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 oldest and 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 United States. 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.
Al Qaeda-affiliated operatives may have launched or helped perpetrate the July 11 terrorist bombings in Mumbai (Bombay). Following these attacks, the US Embassy in New Delhi issued a warning about possible terrorist assaults against Indian government facilities, including nuclear sites. In response, New Delhi boosted security at its nuclear complex by early August. But security requires further strengthening. For instance, in late August, villagers near the Kakrapar nuclear facility reported seeing two men armed with automatic weapons inside a prohibited area, but still outside the most sensitive area of the facility. More recently, India's intelligence agencies have cautioned that Islamic militants could target the country's nuclear sites.
India has ambitious plans for a major expansion of its nuclear complex, which already presents a target-rich environment. This expansion could increase the risks of accidents, attacks, or sabotage. Without adequate quality controls in training, the risk of accidents increases, and even with high-quality training, a rapid influx of workers into the nuclear program increases the probability of saboteurs entering it.
Shaken by sectarian strife and terrorism for many decades, India resides in one of the most violence-prone regions of the world. Jihadist groups have caused much of this violence. Some of these groups have ties to Al Qaeda, which has considered using nuclear and radiological terrorism. Pakistan has sponsored terrorist groups to further its aims in the separatist regions of Jammu and Kashmir and could consider using such groups as proxies in a military attack against other regions of India, including those containing nuclear facilities.
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 United States and India should not permit their improving relationship to become hostage to terrorists. But the leadership of both countries can do more to protect Indian nuclear facilities in light of increased threats. 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 program to reduce the target profile of these facilities and to help remove them from the shroud of secrecy surrounding the military program.
•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 United States, 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 active and passive air defenses for critical nuclear sites.
•Finally, create a more transparent and self-critical civilian nuclear infrastructure that would empower an independent regulatory agency and would continually 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.
• Charles D. Ferguson is a fellow for science and technology at the Council on Foreign Relations and is coauthor with Michael A. Levi of the Council Special Report "U.S.-India Nuclear Cooperation: A Strategy for Moving Forward." This piece was adapted from a book chapter written for the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.