Spurning U.S. offers of help
Since Nov. 30, 2001, when the CIA began investigating rumors that Al Qaeda was trying to obtain nuclear materials or finished weapons to be used against the West, the U.S. government has campaigned around the globe — sometimes unsuccessfully — for heightened vigilance in India and other countries with substantial stockpiles of explosive materials.
According to the International Panel on Fissile Materials, an independent, nonprofit group, India’s stockpile of about 2.4 metric tons of highly-enriched (weapons-usable) uranium puts it at fifth place among all nations, and its stock of approximately 0.54 metric tons of separated (weapons-usable) plutonium puts it at ninth place. But its security practices put it even higher on the list of Western anxieties.
The Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit group in Washington, reported last year for example that India’s nuclear security practices ranked 23rd among 25 countries that possess at least a bomb’s-worth of fissile materials. Only Iran and North Korea fared worse in the analysis, which noted that India’s stockpiles are growing and said the country’s nuclear regulator lacked independence from political interference and adequate authority.
It said the risks stemmed in part from India’s culture of widespread corruption — which helped force the nation’s ruling Congress party from power in May 2014 — as well as its general political instability. “Weaknesses are particularly apparent in the areas of transport security, material control, and accounting, and measures to protect against the insider threat, such as personnel vetting and mandatory reporting of suspicious behavior,” the group’s report stated.
But India has rebuffed repeated offers of U.S. help. Gary Samore, President Obama’s coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction from 2009 to 2013, said that at preparatory meetings for international summits on nuclear security in 2010 and 2012, “we kept offering to create a joint security project [with India] consisting of assistance of any and every kind. And every time they would say, to my face, that this was a wonderful idea and they should grasp the opportunity. And then, when they returned to India, we would never hear about it again.”
India also refused to collaborate with the Nuclear Threat Initiative project by sharing or confirming information about its practices, unlike 17 of the other 24 countries in the study. They responded ferociously to its conclusions, according to a researcher connected to the project, who was not sanctioned to talk about it. Officials at the Indian Atomic Energy Commission verbally attacked Ted Turner and Sam Nunn, the NTI’s founders, in conversations with Indian journalists, the researcher said.
In countries such as India that are resistant to hearing direct U.S. advice, the Obama administration has tried what an official referred to as a “work-around” — the creation of training centers around the globe where Western experts working in collaboration with the International Atomic Energy Agency can encourage better safeguards. Twenty-three such centers, deliberately named Nuclear Security Centers of Excellence in a bid to get local buy-in, have been created so far.
The Indians “are happy to be in a place to have a conversation about nuclear security that is not judgmental,” a senior Energy Department official said, explaining the concept behind placing such a center in India.
But internal U.S. government cables asserted several years ago that while India initially seemed to embrace the idea, it eventually rejected it, to Washington’s surprise. In a Feb. 22, 2010, cable disclosed later by Wikileaks, then-U.S. ambassador Timothy Roemer said that instead of focusing on nuclear security, India finally decided to set up “a research and development center dedicated to the world-wide deployment of [nuclear reactor] technologies” that the country likes, but experts in Washington consider dangerous on grounds that they could contribute to the use and spread of nuclear-explosive materials.
The center “would be an Indian government body, staffed by the [Department of Atomic Energy], whose primary focus was research and development” on new reactors, Roemer wrote. This approach “did not fully meet the U.S. vision,” he added. India subsequently renamed the facility its Global Centre for Nuclear Energy Partnership, and it began limited operations this year with closed workshops on the physical protection of nuclear materials and facilities scheduled alongside nuclear advocacy seminars entitled “Splitting Atoms for Prosperity” and “Atoms for Progress.”
Despite the celebration of close U.S.-Indian ties during President Obama’s visit to Delhi in January, “there is still no deep technical relationship” between the two countries on nuclear security issues, a White House official conceded in a recent interview, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We only hope that this will slowly change.”
At the moment, India is seeking three favors from Washington: It wants U.S. help to gain membership in the Missile Technology Control Regime, an international forum meant to limit the spread of nuclear-tipped missiles, which would give it access to certain otherwise restricted foreign space-launch technologies. And it wants to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group, composed of nations that agree to respect nonproliferation rules when they trade in nuclear-related technologies. Both ambitions reflect India’s desire to be accorded the status of a major world power, U.S. experts say.
It also wants to acquire U.S. defense technologies by co-producing weapons systems in India with key Pentagon contractors – an issue discussed between Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Indian defense minister Manohar Parrikar during the minister’s weeklong visit to Washington beginning on Dec. 4.
But the Obama administration decided not to use these issues as leverage to force better security measures for nuclear explosives, the senior U.S. official said, because of its judgment that doing so would only prompt India to walk away.
A former senior U.S. nonproliferation official said this was a mistake. Washington, he said on condition of not being named, “has allowed itself to be put into the position of not wanting to displease India for fear of putting things off-track” in its new, warming relationship, and it has wrongly “allowed the Indians to wall off things they are not interested in talking about” while its ties to the United States grow.
An official in Britain’s Foreign Office, who also spoke on condition he not be named, expressed a more jaundiced view of this reluctance to press Delhi harder.
“Nothing can be allowed to get in the way of investment in the capacious Indian market,” the British official said, describing the current American mindset. “India has effectively bought itself breathing space, over a lot of concerning issues, especially nuclear security, by opening itself up for the first time to significant trades with the U.S. and Europe.” The financial gains, he said, are “eye-watering.”
According to the U.S. Commerce Department, trade with India grew from $19 billion in 2000 to more than $100 billion in 2014. U.S. exports exceeded $38 billion — including substantial new U.S. arms shipments — supporting 181,000 U.S. jobs. Indian direct investment in the United States totaled $7.8 billion while U.S. investments reached $28 billion.
Washington, the British official explained, does not wish to provoke a spat over nuclear security simply because doing so could threaten this lucrative trade, which benefits many U.S. companies.
This is part four of a four-part series about india's civil and military nuclear program, co-published with the Huffington Post worldwide and Foreign Policy magazine in Washington, D.C. The other articles can be found here: https://www.publicintegrity.org/national-security/nuclear-waste
R. Jeffrey Smith reported from Washington, D.C., and California. Adrian Levy is is an investigative reporter and filmmaker whose work has appeared in the Guardian, The Observer, The Sunday Times, and other publications. His most recent books are: The Meadow, about a 1995 terrorist kidnapping of Westerners in Kashmir, and The Siege: The Attack on the Taj, about the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai. He reported from India and the United Kingdom.