Nuclear and Radiological Terrorism: A Nightmare for South Asia

The idea of nuclear terrorism is as old as nuclear weapons themselves. Scholars around the world unleashed debates about likelihood of this “unthinkable catastrophe” based on the trend of massive killings marked by 9/11. The optimists advocate that the inception of nuclear weapons has bestowed South Asia with strategic stability. However, pessimists suspect misfortune is likely due to the critical situation of Pakistan’s internal security and growing terrorism on both sides of the border. Transnational terrorist groups (TTP, Al-Qaeda, ISIS) are claiming adherence to each other – thus fueling worries for regional policy makers.  A widespread fear is that terrorists may steal nuclear weapons/material, attack nuclear facilities; buy nuclear weapons/radioactive material and fabricate Improvised Nuclear Device (IND), Radiological Dispersal Devices (RDDs) and Radiation Emission Devices (REDs). Though, it is acknowledged that stealing or buying the “Crown Jewels” of either state would be significantly more difficult. Nonetheless, the possibility of attacking or sabotaging nuclear facilities – peaceful and military – and risk of theft of radioactive material – particularly during transportation – cannot be overruled. In 2002, ABC News successfully managed to smuggle 15-pounds of depleted Uranium from Austria to the United States, concealed in a lead lined pipe. It raised concerns for the international community that it is difficult to detect and preempt the trafficking of such dangerous materials. Now, the question arises: “how well equipped and ready are the South Asian nuclear neighbors, vis-à-vis theft/smuggling of nuclear/radioactive materials?” Records below show nuclear mismanagement in South Asia, which should bother every rational mind.

Incidents involving Nuclear dimension in Pakistan
  • Terrorists attack on possibly one of the Nuclear Missile Storage Facilities at Sargodah and Kamra Air Base

Talking about India, who faced some grave nuclear safety issues during 1995-1998, as approximately “147 mishaps or safety related incidents were reported in operational nuclear plants. Of these, 28 were of an acute nature and nine of these 28 occurred in the nuclear power installations:”

Incidents involving Nuclear dimension in India
  • “Police in West Bengal arrested an opposition politician, carrying more than 100-kg of unrefined Uranium.”
  • “The Central Bureau of Investigation seized 8-kgs of nuclear material (6-kgs of natural Uranium (U237-U238) and U235 weapons grade) from an engineer, in Chennai. This led to further seizures of Uranium 31-grams in addition to 2 kg from two other engineers.”
  • “Eight traffickers were apprehended with three Uranium rods”
  • 8.3-kg of Uranium (depleted but radioactive) was stolen from Leelavati hospital Bandra.”
  • “Police arrested two men with more than 200-grams of semi-processed uranium in West Bengal.”

Now, most stereotyped minds might be thinking that high or low numbers of illicit incidents in one country makes it better than the other, while, ignoring the alarming situation caused by such practices to the region. One may admit that:

  • Demand for nuclear/radiological materials exists by terrorists – if not for nuclear weapons
  • Shipments of of nuclear materials have been attempted and  intercepted by responsible authorities – though not completely eradicated
  • Traffickers might be at work and their activities are likely to grow as per the expansion of nuclear industry in South Asia
  • Civilian facilities are more vulnerable as compared to military ones
  • Radioactive materials are more vulnerable during transportation

India and Pakistan seem to be very serious about and responsible to curb these nightmare scenarios. Both have introduced a number of innovative measures such as explicit Export Controls and stringent Command and Control structures. Furthermore, India and Pakistan adhere to the Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials, Container Security Initiatives (CSI), Proliferation Security Initiatives (PSI), UNSC Resolution 1540, International Convention of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (ICSANT), Global Initiatives to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT), and the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS). However, there is still a need for regional cooperation to fight against this menace. So, both states may want to extend collaboration in following areas:

  • Share good practices of multi-layered security arrangements in and around the organizations dealing with nuclear materials management
  • Zero-Tolerance-Policy regarding protection of nuclear/radiological material – particularly at civilian facilities as well as during transportation
  • A joint mechanism for “Detection, Destruction and Dispersion” of illicit networks
  • Establishment of joint Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers and Nuclear Damage Control Center:
      • To map the potential  and motivation of terrorists organizations for nuclear weapons/materials
      • To “Detect and Preempt” the likelihood of nuclear/radiological terrorism
      • To share Intelligence regarding rogue elements suspected for involvement in acts of sabotage against the nuclear facilities.

This kind of collaboration may appear as a utopian idea, but any joint mechanism may lead to constructive and uninterrupted cooperation against common threats. After all, we have a moral duty to make this region an “Abode of Peace” for forthcoming generations.


Image: Ami Vitale-Getty Images News, Getty

Posted in , Fissile Material, India, India-Pakistan Relations, Nonproliferation, Nuclear Security, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan, Terrorism

Muhammad Jawad Hashmi

Muhammad Jawad Hashmi is lecturer at the Department of Political Science and International Relations, University of Gujrat, Pakistan. He is currently working as visiting faculty at James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, MIIS California, Fall 2014. He was also visiting fellow at James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, MIIS California during Fall 2013. He has M.Sc. and M.Phil degree from the department of Defence and Strategic Studies, QAU Islamabad, Pakistan. His concentration includes Arms Control, Disarmament, Nonproliferation, Nuclear Terrorism, Nuclear Safety, Security and Strategy.

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11 thoughts on “Nuclear and Radiological Terrorism: A Nightmare for South Asia

  1. I am not sure about India’s efforts in the field of nuclear safety and security. But Pakistan Since 2001, cognizant of the terrorist danger, has taken a number of steps to improve the command and control system for its nuclear assets and the screening and training of employees in its nuclear enterprise. As with all security systems, constant vigilance and a culture of continuous improvement are important to deter and, if necessary, respond to threats. A robust command and control structure have been established for making and running the nuclear program of country smoothly. Nuclear terrorism is a global threat and must be limited to the boundaries of South Asia. USA nuclear arsenals have found to be more at stake. Pakistan being non signatory to NPT have best done its efforts in order to prevent the chances of illegal proliferation of nuclear technology or material. While examining the overall evolution of nuclear safety and security system in Pakistan shows that the country is not standing still on what it has achieved in the field of safeguarding its assets and capabilities. There is a constant process of reviewing all aspects of controls with a view of improving them continually.

  2. A number of obstacles to bilateral cooperation are inherent in India-Pakistan relations. The major hindrance, now, is calling of foreign secretary level talks. But your approach is principled. Irrespective of their differences, both should share an interest in ensuring that
    non-state actors do not gain access to nuclear technology and materials for malicious purposes.
    Cooperation can be bilateral or multilateral with the help of US. And secondly, setting a limit of numbers of nuclear weapons should be given priority. As long as the nuclear weapons continue
    to exist in large numbers, the availability of materials will be high, eroding peace efforts.

  3. Muhammad:
    Well done.
    Two trends seem to me to be undeniable: One, that the guardians of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal have made great strides since the SPD was stood up in 2000. Two, that domestic cohesion and security within Pakistan have worsened during this time frame. Since any type of security system is nested within the society as a whole, it’s fair to conclude, at least in my view, that there will be challenges ahead.

  4. your approach looks very balanced and critical to the current situation. You have made your point clear and comprehensive as well. The area of suggested cooperation is a unique idea wwhich both countries can do for peace full future.

  5. Michael Krepon,
    Thanks for the note. I would endorse to your conclusion at this point of time. The internal challenges are on radar of security establishment and new political leadership as well. Also, it has caused constant unrest in minds and hearts of general public. Therefore, the choice concerned quarters are left with is to fix it at priority, to avoid catastrophe in future.
    Best Regards,

  6. Its a good bottom line.
    “…This kind of collaboration may appear as a utopian idea, but any joint mechanism may lead to constructive and uninterrupted cooperation against common threats. ”
    Being Pakistani, I believe that India and Pakistan need to go a long way together. You surely have presented a good picture of the situation. Recently, in the last two to three years, the nuclear weapons have been made more secure by both countries especially by Pakistan, and special soldiers are trained for this etc.
    Mr. Muhammad Jawad Hashmi, your style of writeup is really good. Surely Its the right of every nation to know about the working of their National Institutes. I am myself a Lecturer in University. I admire your effort, keep it up. This website has excellent motive.

  7. Dear Ravi,

    Thanks for your valuable comments. I really appreciate that you endorsed the bottom line idea of cooperation for peace. We have to acknowledge the very fact that cooperation and negotiations will bring the ultimate peaceful in the region not arms and wars.

    Best Regards,

  8. well done shah ji, i think the prp equation conceived and executed in pakistan leaves very little to be exploited by the terrorists. the stand alone examples quoted in the article do not make a solid case against pakistan albeit they must put the keepers of nuclear infrastructure on guard. the potential intentional handling of nukes by nonstate actors pose an unknown danger, but the unintentional mishandling of the atomic weapons and components thereof constitute even a bigger threat. even the country claiming the possession of fool-proof nuclear safety mechanism finds the nuke-tipped missile being shipped wrongly to a wrong destination. but at the end you rightly pointed out that India and Pakistan being accident prone in conventional spheres ought to be more cautious in handling their nuclear arsenal.

  9. Dear Jawad
    I am very happy to read your courteous reply. I hope to read that you will become voice of learned people of Pakistan.
    Good Luck and Lot of Good wishes.

  10. Pakistan and India are two key players which are energetically involve for their influential roles in Afghanistan’s power contest. This is obligatory for them to develop and maintain their official relations not only with Afghanistan government but also with USA as only through this way they can acquire their regional interests. There are some other important aspects which make the Indo-Pak’s role genuinely vital in this regional power contest than other states. The first and foremost reason is that both countries possess the status of nuclear power in South Asia. Their rivalry is so old and deep rooted that there is possibility that any shocking incident between them may transform the condition into a nuclear war if they pursue the policy to destabilize each other through any fair or unfair means.

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