Nuclear Black Market and India’s Expanding Weapons Program

The threat around nuclear and radiological material has become acute in India with its expanding nuclear weapons program. There exist huge vulnerabilities at the storage, control and transport of nuclear weapons and materials in India. As India attempts to integrate with the international nuclear community, the rising and recurrent episodes of illicit uranium possession and sales in India is worrisome. This is the second such event happened within less than 30 days as on 7th May 2021 Indian authorities had seized 7.1kg of natural uranium and arrested two persons from Nagpur. Similar theft incidents have been reported in the past as well. Such events point out that there exists a poor control in India to regulate its such facilities which do not have even satisfactory security and safety mechanism. Given the context, it is equally important to unearth the black market for nuclear material inside India.

When focusing upon security aspect, the safety of India’s nuclear and radiological materials and facilities, intensified weapons development program is also worrisome. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) has produced wildly divergent estimates in its Annual Year Book-2020 while assessing the current state of armaments, disarmament and international security. The report appears to be generously misleading and politically motivated while ignoring the higher estimates of Indian nuclear stockpile, where, rapidly expanding Indian nuclear arsenal portends regional and global catastrophe.

In contrast, 5 years ago, the Institute for Science and International Security estimated that India’s stockpile of fissile material was only sufficient to make approximately 75-to-125 nuclear weapons. Whereas in 2016, a study published titled as “Indian Unsafeguarded Nuclear Program: An Assessment” specified that there existed sufficient material for New Delhi to produce between 356 and 492 plutonium-based nuclear weapons.

In May 2017, Dr. Mansoor Ahmed in his research “Indian Nuclear Exceptionalism” came up with the estimates that India has enough capacity to produce up to 2,686 nuclear weapons. Along with this, Dr. Mansoor, way back in 2013, estimated that New Delhi enjoys a huge advantage in existing stockpiles over Pakistan with a stockpile of 2.4 ± 0.9 tons of HEU (30-40 enriched=800 kg weapon-grade HEU); 750 kg of weapon-grade plutonium and 5.0 tons of weapon-usable reactor-grade plutonium produced by India’s Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors. This stockpile of reactor-grade plutonium has been designated as “strategic” and would therefore remain outside safeguards.

The 2018 arsenal of India is thought to contain 130 to 140 nuclear warheads, which may expand to 200 by 2025. Kristensen and Norris listed five locations in India where nuclear weapons may be stored, but they estimate that there are others whose physical locations have not been identified.

Interestingly, New Delhi’s expansion in fissile material production infrastructure, particularly its uranium enrichment program using gas-centrifuge technology, has been greatly facilitated with the availability of the country’s entire domestic uranium ore deposits and reserves for the nuclear weapons program. The expansion began with the signing of Indo-US nuclear deal which helped India to meet all nuclear fuel requirements. We all know that such favoritism has made South Asian region more prone to arms race and instability.

While assessing Indian nuclear motivations, the twin questions of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy have been masterfully engineered by India to further its weapons capability. Even with all this help at present and in the past, Indian Department of Atomic Energy’s (DAE) failures were stark and many. In the year 1962, Homi Bhabha the father of the Indian nuclear program predicted that by 1987 nuclear energy would constitute 20,000 to 25,000 megawatts (MW) of installed electricity generation capacity but failed in achieving these numbers. His successor as the head of DAE, like him, never came close to meeting any of these goals. Dr. M V Ramana a physicist who works at the Nuclear Futures Laboratory and the Program on Science and Global Security, both at Princeton University, explained that this history of failure explains the escalating demands from the DAE and other nuclear advocates used as a bogey to gain access to international nuclear markets.

India is expanding its uranium enrichment capacity keeping in mind the Rare Materials Plant (RMP) centrifuge facility in Rattehalli, Karnataka. This revelation in 2015 highlighted the lack of nuclear safeguards on India under new Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In this research it was suggested that Rare Metals Plant would boost India’s ability to produce weapons-grade uranium to twice the amount needed for its planned nuclear-powered submarine fleet. One potential use of this facility was for development of thermonuclear weapons. Similar reports came in later years that identified Indian buildup of secret nuclear enrichment complex in Challakere, which most likely will covertly triple the number of nuclear warheads in the coming years from what India possesses today.

Historically, India has the capability to utilize reactor grade plutonium to build nuclear weapons. Dr. M V Ramana in 2005 suggested that:

“Over the years, some 8,000 kg of reactor-grade plutonium may have been produced in the power reactors not under safeguards. Only about 8 kg of such plutonium are needed to make a simple nuclear weapon. Unless this spent fuel is not put under safeguards–i.e., declared to be off-limits for military purposes, as part of the deal–India would have enough plutonium from this source alone for an arsenal of about 1,000 weapons, larger than that of all the nuclear weapons states except the United States and Russia.”

 This is further evident from the study carried out by David Albright in 2015 of the Institute of Science and International Security where he stated that:

“Although generally India is not believed to use reactor-grade plutonium in nuclear weapons, Indian nuclear experts are reported to have evaluated this plutonium’s use in nuclear weapons and India may have decided to create a reserve stock of reactor-grade plutonium for possible use in nuclear weapons.” 

After careful assessment one can reasonably conclude that India in the last two decades through exceptional favoritism ingeniously proliferated its weapon program vertically. These massive increments in India’s capabilities to produce weapons at a large pace are intrinsically dangerous and pose an unparallel threat to the region keeping in mind the loose state control over its nuclear facilities.

Rabia Javed
Rabia Javed
Rabia Javed is a freelance writer and doing Masters in Diplomatic and Defence Studies from Fatima Jinnah Women University.