TOPICS : Security vital in US-India nuke deal

The US-India nuclear deal has stirred controversy within the US Congress and the Indian Parliament. The deal could ultimately improve and deepen relations between the world’s largest democracies.

But it has focused concern on the potential for sparking nuclear war or an arms race in South Asia, and little or no attention has been paid to how the deal’s implementation might increase the threats of terrorism and military attack against Indian nuclear facilities. These threats could grow in three ways.

First, the deal can facilitate a substantial expansion of India’s plutonium stockpile in the civilian and military sectors. Plutonium, a toxic and fissile material, could, in the hands of skilled terrorists, fuel improvised nuclear devices — crude but devastating nuclear bombs — or radiological dispersal devices, one type of which is popularly called a “dirty bomb.”

Second, the deal can spur expansion of India’s civilian nuclear facilities, increasing the number of targets for terrorist or military attacks. Third, the deal brings India into much closer alignment with the US.

This alliance has already stirred animosity toward India from Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda. Moreover, closer Indo-American relations could also breed resentment in Pakistan and result in a more vulnerable India, especially in armed conflict involving the subcontinent’s nuclear rivals. Should threats to India by Al Qaeda and other militant groups put a halt to the potential benefits of the US-India deal? No. The US and India should not permit their improving relationship to become hostage to terrorists.

India, with American cooperative work where appropriate, should: ensure that the different modes of a terrorist or military attack are fully considered and continually evaluated in assessing the safety and security of its nuclear facilities; separate more of its civilian nuclear facilities, including breeder reactors, from connections to the military programme; work with China and Pakistan toward a fissile-material cap to limit the amount of plutonium potentially available to terrorists; develop cooperative nuclear security by sharing and implementing best practices with the US, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and other partners; install in new facilities, and retrofit to the extent possible in existing facilities, sabotage-resistant safety systems; apply additional safety and security measures such as extra diesel generators and relatively low-cost fortifications around spent fuel pools and vulnerable buildings, and establish air defences for critical nuclear sites; finally, create a transparent and self-critical civilian nuclear infrastructure that would empower an independent regulatory agency and would be vigilant about insider sabotage or collusion with terrorists.

As Congress considers the US-India nuclear deal, it should also encourage cooperative nuclear security between the two countries. — The Christian Science Monitor