WASHINGTON: India has potential to build over 2600 nuclear weapons thanks to its unsafeguarded civilian nuclear facilities producing reactor-grade (civil) plutonium, which is weapon-useable, says a research paper published by the Harvard University.
The paper released this week by the Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School suggests that India’s existing and future nuclear capability fuels regional security anxieties with Pakistan and impedes progress on the early conclusion of a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty.
Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, a renowned expert journal estimates that India already has 110-120 weapons based on weapons-grade plutonium but the fresh study add the potential of reactor grade plutonium for weapon use. An investigative report by Adrian Levy in Foreign Policy Magazine had revealed that India is building a top-secret nuclear city for production of fissile material.
The paper recommends that Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) should impose IAEA safeguards on India’s civil nuclear programme to ensure that reactor grade plutonium produced under civil program is not used to produce nuclear weapons.
“The NSG membership criteria for non-NPT countries should seek to achieve a ‘verifiable separation’ of civil and military stockpiles and facilities through IAEA safeguards on any material or facility designated as ‘civilian’. This will not only be a
non-proliferation measure in so far as all four non-NPT weapon states
are concerned, but will also serve to increase transparency for civilian and
military streams of India’s nuclear fuel cycle as it will remove the opacity
surrounding a large chunk of unsafeguarded civilian fissile material,” says the paper.
Last year a report by the Belfer Centre had pointed out that India had three overlapping streams of nuclear program including military, civilian (safeguarded) and civilian (unsafeguarded).
The fresh report elaborates the potential of India’s unsafeguarded civilian programme to be diverted for military purposes. India is the only other country besides the United States that has recently used reactor-grade plutonium in manufacturing and testing a nuclear explosive device.
The report points out that India has the largest non-NPT nuclear power programme outside IAEA Safeguard.
The fresh paper has renewed concerns that India is expanding its nuclear weapon potential in the garb of civilian nuclear programme.
In 2008, India and the United States concluded a civil nuclear agreement that paved the way for a one-time waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) requirement for full-scope safeguards as a condition of export.
Simultaneously, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) also approved a safeguards agreement that included a plan for designating separate civilian and military fuel cycle facilities.
“Although in 2006, India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and US President George W. Bush made an announcement of a Separation Plan for India’s nuclear program that would clearly designate two lists of civil and military nuclear facilities. However, three parallel categories or “streams” of plants and facilities—“civilian safeguarded,” ‘civilian unsafeguarded’ and ‘military’ have emerged over the years,” writes the paper’s author Mansoor Ahmed.
The report says India has begun construction of four 700 MWe heavy water power reactors. This will more than double the unsafeguarded power reactor capacity from the current 2350 MWe. This capacity will be able to produce over 2.5 tons of weapon-usable reactor grade plutonium. One 220 MWe reactor can be used to produce 150-200 kg of weapons-grade plutonium every year sufficient for 38 to 50 plutonium weapons.
The report says India is increasing its reprocessing (plutonium separation) capacity from the current 350 tons of heavy metal per year to a target of 2000 tons during the next decade.
According to report, India is working on implementing a plan to increase its weapons-grade plutonium production capacity by twenty times to 700 kg every year through a fleet of 5 breeder reactors.
The peculiar trajectory of India’s nuclear power expansion is also providing it with the means and the justification to establish the wherewithal and facilities for the stockpiling of large quantities of weapon-usable nuclear materials. Ostensibly for a “civilian” nuclear program— outside of any international safeguards—makes it impossible to confirm that these materials will not be used in weapons.
The paper says India’s plan are causing concerns for its regional rivals.
“Pakistan therefore has to consider India’s full potential to make nuclear weapons, including both explicitly military stocks and unsafeguarded ostensibly civil stocks, whether weapon-grade or not, and including material in spent fuel that would still have to be reprocessed,” it says.
India’s unsafeguarded fissile material stock and upcoming nuclear facilities can allow for a quick and possible diversion of a small proportion of these stocks producing a large number of nuclear weapons without interfering with the nuclear energy program.
According to the Principles Guiding the Separation of Civilian and Military Nuclear Facilities as part of the U.S.-India dialogue for concluding a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement, facilities were to be designated as civilian or military on the basis of the nature and location of the facilities affecting national security considerations.
Additionally, facilities “that, after separation, will no longer be engaged in activities of strategic significance” were supposed to be designated safeguards. Yet, India has deliberately kept nearly all of its fissile material production facilities outside safeguards-allowing for the use of these materials and facilities for its nuclear weapons program at any time.
This includes eight indigenous PHWRs; front-end fuel cycle and uranium enrichment, plutonium, and heavy water production and reprocessing facilities; and all Fast Breeder Reactors.
The report also recommends that India should put more (and ultimately all) of its separated reactor-grade plutonium and reactor-grade plutonium in spent fuel under safeguards in addition to putting more of India’s PHWRs and reprocessing plants under IAEA safeguards.