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Seizing the Moment: Using the U.S.-Indian Nuclear Deal To Improve Fissile Material Security
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Kenneth N. Luongo and Isabelle Williams

The July 2005 agreement that could result in the United States sharing civilian nuclear technology with India has raised many legitimate questions about the future of the nuclear nonproliferation regime. The intense debate about the potential negative effects of the agreement, however, has blinded many to the opening that it has created to bolster nuclear material security in South Asia.

The agreement, if handled correctly, can create the conditions for engaging India and Pakistan in a new and constructive dialogue aimed at significantly strengthening the protection of their fissile material and nuclear facilities.

Given the unprecedented nature of this agreement and the dramatic change it would represent in U.S. nonproliferation policy, the ideal trade-off for congressional approval would be a complete cutoff of fissile material production in South Asia. However, there is robust opposition in India and Pakistan to a cutoff at this time. Therefore, a necessary and achievable alternative is to mandate that India engage in a serious dialogue about improving fissile material and facility security.

Requiring a discussion of security improvements and successfully implementing them would likely prove to be a touchy issue in New Delhi. Both the Bush administration and the Indian government have called for congressional approval of this agreement without conditions. Yet, given the post-September 11 importance of achieving the highest levels of fissile material security, it would be difficult for any responsible nuclear state to deny such a request, especially if it were handled in a way that minimized Indian domestic sensitivities.

If India, which is very clear about proclaiming itself as a responsible nuclear power, accepted the idea, it would join Pakistan, which has already begun a quiet dialogue with the United States on nuclear security improvements. The two sets of discussions could then potentially move in parallel and at a rapid pace. The confirmation of the actual security improvements would represent a concrete step forward in South Asian nuclear security and thereby balance out some of the troublesome security implications of the U.S.-Indian nuclear pact.

Procedurally, such a nuclear security dialogue could be mandated by the attachment of a condition to any legislation approving the agreement or be proposed as a precondition to approval of the agreement or its full implementation. There is a precedent for such a requirement. Conditions were imposed on the U.S.-Chinese nuclear cooperation agreement and implementation was delayed for almost 13 years while China made progress toward meeting them.

This initiative could be undertaken by the United States, other advanced nuclear states in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), or through the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), but the method is less important than the end result. If the U.S.-Indian agreement is approved by Congress and backed by the NSG without a serious attempt having been made to intensify cooperation with India and Pakistan on nuclear protection beyond the IAEA safeguards contemplated under the agreement or currently in place, it would amount to an enormous missed opportunity to improve global security.

Proliferation Concerns

The terrorist attacks of September 11 and the subsequent U.S.-led anti-terrorism campaigns have heightened concerns regarding the active presence of jihadi groups operating in the South Asian region and in particular about extremist movements in Pakistan. One of the key drivers for engaging India and Pakistan on nuclear security issues is to prevent such terrorists from acquiring nuclear materials. In addition, the uncovering of the Abdul Qadeer Khan nuclear black market network demonstrated the nuclear proliferation risks that can arise when nuclear security standards are lax. Effective domestic control over nuclear materials is the first line of defense against threats both to domestic security and the use of fissile materials against foreign targets. For this reason, nuclear security is in the vested interest of all countries.

Pakistan has been described as “the most crucial node of the nexus of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction proliferation.”[1] The uncovering of Khan’s nuclear network demonstrated significant weaknesses in the security culture within Pakistan’s nuclear establishment. There are fears that an insider at a nuclear facility will attempt to sell technology or material that will end up in the hands of a state or nonstate actor. It has also been suggested that a coup could topple Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf and result in the loss of central control over nuclear storage facilities, leaving some or all of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons vulnerable to theft by terrorists or in the hands of extremist groups.[2]

There are fewer concerns regarding India’s nuclear program because India has not been the breeding ground for global terrorists, nor has it been the scene of any major nuclear proliferation on the scale of Khan’s operations. However, there are a number of sustained terrorism campaigns operating within India, and there have been sporadic terrorist attacks in zones of high-level military security in India, including the 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian parliament.

Moreover, although no group has attempted to sabotage or enter a nuclear facility, there has been at least one explicit threat by a terrorist group to target nuclear facilities.[3] Reports of thefts of sensitive materials in India have fueled such concerns. For example, in July 1998 the Central Bureau of Investigation seized more than eight kilograms of natural uranium stolen from the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR) in Chennai.[4] A retired scientist could also possibly be persuaded to assist a state’s or nonstate actor’s quest for nuclear materials or weapons. Concerns have also been raised about illicit nuclear equipment purchases, sensitive knowledge leakages, and lax export control implementation by India.

Domestic and International Security Efforts

Both India and Pakistan assert that they understand the importance of nuclear security. Officials from each country have stressed in public that necessary steps have been taken to strengthen security standards and that their nuclear programs are adequately secure, including domestic, bilateral, and international steps.

Pakistan has undertaken an extensive reorganization of the departments responsible for its nuclear programs. The Strategic Plans Division was created in 2000 to oversee the nuclear establishment and is currently establishing a permanent dedicated security force for nuclear facilities. Other domestic measures implemented in Pakistan to enhance security include:

• introducing domestic legislation to tighten controls on nuclear related exports,

• improving physical security at sensitive facilities,

• strengthening the personnel reliability system,

• relocating nuclear materials and weapons to more secure locations, and

• removing individuals involved in the nuclear black market from their posts within the nuclear establishment.[5]

There are few details regarding security standards in place in India, but the oversight infrastructure of the civilian and military nuclear programs in India appear to be well developed. It is generally believed that different levels of security are in place, depending on the sensitivity of materials, including fencing and sensors. Physical barriers installed at nuclear facilities deny access to sensitive areas, and access control is maintained over personnel working in them.[6]

The two countries are also currently involved in bilateral discussions, which include nuclear threat reduction measures. They also have demonstrated an interest in joining the NSG; have signed or acceded to regional cooperative agreements containing disarmament components; and have participated in IAEA nuclear safety and security training courses.[7]

Both countries are also required to provide the highest standards of security for fissile material under UN Resolution 1540 and as members of the Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials. However, the resolution is not a substitute for concrete action, and the convention’s standard by itself may not prove sufficient because it does not require full-scale performance testing and does not delineate internal security procedures.

Framework for Cooperation

Although India and Pakistan have improved their nuclear security standards, they have done so on a measured path and under their own terms. They have provided no concrete evidence to the international community to support claims that their programs are invulnerable or that no improvements can be made or are needed. Because of the high international stakes involved if materials and expertise are not secured properly, more substantive cooperation is essential to ensure standards are as stringent as possible.

At the top governmental level in India and Pakistan, however, there are likely to be a number of obstacles to engaging in this very delicate dialogue, including political sensitivities, different threat perceptions, and bureaucracy. Future efforts will therefore need to be carefully packaged and executed and will require a higher priority on the political agenda.

Both countries are reluctant to allow external access to their nuclear programs and are suspicious about intrusive cooperation with the IAEA or the United States. National sovereignty over nuclear programs is a high priority in both countries, and they are unlikely to accept any initiative that advocates maximum transparency. This includes providing information relating to numbers, types, or locations of assets. Discussions would have to be conducted quietly as there is concern that acceptance of outside security assistance will be seen as undermining national plans and could have domestic political ramifications.[8] The media in each country has already accused their governments of “selling out” the country’s nuclear assets to the United States.

Scope of Cooperation

Therefore, it is essential that any dialogue on cooperation focus on ways to encourage India and Pakistan to become more transparent about their nuclear security procedures while remaining sensitive to political concerns and international nonproliferation commitments. Neither country would accept a donor-recipient relationship in this area with the United States or other states similar to the one that has developed between the United States and the other Group of Eight (G-8) nations as part of the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program and the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction. Under these efforts, as much as $2 billion per year is spent to secure fissile materials and other nuclear assets, destroy excess chemical weapons and nuclear-weapon launchers, and to redirect weapon scientists to peaceful pursuits.

Unlike Russia, it is very unlikely that either India or Pakistan would allow U.S. officials or laboratory specialists into its nuclear facilities to implement security upgrades. Also, financial resources are not likely to be a major issue. Nor are they likely to include dismantling the nuclear military establishment, closing down facilities, or blending down fissile materials.

It would be more productive to address specific threats faced in the region and look for ways to reduce them in a manner that respects the needs and sensitivities of the region.[9] Cooperation should focus on opening dialogue on a possible “menu” of low-intrusive tools that could be adopted and implemented unilaterally by either country at facilities across the board, both civilian and military. The goal would be to enhance and upgrade existing security procedures and provide an adjunct to IAEA safeguards at facilities where they existed or are proposed.

Possible tools that could be considered would include training programs, exchanges of best practices, and steps to strengthen the security culture in all nuclear-related institutions. Organizational links, such as lab-to-lab relations and scientific exchanges, could also be explored. Dialogue might need to begin by addressing the outsider threat (guard training, fences, cameras, equipment, etc.) because the insider threat is more sensitive and touches on broader internal issues that will be more difficult to address without a certain level of trust. It may also be possible to provide uncontroversial and nonintrusive up-to-date technology that is not nuclear specific, including surveillance monitoring and physical access controls.

Other areas that could be included in the menu include:

  • ensuring personnel reliability systems are as up to date and efficient as possible;

  • updating physical security standards at all nuclear facilities and for weapons, weapon components, and materials, including barriers and perimeters, surveillance, and access control techniques;

  • strengthening the security of radioactive material held by nonstate agencies;

  • ensuring effective planning for dealing with emergencies and response procedures;

  • ensuring effective control and accounting for weapons, weapon components, and materials;

  • reviewing the most likely threats and designing protection that ensures a high level of security; and

  • discussing stringent export control law implementation.
  • Partners in Cooperation

    There are several nonintrusive and uncontroversial approaches that could be adopted to engage with India and Pakistan more deeply on nuclear security upgrades. These include bilateral discussions with the United States or other advanced nuclear states or the use of programs within the IAEA.


    At this stage, the preferable route for engagement might be initiating off-the-record bilateral negotiations with the United States to share best practices on security procedures. The United States has developed and strengthened its relations with each country in recent years and has extensive experience in implementing and evaluating nuclear security both domestically and internationally through a variety of programs.

    The United States and Pakistan initiated a bilateral dialogue on improving nuclear security in the wake of an October 2001 visit by Secretary of State Colin Powell. The results of the discussions have been very closely held, but they have been described by knowledgeable experts as nonintrusive and nonsensitive expert-level discussions. The scope reportedly includes export and commodity controls, personnel reliability programs, nuclear material protection, control and accounting, transportation security, knowledge exchanges, and training. One knowledgeable Pakistani official has described the progress under this dialogue as being substantial. Others have indicated that the scope of the talks may be even greater and extend to discussions on installing new safeguards on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants.[10]

    Although this is a positive step toward bolstering nuclear security in Pakistan, such dialogue must receive sustained, high-level political attention from both parties and must show concrete results. The United States and Pakistan should have clearly stipulated goals for short- and long-term progress and ensure that any upgrades can be confirmed, taking into account the need to maintain discretion for political and other purposes. The same set of circumstances would apply to cooperation with India as well.


    The IAEA is also an important potential avenue for short- and long-term nuclear cooperation in South Asia. India and Pakistan are members of the IAEA, and the IAEA has already made a number of contributions to their nuclear security efforts. It might be difficult to involve the IAEA further because of the sensitivities that exist in both countries because they are not signatories to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

    It is important for India and Pakistan to remember that while the IAEA plays an important role in verifying the implementation of the NPT, the IAEA is more than just an extension of the NPT. The IAEA was created by a statute more than a decade before the existence of the NPT. Further, the statute states that any country can request the agency to apply safeguards to their nuclear activities, as the IAEA has already done on four Indian nuclear reactors and four Pakistani nuclear reactors. The IAEA statute therefore provides a potentially useful tool for further cooperation in South Asia.

    There are no specific requirements in the statute relating to nuclear security, but the IAEA does have funds available for a number of ways to collaborate and work with different countries. These include providing security expertise through training programs, technical cooperation, and fact-finding missions.

    India and Pakistan could also request assistance from the IAEA with nuclear security under the International Physical Protection Advisory Service (IPPAS). The key goal of IPPAS is to assist countries to secure their nuclear materials and facilities by dispatching teams of international experts who will examine and offer suggestions on how to improve the countries’ security standards. Neither India nor Pakistan appears to have taken advantage of this service to date.

    The international community could also press for further participation from India and Pakistan in the international nonproliferation regime. For example, India and Pakistan could announce that they would behave in conformance with the key articles of the NPT without actually being recognized as nuclear-weapon states or signing the treaty. This would serve as recognition that the NPT remains the principal framework for nonproliferation and place India and Pakistan closer to the international nuclear mainstream.[11]


    The U.S.-Indian nuclear cooperation agreement has raised important nonproliferation questions and the hackles of many nonproliferation specialists because it proposes to alter the status quo dramatically. Although the world faces many important nuclear proliferation challenges at present, the chief nonproliferation objective in the current environment is assuring the highest level of nuclear material security globally. India and Pakistan, two countries with extensive and growing fissile material stockpiles, now are largely outside the scope of international security standards, and their own nuclear material security practices are opaque.

    Unfortunately, the agreement does not include any conditions for India to strengthen its nuclear security standards beyond introducing IAEA safeguards on a limited number of declared civilian facilities. As the IAEA itself acknowledges, safeguards provide only a firewall against nuclear terrorism, and it is the responsibility of states to ensure the adequacy of their fissile material safety. This should include all locations where fissile material may be stored, including non-IAEA-safeguarded civilian and military facilities.

    Therefore, an opportunity exists for Congress to work in concert with the administration and other international partners to shore up the agreement by requiring a dialogue that can concretely improve fissile material security in South Asia. Approval of the agreement without this adjunct dialogue and its concrete outcomes will result in a missed opportunity for the United States and for global security.

    All countries that possess an active nuclear program have a responsibility, domestically and internationally, to ensure that the highest effective nuclear security standards are in place. India and Pakistan are pressing their claims to be treated as responsible nuclear states. Therefore, they should embrace this mandate of providing greater confidence that they have demonstrably maximized the security of all of their nuclear infrastructure.


    Kenneth N. Luongo is executive director of the Russian-American Nuclear Security Advisory Council (RANSAC) and Isabelle Williams is a consultant at RANSAC’s Globalizing Threat Reduction Project. RANSAC is an independent, nongovernmental organization dedicated to the effective control and elimination of weapons of mass destruction.


    Nuclear Security in India and Pakistan

    Kenneth N. Luongo and Isabelle Williams

    One of the major arguments against the U.S.-Indian nuclear cooperation agreement is the belief that it will allow for continued growth of fissile material stockpiles in South Asia. These stockpiles do not approach the size of those in the United States and Russia, for example, but they are significant and uncapped. By contrast, the United States and Russia have stopped producing fissile materials for weapons.


    Knowledge of India’s nuclear material and weapon stockpiles is based on expert estimates; likewise its fissile material and facility security practices are opaque. Current estimates claim that India possesses 300-470 kilograms of plutonium,[1] sufficient to produce up to 120 nuclear weapons, and a smaller amount of highly enriched uranium (HEU). India’s nuclear weapons are thought to be stored as separate components.

    India has a more extensive civilian nuclear program than Pakistan and has plans to quintuple nuclear energy production over the next 15 years. India currently has 15 operating nuclear power reactors, seven more under construction, and several others planned. This growth is driven in part by India’s economic expansion and subsequent growth in energy needs.[2]

    Four of these reactors currently operate under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. In addition, the Tarapur plutonium reprocessing facility is safeguarded when safeguarded fuel is being processed, and the Tarapur mixed-oxide fuel-fabrication plant has safeguards when safeguarded material is being used. The Hyderabad fuel-fabrication plant has partial safeguards. Key nuclear weapons-related facilities not subject to IAEA inspections include Bhabha Atomic Research Center, which houses the Cirus and Dhruva research reactors for plutonium production, plutonium reprocessing plants, and a pilot-scale uranium-enrichment plant.[3] These sites, as well as storage sites for weapons-grade material or for weapons themselves, could be attractive targets for terrorists seeking nuclear materials because they contain weapons-usable material.[4]


    The extent of Pakistan’s nuclear-weapon components and materials are also not known in detail. Current estimates claim that Pakistan possesses 1,200-1,250 kilograms of HEU, sufficient to produce between 55 and 90 nuclear weapons, and 20-60 kilograms of plutonium.[5] Pakistan is reported to have several nuclear weapons storage facilities. Nuclear weapons are believed to be stored either in component form, with the fissile core separated from the non-nuclear explosives, or as weapons mounted on a delivery vehicle, with the fissile core stored separately.[6]

    Four of Pakistan’s nuclear facilities currently operate under IAEA safeguards: the Karachi and Chasma-1 power reactors and the Pakistan Atomic Research Reactors I and II in Rawalpindi. Several key nuclear weapons-related facilities are not subject to IAEA inspections. One is the Khan Research Laboratory, which is where weapons-grade uranium is fabricated into weapons. Other uranium-related facilities not under safeguards are the enrichment facilities at Golra, Sihala, and Gadwal. Plutonium-related facilities not subject to safeguards include the Khushab research reactor, which is estimated to generate about 50 megawatts of power, sufficient to produce the plutonium necessary for a few nuclear weapons per year, and New Laboratories, a plutonium reprocessing plant.[7]

    Jihadi groups and religious fundamentalists in Pakistan are a significant cause of concern. A number of al Qaeda operatives have taken refuge in the adjoining border between Afghanistan and northwestern provinces of Pakistan. Al Qaeda has claimed to have an interest in acquiring nuclear materials. There also is a growing level of terrorist activity within Pakistan, including assassination attempts on Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who plays a critical role in assuring Pakistan’s indigenous nuclear security.


    1. David Albright and Kimberly Kramer, “Fissile Materials: Stockpiles Still Growing,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, November/December 2004.

    2. Department of Atomic Energy, Government of India, “Nuclear Power in India.”

    3. Joseph Cirincione with Jon B. Wolfsthal and Miriam Rajkumar, Deadly Arsenals: Tracking Weapons of Mass Destruction, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2002.

    4. Sharon Squassoni, “Nuclear Threat Reduction Measures for India and Pakistan,” Congressional Research Service, May 5, 2003.

    5. Albright and Kramer, “Fissile Materials.”

    6. David Albright, “Securing Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons Complex,” Paper for the 42nd Strategy for Peace Conference, Strategies for Regional Security, October 25-27, 2001.

    7. Cirincione with Wolfsthal and Rajkumar, Deadly Arsenals.





    1. Sharon Squassoni, “Nuclear Threat Reduction Measures for India and Pakistan,” Congressional Research Service, May 5, 2003.

    2. David Albright, “Securing Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons Complex,” Paper for the 42nd Strategy for Peace Conference, Strategies for Regional Security, October 25-27, 2001.

    3. On September 12, 2001, Sheikh Jamil-ur-Rehman, leader of the Tehrik-ul-Mujahideen, a terrorist group active in Kashmir, vowed to attack nuclear facilities in India.

    4. Rajesh Basrur and Friedrich Steinhausler, “Nuclear and Radiological Terrorism Threats for India: Risk Potential and Countermeasures,” The Journal of Physical Security Vol. 1, No. 1 (2004).

    5. Muhammad Afzal, “Cooperation in Fissile Material Management: The View From Pakistan,” Paper submitted to the Institute for Nuclear Materials Management Annual Meeting, July 12, 2005; Major General Mahmoud Ali Durrani (Ret.), “Pakistan’s Strategic Thinking and the Role of Nuclear Weapons,” Cooperative Monitoring Center Occasional Paper No. 37, July 2004.

    6. P. R. Chari, “Protection of Fissile Materials: The Indian Experience,” ACDIS Occasional Paper, September 1998.

    7. Pakistan participated in an IAEA safety workshop held in Islamabad and an IAEA-sponsored physical protection training course at Sandia in 2002. In 2002, India requested a regional workshop on physical protection, and India was one of several states in which the IAEA conducted physical protection-related seminars in 2003.

    8. Afzal, “Cooperation in Fissile Material Management.”

    9. Ramamurti Rajaraman, “Cooperative Threat Reduction: Is There Scope for Extension to South Asia,” Landau Network Centro Volta Workshop on South Asia Discussion Paper 1, September 27, 2004.

    10. K. Alan Kronsdadt, “Pakistan-U.S. Relations,” Congressional Research Service, October 8, 2004; Charles D. Ferguson, “Preventing Catastrophic Nuclear Terrorism,” CSR No. 11, March 2006.

    11. Thomas E. Shea and Danielle J. Peterson, “Global Best Practices for Nuclear Materials Management: Perspectives on South Asia,” Paper submitted to the Institute for Nuclear Materials Management Annual Meeting, July 12, 2005.


    Posted: May 1, 2006