global investment.

Could this be a template for other countries? Nuclear weapons in countries such as Pakistan are expensive, and keep the country in a constant state of war, in contrast with prosperous Taiwan, for example, which has taken the other route. The seminar was left contemplating a radical question: should Pakistan consider unilaterally surrendering its nuclear weapons?


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