nuclear power plant

The canvas of global nuclear issues is immense, encompassing three parallel and significant subsets: deterrence, nonproliferation, and nuclear security. However, in the last year or so, most international attention has been directed towards proliferation issues and deterrence while nuclear security has largely been ignored. Though some progress was made with regard to maintaining global nuclear security through the nuclear security summits, the momentum seems to have been lost amidst a host of other nuclear concerns.

A recent proposal by Sharon Squassoni and Cindy Vestergaard has put the focus back on nuclear security in the context of reducing nuclear risks in South Asia. In “Charting Nuclear Security Progress in South Asia,” they make a case for India and Pakistan voluntarily submitting reports about their fissile material under an existing international mechanism called the “Guidelines for the Management of Plutonium” or INFCIRC/549, supported by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Simply put, the authors suggest that to enhance nuclear security in South Asia, more attention needs to be given to mitigating the risks emanating from the stockpiles of civilian plutonium. According to the guidelines, if a government chooses to participate in this reporting mechanism, they would provide information about their policies adopted in managing plutonium, including quantities of plutonium produced, received, shipped, lost, or even removed from inventory. Though the idea has value, it is important to recognize that participation in such an initiative would not be free from challenges and India may have several reservations.

Voluntary Mechanisms: Promoting Transparency and Norm-Building

Such voluntary reporting of fissile material can be useful in reducing the threat of nuclear terrorism, mainly of terrorist networks actively seeking a radioactive source of material for advancing their objectives. This issue received significant attention during the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) discussions, resulting in the securing and accounting of vulnerable highly enriched uranium (HEU) from various countries between 2010 and 2016. Since the NSS process did not address a possible threat from plutonium adequately, Squassoni and Vestergaard argue for the accounting of civilian plutonium. Since civilian plutonium stockpiles have “eluded restrictions,” annual reporting could be useful in conveying that the nuclear material is accounted for, which will further improve confidence in the maintenance of nuclear security globally.

Specifically, it can be said that this proposal, if acted upon, is likely to: i) ensure nuclear transparency on the part of the reporting nation; ii) further solidify the adherence to a nuclear security norm, raising the reporting country’s nuclear security profile; and iii) contribute to maintaining nuclear security in South Asia through an additional step. The idea has merit because it adds to the nuclear security architecture in the region, which is still at a nascent stage. If India and Pakistan participate in this initiative, South Asia will have its first nuclear transparency measure for civilian plutonium.

India’s Reservations on INFCIRC/549

Existing safety and security measures are sufficient

Squassoni and Vestergaard’s proposal calls for India to report on its stockpiles of reactor-grade plutonium separated from the spent fuel of safeguarded pressurized heavy-water reactors. However, since this material is already under safeguards, it is accounted for as civilian plutonium and there is no need for India to report it under INFCIRC/549 separately. Additionally, the IAEA and the World Association of Nuclear Operators have regularly reviewed India’s civilian nuclear facilities’ safety record. India’s Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA, approved by its 35-nation Board of Governors, states that it respects  “…health, safety and physical protection and related security provisions in force in India…” This demonstrates that the IAEA has confidence in India’s nuclear safety and security related mechanisms related to civilian plutonium. Thus, the need to voluntarily declare civilian plutonium through INFCIRC/549 might be superfluous for India, especially if the logic of reporting is to bolster multilateral initiatives to prevent materials theft for nuclear terrorism. Since the responsibility of physical protection of the fissile material primarily lies with the possessing country, the need to repeatedly declare that India’s civilian nuclear material remains safe may not be viewed by the government with a sense of urgency. Furthermore, India is already party to all 13 global instruments countering international terrorism. Thus, India might view its existing participation with regard to the management of civilian plutonium as sufficient.

It is difficult to imagine significant benefits to be gained by India from signing onto the INFCIRC/549 other than raising its own nuclear security profile. But in New Delhi’s conception, even a raised nuclear profile like this may not really help India achieve an important goal— membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). New Delhi believes its NSG membership is held up due to political reasons related to Chinese opposition and not because of its nuclear record. Also, if being party to all 13 instruments combating terrorism hasn’t helped India’s record, then how can one measure like INFCIRC/549 do so? Another point is that binding nuclear security measures at least facilitate an exchange of information and best practices; as a non-binding and purely voluntary mechanism, INFCIRC/549 doesn’t even provide that benefit. Finally, it is true that INFCIRC/549 is not only a reporting mechanism but also incorporates guidelines on the physical protection of nuclear material, their responsible handling, and transfers. But India is already contributing to these measures by participating in the Convention of Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) and its amendment.

Not Effective Against Nuclear Terrorism

Squassoni and Vestergaard contend that INFCIRC/549 bolsters international nuclear security against the threat of nuclear terrorism. While it can be argued that the mechanism does this in a broader sense by propogating a culture of nuclear transparency that helps states keep one other accountable, it does not help in a material sense. It does not provide a mechanism for timely identification of nuclear materials theft, for example. India already participates in the IAEA’s Incident and Trafficking Database (ITDB), which reports on cases of illicit trafficking and unauthorized activities involving nuclear and radioactive materials and analyzes them for information to better equip states to prevent such incidents. And unlike INFCIRC/549, ITDB  is for all nuclear material, including plutonium, uranium, and thorium. Thus, India already participates in a much stronger mechanism to deal with threats of nuclear terrorism than INFCIRC/549.

Culture of Nuclear Transparency Needs Time to Develop

India acquired its nuclear capability only two decades ago in 1998, while other participating countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and China took almost four decades after acquiring nuclear weapons to accept the multilateral sharing of information. Moreover, the implementation of any such voluntary transparency measure is to be assessed in the light of the nuclear safety and security culture within the country, especially since Guideline 14 of INFCIRC/549 requires the publication of information on holdings of plutonium. India’s integration into the global nuclear security architecture began only 12 years ago and thus, the culture of transparency is still evolving in South Asia.

Different Risk Perception of Plutonium  

It is true that the global stockpile of separated civilian plutonium grew rapidly between 1996 to 2005, at an average rate of about 50 tonnes a year; however, it has slowed down to 2 tonnes a year between 2005 and 2014. Additionally, it must be noted that when assessing the risks from civilian plutonium, specifically its theft for nuclear terrorism, it is important to ask a pertinent question: how is a terrorist likely to use civilian plutonium? Making an explosive device from plutonium is even more challenging than using uranium to produce an improvised explosive device.

Voluntary Reporting Impacts India’s Exceptionalism   

As per INFCIRC/549, a state’s management of plutonium is to be handled as per its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and its Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA. Now, the NPT members have forgone their right to nuclear weapons. Since India is an non-NPT member, it would not want its reporting mechanism to be linked with obligations for NPT non-nuclear weapon states. The reason may be symbolic but it does touch upon India’s unique nuclear exceptionalism.


INFCIRC/549 does not provide India any attractive benefits apart from may be boosting its nuclear security profile. Furthermore, it eludes any verification mechanism and is also non-binding, which further diminishes the value of INFCIRC/549 in India’s eyes. Finally, it seems that India would not be prepared to share this information yet, considering that no white papers or annual public press statements from the government on even broader nuclear issues are produced. Revealing estimates on civilian plutonium from safeguarded facilities, thus, seems to be a distant dream at this point. Finally, if such reporting is to ever be institutionalized as a norm in South Asia, a strong sense of its requirement has to be justified. That requirement has to come in the form of an IAEA obligation.

Editor’s Note: 

Policy debates around participation in multilateral information-sharing mechanisms highlight fundamental tensions in nuclear-armed states between safety, national security, and international security. Assuring other states that fissile materials are securely managed against the global threats of illicit proliferation and nuclear terrorism is a  widely recognized priority. Yet, there are compelling safety and security incentives for nuclear-armed states to keep information about their fissile material stocks secret. In South Asia, these tensions are further complicated by the unique histories of nuclear weapons in India and Pakistan and South Asian participation in global nuclear governance. Are voluntary information-sharing mechanisms regarding sensitive nuclear issues valuable? 

In this  SAV series, Muhammad Faisal, Maimuna Ashraf, Hina Pandey, and Pooja Bhatt respond to a recent  paper by nuclear scholars  Sharon Squassoni and Cindy Vestergaard. The paper proposes that South Asian nuclear-armed states voluntarily report their civilian plutonium holdings through  participation in an existing multilateral mechanism, the  Guidelines for the Management of Plutonium or  INFCIRC/549. Contributors assess whether and how participation in multilateral information sharing on nuclear materials can enhance and/or hamper Indian and Pakistani national interests. Read the entire series  here


Image 1: IAEA Imagebank via Flickr

Image 2: Pallav Bagla via Getty Images

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