Nuclear Threats in South Asia: The Confrontational Dynamics

Intermediate-range ballistic missile AGNI-IV being shown to the public at the Republic Day parade in New Delh, India on 26 January 2016 I Image: AFP


India is not a signatory to the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), but it should not be perceived that India is not working to attain an effective mechanism to check nuclear proliferation in South Asia. The article attempts to critically analyze and evolve through research, potent suggestive measures to deal with the plaguing menace of persistently prevailing nuclear threat in the region.  In principle, India is in complete abidance to the soul of NPT guidelines. The proof is conspicuous by its rigorous adherence to the commitment of nuclear disarmament and non-transfer of nuclear technology to non-nuclear power countries. The paper further discusses recommendations to support the ‘as is’ status and  galvanizes India’s ardent pledge for non-proliferation to rope-in a robust nuclear security mechanism in the region. The comprehensive tool like ‘Design Basis Threat’, development of ‘White Paper’ on nuclear security and safety issue, nuclear forensic science, ‘insider threat’, cyber security, application of technological innovations for prevention of bio terrorism and personal reliability program are some of the areas where analytical study delves and suggestions are made.

Keywords: India, Nuclear threat, Weapons of mass destruction, Pakistan, South Asia

Proximity to the Nuclear Threats

The protection and security of nuclear and radioactive substances became a crucial matter for  international organizations and world policymakers after the end of the Cold War where the world had a narrow escape from World War III in the form of the Cuban Missile Crisis. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 the risk of nuclear theft, sabotage, and dissemination of nuclear technology to the wrong ends, all these crucially became the matter of severe concern with a parallel growth of terrorism. It will continue to remain so, as the haste to acquire atomic power is rising among non-state actors.

The race to acquire the fission and fusion apocalyptic power is rising among  terrorist organizations and unruly states in an irrepressible manner. The world is undesirably entering an era of mass massacre terrorism, faster than we can imagine. Although, it seems to be far-fetched, the antagonist powers of a peaceful world have the potentiality of making a crude nuclear bomb. Amongst the causes of serious concerns, the two most palpable ones seem to be; firstly, multiple cases of Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) or Plutonium smuggling and seizure, and secondly, tracing and detecting the misappropriated nuclear material owing to the fact that the quantity required to make a bomb is significantly small, thereby making it difficult to pin.

The Incident and Trafficking Data Base (ITDB)1 of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) gives an account from 1996 to 2015, confirming that illicit trafficking, theft  and other illegal activities of nuclear material are rampant. According to the Member States, there are confirmed reports of 2,889 such incidences reported till December 31, 2015 out of which 454 incidences are of unauthorized possession and criminal activities, 762 are of thefts and other unidentified losses, 1622 are regarding unauthorized activities while the remaining 71 are undefined.

Given the context, the South Asian nuclear threat matrix is complicated and terror waves are descending in from a complex history of violent extremism, ethnic conflicts, Islamic militancy, cross border terrorism and the connections between South Asia and Middle East kinetics. This also includes the proliferation ring, which originated from Pakistan (AQ Khan Network) and spread to Iran, North Korea, and Libya. South Asia is a vulnerable region and is subjected to nuclear threats, which are continuously subdued by the shadow of fiendish terrorism.

These incidences are evidence to the perceived steep rise in the call for these materials. Moreover, theft and sabotages also indicate that there is a convincible deep trench in the security system guarding these radioactive materials. Extensive industrial use of radioactive isotopes for civil and medicinal purposes is yet another vulnerable area for wrongfully siphoning out these materials. Nuclear Proliferation by new states and hasty expansion of civil nuclear energy projects offering low cost and clean energy sources are critical areas where strict international scrutiny and revision of policies is required.

According to a Harvard research report,2 a few of the terrorist groups, such as, Al Qaeda, Aum Shinrikyo (Japanese origin) and a Chechen terrorist group are found to be active in acquiring nuclear materials from around the world. The incidents include a suspected Chechen terrorist group carrying out exploration at Russian nuclear weapon storage sites. Al Qaeda has also made incessant attempts to procure nuclear material and conduct crude tests of conventional explosives in the Afghan deserts, in addition to their surreptitious recruitment drives of nuclear technologists. Another recent alarming case was that of the pervasive monitoring and recording of a Belgian facility official for stocks of HEU. In the late 2000, terrorists of Pakistani origin assaulted and aggressed against their own military installations in search of nuclear materials. These are a few of many such recorded incidents.

The endorsement to Weapons of Mass Destructions (WMD) in the book, “Exoneration” released in 2008 by Ayman al-Zawahiri (current leader of Al Qaida) states gross offensive declarations, justifying killings, as well as  repeated efforts to get nuclear materials and recruit nuclear technology experts. Incidents like the Kamra air force base attack in Pakistan by Taliban militants in 2012, attacks on military armament facility in Wah Cantonment and nuclear storage in Sargodha in 2008 and 2007 respectively, indicates annihilative motives of Pakistan’s home grown militancy. Moreover, the concern is low yield tactical nuclear heads, which due to their size and mode of operability pose a major security challenge as they are susceptible to thefts and attacks. The most important factor responsible for nuclear terrorism threat in South Asia includes ample evidence of state support and sponsorship of non-state actors. Provision of easy transit and diplomatic support to these terrorist groups by State actors for political leverages is unfortunate and catastrophic dynamic of South Asia.

These worrying indicators are the symptoms of a devastating future.  The menace of terrorism is growing along with consequent growth of the nuclear arms race in the world’s most vulnerable region-South Asia. The possibilities of relatively easier operations of seizures, sabotaging, sparking-off a Chernobyl-type disaster, ambush attacks, stealing and attacking the nuclear plants due to inadequacy in security and technological measures are relatively high in South Asia, which thus escalates the probabilities.

With cogent evidence, India has proved and sustained its benign nuclear growth in such a fluid and potentially nuclear threat prone region. Looking into South Asian dynamics, India preserves its committed will for non-proliferation and atomic power usage predominantly for peaceful purposes. India does not contemplate nuclear power as an alternative to conventional military arms, but as a complement to its security structure and civil nuclear demands.

India’s borders do not enjoy the leverage of a safe neighborhood, and is frequently coerced and subjected to wars and proxy wars by her nuke enabled neighbors. The aforesaid excruciating reasons compel India to ensure a limited vertical proliferation by exercising the nuclear power options. Currently, India and Pakistan both own sizable and ostentatious nuclear arsenals. According to the June, 2016 Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) report, India has 100-120 nuclear war heads, whereas Pakistan’s count ramping up to 110-130. This in itself is a matter of serious concern, especially when both scored poorly on Nuclear Security Index as per Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI). However, India’s proven steadfast fixity towards horizontal non-proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) remains unshakable and unblemished owing to its commitment to assist and facilitate the inspections and reviews to the national and international atomic watch dogs of its nuclear regulatory framework regularly.

A proposed road map to facilitate protection and safe guard nuclear material in a stage gate manner is laid down hereunder in the form of recommendations for all the South Asian countries and India in particular. The recommendations are phased out into three “terms” for effective implementation and precise monitoring.

Primary Term (1 to 3 Years)

1. Foremost is to constitute an institution for national security not under any Governmental Ministry, but directly under the sovereign control of the Constitution of India. This will withstand intra and international power politics. Currently the Atomic Energy Research Board (AERB) has the authority to regulate security of the nuclear material limited to civil facilities and the military facilities wherein the major load of separated plutonium and HEU resides is under the autonomous control of defence. Considering the issue at hand, a new Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority (NSRA) which would be fully independent of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) has been proposed.3 However, even if the pending legislation is passed, it will be a statute law and vulnerable to easy amendments. Rather, it needs to be raised to the level where it draws its powers from the Grundnorm, the Constitution of India.

2. The nuclear material used for civil purposes which poses a potential misuse against nuclear weapons should be provided security infrastructure tantamount to the Government nuclear weapon project’s security level.

3. Compatible with the international nuclear safety regulations to safeguard the nuclear infrastructures and installations against terrorist attacks warrants regular and rigorous upgradation. The same may be achieved by:

  • A mandatory and rigorous vigilance against the ‘insider corruption’ and ‘insider threat’. There should be professionally trained, well equipped adequate staff at the nuclear facilities with a strict access control system.
  • Stringent process driven surveillance, time bound and well-structured maintenance, approved standards of dosimetry and waste product management with defined waste path, including sustained program for pyro processing for reduction in nuclear waste product should be the key focus area.
  • Abidance to Vienna Declaration on Nuclear Safety and regular advancements in designing and construction to mitigate redundancy and anticipated failure modes should be ascertained and contained.
  • Similar to Bhaba Atomic Research Center (IERMON4), aerial monitoring system nationwide for detection of environmental radiation, threat detection monitoring could also be incorporated perhaps through motion or thermal detectors.
  • Research reactors, institutes, laboratories and medical institutions working on nuclear medicines should have high level penetration resistant security provisions inclusive of spike strips, watch towers, and formidable barricading to withstand any kind of sabotage or thefts including suicidal vehicular threats.
  • Setting up of radiation detection equipment in threat prone border areas, installation of radiation portals and detection monitoring at sea ports, airports, mail facilities and cargo traffics.

4. Although India’s nuclear establishments are working on strict Personnel Reliability Program (PRP) i.e. screening of reliability measures for the employees working in nuclear establishments must be extended to cover the grass-root level employees and recruitments in the vicinity of nuclear power projects with the same rigor and strictness monitoring erratic and disgruntled behavioral patterns. Importantly, security checks should essentially be gender and religion neutral.

Intermediary Term (3 to 4 Years)

5. Currently, nuclear facilities in India are guarded by the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) controlled by the Home Ministry. A dedicated specialized wing under Defense Ministry, namely ‘Atomic Security Forces’, which is trained, specialized and well equipped to combat and withstand any kind of nuclear security threat is desirable. To test the security system, “force-on-force” exercise should be conducted for vulnerability assessments and performance.

6. Design Basis Threat5 (DBT) is a comprehensive tool and should be mandatory for every nuclear establishment in India. It should be designed with clear objectives such as physical protection inclusive of failsafe system, detection criteria and method, assessments for delays and pragmatic responses to malicious activities. The task involves high level of Intel, technology and prior thinking. Few important prior considerations before the designing phase, like collection of information anticipating existence and threat motives, physical magnitude and traits of the potential threat, prospective modules preempting an attack with considered limitations of the responding forces are to be roped in. The identified limitations should be collaboratively worked out forthwith with the related agencies.

7. Licensing and control of import and export of nuclear material and dual use goods in strict abidance to the WMD Act 2005 and Chemical Weapon Convention (CWC) Act 2007 control lists, as India is committed to control and cease proliferation of strategic goods and dual use technologies. The recent changes made in national export control list by updating of Special Chemicals, Organisms, Materials, Equipment and Technology (SCOMET) list in accordance with major multilateral export control regimes will accelerate India’s entry to global non-proliferation architecture.

8. Development of a comprehensive “White Paper” for nuclear security and safety measures is needed to bring in transparency. An action plan based on “limitations” and “best practices” of other Member States for policy alignment and incorporation to suit Indian nuclear and radiological facilities is required. A comparative research data on operative nuclear security structure conducted by various countries may be developed.

9. The Crisis Management Group (CMG) for nuclear emergency response (1987), is functional under the Department of Atomic Energy. A dedicated team with relevant expertise to contain a situation of unprecedented nature e.g. in case of a sabotage, theft, attack or suicidal detonation is highly desirable. Mock drills in hypothetical situations are highly recommended.

Final Term (4 to 5 Years)

10. Nuclear cyber security is another challenge that needs to be addressed at nuclear facilities. Primarily, guidelines should be developed to determine and evaluate the risks as accurately as possible. Lack of preparedness for a high profile cyber-attack will lead to the crisis. The nuclear facilities should not hide any kind of compromise and should share threat data anonymously although India is currently working on Secure Network Access System (SNAS) which is diligently working for security of cyber infrastructure. There should be encouragement for the implication of ‘Security by Design’ that includes avoiding purposeless digital features, and inclusion of robust authentication and encryption technologies. Promoting the feature of ‘Whitelisting6’, which ceases digital tractability and the patch work7 in security systems. Promotion and inclusion for secure optical data diodes8 is highly recommended in cyber security nuclear facilities. Hypothetical mock drills should be conducted to facilitate practical know how of a nuclear threat.

11. Detecting and fighting against illicit trafficking of radioactive material can be effectively done through “Nuclear Forensics” via interpretations of radiochemical and environmental signatures targeting forensic signals. Thus, prohibiting movement of nuclear and radiological samples. Research & Development efforts in the domain, benchmarking with international “best practices” needs to be implemented.

12. Collaborating and driving in cooperation within the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries under a common agenda to deal with nuclear security by combating nuclear threat initiatives would serve India with twin goals, stability in the neighborhood and development in the region.

13. Insufficient visibility in India’s bio defense sector propels India to address its needs for a dedicated statute for prophylaxis and control over bio terrorism. Considering the population, a bio terror strike is certain to have a deadly impact on the rate of morbidity and mortality. The communicable diseases are likely to spread much faster in India, therefore a panacea to strengthen the biodefense infrastructure is the need of the hour. Some of the recommendation for bio safety are:

  • Bio medical waste management, syndromic surveillance system, prior threat analysis and contingent plans, well-coordinated prompt medical response system to route unusual infections, variants and symptoms.
  • Immunization to control epidemiology, developing epidemiological models through geographical information system, mapping, and mathematical simulation models for impact measurement.
  • Joint Biological Point Detection Systems (JBPDS), a special suite used for detection in contaminated area, laboratory diagnostic capacity and a communication system like Early Aberration Reporting System (EARS) are sine qua non.
  • Microarray technology (drug and disease diagnosis), organic light emitting devices (detection of lethal factors), bio-sense system (for real time disease data) and other bioinformatics pathogen intrusion detection tools are vital.
  • Establishment of Bio Safety Laboratories Level-3 (BSL-3) and BSL-4 are extremely desirable for research and containment of highly contentious diseases.
  • New statutory enactments along with necessary amendments to the existing ones (Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897; Disaster Management Act, 2005) to suit the need of the hour is essential for ensuring the bio safety structure. Formation of national agencies to audit and validate BSL-3 and BSL-4 periodically should be of highest priority.

Closing Words (Proposed Ways to Measuring Implementation)

Today, India follows to a large extent certain theoretically rigorous principles for security of its nuclear material, but considering the growing menace of pervading threat of theft and sabotage, for the flawless detection of the perpetrators working outside India, the system seems to be yet put to acid test. Thus, proactively India needs well forted security mechanisms for its nuclear material and devices. The recommendations discussed above are inclusive of inbuilt robust measurable mechanism to validate its necessity to suit India’s urgent and growing needs. However, a few measures which may be reiterated and suggestive are: (a) a robust regulatory mechanism enacting broad guidelines flowing from the aforementioned ‘Constitutional Body’ can be devised for phased execution and feedback. (b) Constant tracking, monitoring and scrutiny of database to arrest snags, failure reports and security compromises would help monitoring and cascading constant qualitative improvement in the results. (c) Periodic incentivized programs scheduled for ethical hackers to operate upon demos and prototypes of government systems may be organized to explore vulnerabilities and uptake new developmental challenges to the system.


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The content of this article does not represent the positions, research methods, or opinions of the Synergy Editorial Committee. We are solely responsible for reviewing and editing submissions. Please address all scholarly concerns directly to the contributor(s) of the article.

 Ipshita Bhattacharya Ph.D. Scholar, History & International Relations (interdisciplinary) from Barkatullah University, Bhopal, India. Core area of research: India’s defence relations with China and US since 1947. Currently, engaged as faculty in Career College, Bhopal, India. She is also a research fellow in, Centre for Peace and Development Studies Ipshita is a regular contributor to various online and print resources on the trilateral international engagements of India, China & US. She has been extensively writing on aforementioned research domain covering historic and contemporary issues.

  1. The Incident and Trafficking Data Base (ITDB), (accessed on July 12, 2016)
  2. Bunn Matthew, Martin B. Malin, Nickolas Roth William H. Tobey, Preventing Nuclear Terrorism Continuous Improvement or Dangerous Decline? (Harvard Kennedy School, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, 2016), 10. (accessed on July 4, 2016).
  3. “Atomic Energy Regulatory Board.” (accessed on July 2, 2016).
  4. BARC, Newsletter, (accessed on July 20, 2016).
  5. According to the IAEA, it is a broad presentation of the requirements, purposes and capabilities of potential adversaries against which security systems are designed and evaluated.
  6. A simple list of application, or persons those who have been granted permission by the computer security administer
  7. A patch work security system is when two security systems are stitched together rather than well-built architected solution. They are considered as a poor security system as they are complex and difficult to manage in a centralized way.
  8. This is a one way pure hard ware device for transferring data, it is without operating system, no configurations. It has world certification level of EAL7+ while the best secured firewalls have EAL4+ level.

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