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March 22, 2010 |  Print  Your Opinion  

Improving India's Nuclear Standing

Manasi Kulkarni-Kakatkar: India’s nuclear relations with world’s big powers have caused a great deal of friction. Next month’s Nuclear Security Summit is a chance for India to show its commitment to non-proliferation and to be a leader of setting up mechanisms for securing nuclear materials.


In about a month's time, more than 40 world leaders will meet in Washington to discuss ways to prevent nuclear terrorism. The 'Nuclear Security Summit' will attempt to effectively secure all vulnerable nuclear material within the next four years. As a nuclear weapons country flanked by acrimonious nuclear armed neighbors, and vulnerable to terrorist attacks, India has a big stake in protecting nuclear materials and facilities.

Since the beginning of its nuclear program, India's nuclear relations with the world's big nuclear powers were marked by tensions and suspicion. The Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) was formulated partly in response to India's first nuclear test in 1974. The nuclear powers of the time such as the United States imposed severe sanctions and nuclear trade restrictions on India. Until recently, all dual-use technology trade was prohibited. It is only after securing a Nuclear Suppliers' Group (NSG) waiver for nuclear trade in 2008 and civil nuclear treaties with the United States and European Union (EU) among others, that India is being accepted as a responsible nuclear power.

Taking Initiative

The upcoming Nuclear Security Summit in April would be a chance for India's nuclear policy makers to further demonstrate India's commitment to nuclear security, disarmament and peaceful use. India should take steps to delink itself from proliferating nuclear countries like Pakistan, and stress its own non-proliferation record. India should contribute constructively and take initiative in creating an efficient mechanism for securing nuclear materials, instead of letting it be dictated by the interests of the bigger powers. Unlike the Copenhagen Summit where India towed the Chinese line and committed to standards potentially detrimental to its development goals, it should ensure that any security measures adopted at the Summit do not compromise India's nuclear program.

At the same time it should not overlook its commitment to the non-proliferation regime. In spite of strained relations with Pakistan, it is in India's interests to stress upon and work collectively with the US and European nations to ensure the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons. Insufficient security at nuclear facilities and the associated possibility of thefts and accidents at such places is a major concern in countries like Pakistan, North Korea and Iran. The A.Q Khan network and acquisition of nuclear weapons by North Korea shows how relatively easy it is for people with access to proliferate nuclear technology and material. The possibility of such persons being associated with terrorists cannot be ruled out. While it is a contentious and sensitive matter, the consequences of neglecting the problem of Pakistan's nuclear weapons could be disastrous. As its immediate neighbor and arch enemy, such stolen nuclear material could very easily be used against India. Any indication of Pakistani involvement in such an attack could prove to be a trigger for nuclear upheaval and confrontation on the subcontinent. India should seize upon heightened US interest in the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons to ensure its own security.

Increasing Accountability and Transparency

But, it is not only large-scale theft of enriched uranium or other nuclear materials and weapons that are a problem. Smaller incidents that could slip our collective memory also need to be considered at the summit. There have been incidents of radioactive contamination in drinking water at an atomic research center, and fire and theft of low-grade uranium in India in the recent past. These incidents were dismissed as 'internal mischief' or one-off incidents by the concerned authorities. While security measures at Indian atomic research centers and nuclear facilities are tight, it is necessary to make them foolproof. Even minor incidents like contamination or fire have to be prevented. Through the forum of the Nuclear Security Summit, the global community should take steps to increase accountability at domestic and international levels. Countries with peaceful as well as weapons programs should ensure that they provide complete and satisfactory explanation for even the smallest of incidents at their installations. Proper information would keep away unnecessary suspicions and tensions regarding nuclear security at bay.

India for its part needs to change the culture of poor accountability to the people and Parliament under the pretext of 'national security'. It is also the people's responsibility to demand answers instead of being satisfied by any feeble explanation provided by the authorities. Not only is it essential for their own safety and security, but also to ensure that in an increasingly insecure environment India does not inadvertently become an indirect proliferator. The government has to appreciate that people have a right to know the level and kind of security preparedness at atomic installations in the country. The support of an informed citizenry will only make the Indian nuclear program stronger in the long-run.

India's nuclear standing vis-à-vis the United States and Europe has changed from one of suspicion to trust. It is time for India to work together and further nurture these relationships with its new nuclear trade partners, while making its presence felt at the Nuclear Security Summit.

Manasi Kulkarni received her degree in International Security and Economic Policy from the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy and interned with the Arms Control Association, Washington, D.C. She currently blogs about India for the Foreign Policy Association.

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