Myth of Indian nukes safety

There have been many accidents and thefts of uranium in India’s atomic research centres and other facilities giving rise to doubts about the security of Indian nukes. Risks related to India nuclear proliferation are many while their security arrangements are far from satisfactory. The world must take note of it before it is too late. On 29th December 2009, two research students died in the fire in laboratory of Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) caused by an explosion, what was described as a ‘loud bang’. It is not yet clear if the bang was caused by an explosion or triggered by a chemical reaction, however this has exploded the myth of the security of India’s nukes. The centre’s director and Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Sreekumar Banerjee said that the fire broke out at 12.05 hours in the lab on the third floor of the modular lab of BARC. However, two scientists associated with the centre have claimed that no research involving radioactive material is conducted in the modular lab. Nevertheless, security has been beefed up at BARC following intelligence inputs that the country’s prestigious nuclear facility faced terror threat.

On 25th November 2009, at the Kaiga Nuclear Power Station at Karnataka’s Uttara Kannada District, a water cooler was found contaminated with Tritium, which is a radioactive isotope of Hydrogen and is used in preparation of nuclear weapons and can cause damage to human body cells on consumption. This dangerous incident clearly pointed to a grave Indian security lapse regarding the safe custody of nuclear material. Reportedly over 50 employees were hospitalized due to consumption of contaminated water but the incident was downplayed by the authorities. Indian authorities and media were focusing on a possible act of sabotage by an insider who was supposedly able to steal a vile of Tritium and mix it with drinking water at the installation. Such a possibility cannot be ruled out as Indian workers in different organizations and service institutions are badly maltreated as part of Indian culture and social order where the elite class is considered the most privileged while the workers are treated with contempt and disdain. But such feeling in the staffers of nuclear installations and research centres is fraught with serious dangers.

On 30th November, Times of India had reported about radiation contamination at the Kaiga nuclear plant in Karnataka. The locals residing in surrounding area suffered heavy losses in the shape of casualties of inhabitants and livestock losses in crores of rupees. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had denied any radiation leakage and said there was nothing to worry about, but in the same breadth he said that he was briefed that it was a small matter of contamination and was not linked to any leak. In this regard global nuke experts were really astonished over Indian PM statement in which he tried to tone down the most serious crisis of India ie safety and security of Indian nuke plants. The newspaper had raised the question “whether we should consider that Manmohan Singh statement is a mater of poor knowledge, or extremists Hindu lobby present in the government was reluctant to share confidential nature of information with their Sikh Prime Minister”. According to another report, Kaiga incident was not the first accident that took place on November 30 this year but some 300 cases of similar nature have already been accounted for. The initial investigation of Kaiga incident disclosed that it was possibly an act of mischief and security breach too. Prithviraj Chavan, Minister of State in the Prime Minister‘s Office, had also confirmed in New Delhi while talking to the press that it was a breach of security. In fact, poor security arrangements have been noticed on various Indian nuke plants, and there are some important places where security cameras have not been installed.

The employees working on the nuke plants have been found stealing and selling Uranium in the local market. According to Hindustan Times, Navi Mumbai Crime Branch had arrested three people – Panvel-based gemologist Premsingh Savitri (40), Vashi-based transporter Srinivas Puryar and Ghatkopar resident Tulsidas Bhanushali a dealer in gunny bags – for illegal possession of 5 kg of depleted uranium. The police were trying to ascertain from where and how Savitri had stolen the uranium. Earlier also, son of an employee of Atomic Mineral Division (AMD) and one of those accused of stealing uranium “yellowcake” with seals of the AMD were found involved but the government failed to take action for the safety and security of the nuke plants.

IAEA is also aware of poor security measures of Indian nuke plants. A few years ago, a similar malicious act was observed in Tarapur atomic power sub-station where the culprits were dismissed after investigations by the Department of Atomic Energy. On June 13, 2009 Indian famous nuke scientist Lokanathan Mahalingam was found dead from Kali River. The scientist was working on Kaiga Atomic Power Station since last eight years. Reportedly, he was in possession of highly sensitive information. Anyhow, he was involved in training apprentices on a replica of the actual reactor. Though India is always raising doubts about safety of Pakistan’s nukes, yet fears abound that Maoists or other extremists may get uranium from the market to make dirty bombs. Former governor of Chhattisgarh, Lieutenant General (retd) KM Seth said: “Unfortunately, the threat to internal security from Naxalites has assumed dangerous proportions and can no longer be whisked away” Dr M Anwar on website ‘Discuss’ wrote: “Unfortunately Indian extremist groups are too rigid to realize the norms of civilized world. They are power hungry and can go to any extent to achieve their political goals. Hindu extremists who are running their own bomb factories may try to grab Indian nukes and the related nuclear material”.

It would be pertinent to mention here the US-India nuclear trade legislation granted India the benefits of being a member of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty without requiring it to meet all of the responsibilities expected of responsible states in this regard. India has even insisted that certain reactors would remain outside the purview of the IAEA. Knowing India’s past and being familiar with the fact that India remained outside the international nuclear mainstream since it misused Canadian and US peaceful nuclear assistance to conduct its 1974 nuclear bomb test, refused to sign the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, and conducted additional nuclear tests in 1998. India had been cut off from most US civilian nuclear assistance since 1978 and most international assistance since 1992 because of these violations. But now the US and Nuclear Suppliers’ Group anticipate at least $100 billion purchases by India, which is has already spent $20 billion on purchase of sophisticated weaponry and has allocated additional $30 billion for buying aircraft, tanks, aircraft carriers and other conventional armament. This is the reason that the US and the West turn a blind eye to India’s aberrations and violations of international covenants. — Mohammad Jamil

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