India ranks toward the bottom of nations holding a threshold level of nuclear weapon-usable material, in terms of its perceived ability to protect its atomic materials from theft or diversion, the Indian Telegraph reported on Thursday (see GSN, Jan. 12).
A first-of-its-kind index commissioned by the Washington-based Nuclear Threat Initiative ranked 32 nations possessing one kilogram or more of weapon-usable material on a number of nuclear material security conditions. Nuclear-armed India's comprehensive ranking was 28 out of 32 eligible nations. Only Vietnam, Iran, Pakistan and North Korea were given lower rankings.
New Delhi possesses nuclear weapons outside the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. India also plans to greatly expand its atomic energy production capabilities. It has struck nuclear cooperation deals toward that end with the United States and France among other countries that would allow New Delhi to import more nuclear material and technology.
India was particularly penalized by the high level of importance the NTI analysis placed on societal factors, of which the South Asian nation was given a low score of 43 out of a possible 100 points. Societal factors considered by the index as influencing a nation's nuclear security conditions include government malfeasance and the potential for political instability. Surprisingly, Stalinist North Korea received a better score of 45 for societal factors.
"A country may have the laws and regulations in place, but societal factors such as political instability or corruption may compromise its ability to implement these rules," NTI nuclear security senior director Deepti Choubey said.
"The pervasiveness of corruption in India could be a factor that pulled down its score on societal factors," she told The Telegraph.
An Indian Atomic Energy Department official insisted that atomic substances in the nation were completely protected. "We have a perfect accounting system with multiple tiers of checks," department spokesman Swapnesh Malhotra said. "Any report that ranks India lower than North Korea on societal factors is not even worth discussing" (G.S. Mudur, Telegraph, Jan. 12).
The NTI index's low ranking of India is being used by some in Australia to argue Canberra should not export domestically mined uranium to the South Asian state, the Australian Age newspaper reported (see GSN, Dec. 6, 2011).
Australia's ruling Labor Party decided in December to reverse its longstanding opposition to uranium sales to India. Bilateral trade negotiations are expected to get under way this year, according to previous reports.
The Greens party staunchly opposed Labor's switch toward support of uranium exports to India. Greens atomic issues spokesman Scott Ludlam said the NTI analysis shows just how much progress India still needs to make on reaching the nuclear security standards that Canberra has traditionally demanded of its other uranium trade partners.
"I think this is going to force the government to put some teeth into this so-called safeguards agreement, which doesn't address the kinds of issues that the NTI is putting down in their paper," he said.
The expert analysis gave India low rankings on a number of variables such as transparency and quantity of facilities holding atomic substances.
"I think it's a massive wake-up call that, first of all, the change of policy at the end of last year was a mistake," Ludlam said.
"We certainly expect the Australian government to take India's nuclear security into account in negotiating the bilateral treaty," Australian Uranium Association head Michael Angwin said.
He noted that New Delhi is a member of the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material.
On Thursday the Australian Foreign Affairs and Trade Department, which will oversee uranium negotiations with New Delhi, issued a statement in response to the index's findings on India.
"Australia recognizes that the index identifies areas where all listed countries, including India, could improve nuclear security."
The department said atomic protections would be brought up during trade negotiations. "The application of international standards of nuclear security is a requirement in all of Australia's existing bilateral nuclear cooperation agreements," according to the department's statement (David Wroe, The Age, Jan. 13).
Elsewhere, Canada -- another of the 32 threshold states analyzed by the index -- could have had a higher ranking for its overall nuclear security conditions were it to have joined two key nonproliferation pacts, Postmedia News reported (see GSN, Dec. 20, 2011).
Ottawa was given a 10th place ranking -- tied with the United Kingdom and Germany, though notably ahead of the United States, which was ranked 13th overall.
"Canada has not yet ratified the 2005 Amendment to the Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Material or the Nuclear Terrorism Convention," NTI nuclear materials vice president Page Stoutland said. "Ratifying these treaties is important as much for signaling to the international community that Canada, as well as others, is taking the issue seriously."
"Canada has completely appropriate guidelines, but that led to a less-than-perfect score," Stoutland said. "I would not say Canada does not have good security during transport, but other countries required more ... for their facilities and operators" (Bradley Bouzane, Postmedia News/National Post, Jan. 11).