Indian authorities detained seven persons on June 4, 2021, and confiscated 6.4 kg of uranium that the accused were attempting to sell on the underground market. On May 5, 2021, Indian police detained two guys who were attempting to sell 7 kg of uranium in a similar incident. These two incidents, coming so close together, raise serious concerns about India’s nuclear security credentials, as well as the possibility of a thriving nuclear black market within the country, which could be exploited by some state or non-state actors to obtain material that, once enriched, could be used to make nuclear bombs.
Natural uranium cannot be used to make bombs, but it might produce substantial radiation and endanger human life if combined with conventional explosives by non-state actors. A number of events imply that there is tremendous supply and demand, with consumers willing to pay up to 3 crore Indian rupees for a kilogram of uranium. There’s also a chance that substantial amounts of uranium have been smuggled out of India’s Jharkhand mines and sold on the black market, which, if purchased by a nuclear weapons state, could be used to make bombs.
Although the alleged smugglers in the latest event were transporting uranium in leather pouches with “Made in USA” seals, it is more likely that the material was obtained from a uranium reprocessing facility in Jaduguda, where Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) works.
The recent event has been described as “a subject of serious concern” by a spokeswoman for Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as it demonstrates India’s “weak controls, weak regulatory and enforcement procedures.” India is a signatory to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM), which mandates the security of all nuclear installations and materials.
Under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, all member states are required to strengthen their security measures and ensure that equipment and material that could be used in weapons of mass destruction (WMD) does not fall into the hands of non-state actors. UN Security Council Resolution 1540 was passed in 2004. Both of these legal responsibilities have been broken in recent nuclear smuggling episodes, exposing severe flaws in India’s nuclear security infrastructure.
All states are required by UNSCR 1540 to draught laws and establish implementation mechanisms to deal with nuclear theft-related incidents; however, the recent arrests were made on charges of concealing and disposing of stolen property, which is in direct contradiction to India’s UNSCR 1540 obligation.
Nuclear material theft and smuggling occurrences are reported to the IAEA’s Incident and Trafficking Database (ITDB), which is shared with member states so they can learn from them and enhance their nuclear security infrastructures. Since there has been no great alarm from the world community about the increased frequency of nuclear theft in India, it is unclear whether India had previously shared such information with the ITDB.
The two nuclear proliferation episodes that occurred within a month emphasize the hazards posed by nuclear illicit markets, which continue to grow due to existing demand and willing providers. If these tendencies are not countered by holding governments accountable for failing to satisfy their national and international duties, the international nuclear security architecture as a whole may be jeopardized.