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The Nuclear Threat Initiative released its Nuclear Materials Security Index for 2014 on January 8. After the positive response to the index when launched in 2012, the NTI and the Economist Intelligence Unit sought feedback from experts and incorporated several new indicators and sub-indicators to produce this year’s report. Given the paucity and unreliability of data the NTI and EIU have had to work with, the outcome is indeed laudable. Furthermore, the creation of some sort of measurement for nuclear materials safety is most welcome and one hopes that the index will be expanded to cover nuclear safety and proliferation risks in the future.

That said, the findings of the report must be taken with a grain of salt. This is not for any fault on the part of NTI or the EIU but the subjective nature of some indicators. One of the key findings for Indians from the latest NMSI is that India now ranks below even China and Pakistan in the security of its nuclear material. Undeniably, there are many concerns about how Delhi is running its nuclear programme, but the NMSI’s ratings must be put in context.

Countries with weapons-usable nuclear materialsThe NMSI covers 25 countries with weapons-usable fissile material and 151 countries without (less than one kilogramme). The latter group is part of the study because terrorists will target areas which are most vulnerable, not most plentiful, in nuclear material. However, there exist substantial differences between the two groups that considering their results together would skew the findings. It is important to point out that the NMSI does not address proliferation risks, disarmament, nuclear safety, or the threat of sabotage of nuclear facilities. Rather, it restricts itself to evaluating the potential of theft of weapons-usable nuclear materials.

Countries without weapons-usable nuclear materialsEven within this circumscribed ambit, the NMSI does not consider the theft of radiological material or lightly enriched uranium used in many civilian reactors – as the study accepts, these are also dangerous materials but would do damage on a vastly smaller scale than weapons-usable fissile material; additionally, they “require a different analytical approach and represent different challenges.” However, the NMSI does not make a distinction between military use and civilian use of fissile material unlike the International Atomic Energy Agency; this brings the 85% of nuclear materials that are for non-civilian use and outside the scope of the IAEA’s inspections within the purview of the NMSI. As the report reminds us, the IAEA’s mandate is strictly civilian and is restricted further by budgetary constraints and the discretion of nuclear weapons states in opening their civilian facilities to inspections.

NTI IndexThe NMSI evaluates risk across five categories – 1. Quantities and Sites (16%), 2. Security and Control Measures (29%), 3. Global Norms (17%), 4. Domestic Commitments and Capacity (20%), and 5. Risk Environment (18%). Each of these categories are weighted differently as indicated in parentheses and have further sub-indicators. Countries were ranked within their respective categories, out of 25 and out of 151.

In the first category, Argentina and Australia came first, with Iran in fourth place, France in 18th, the United States in 20th, India, Japan, and Pakistan sharing 22nd, and the United Kingdom closed the list; in terms of security and control measures, the United States took pole position, China 15th, Iran and Pakistan 23rd, and India sealed the bottom; Australia, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom all led the pack in following global norms while the United States was 13th, India 18th, and Pakistan 20th; when it came to domestic commitments and capacity, not one nuclear weapons state made it into the top 10, with France at 11, the United States at 17, Pakistan 20th, China 21st, and India 23rd; nuclear weapons states maintained their nuclear material in riskier environments than non-nuclear weapons states did with France being the highest ranked NWS at 8, the United States 10th, India 22nd, and Pakistan at rock bottom on 25. Overall, Australia’s nuclear materials were deemed safest, the French were 7th safest, United States 11th, Chinese 20th, Pakistani 21st, and Indian fissile material was 23rd safest.

Nuclear Materials Security Index Methodology
Categories and Sub-Indicators Scoring Weightage
NTI methodology NTI scoring NTI weighting

These results may be statistically sound but raise questions about their implicit assumptions. For example, “Quantities and Sites” makes the statistically understandable assumption that more material or sites raises risk. This basis inherently biases the category against closed fuel cycles, nuclear propulsion, accession to the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty, and in India’s case, its three-phase nuclear programme.

Weapons-Usable Fissile MaterialThe logic of more-is-worse is similar to arguing that everyone who drinks is an alcoholic. The peculiarities of each national nuclear programme prevents it from certain decisions. For example, India needs plutonium to fire up its thorium reactors and is therefore investing in breeder technology. India’s closed fuel cycle is not a cause for concern if security considerations are integrated into every stage. Furthermore, India has recently launched the INS Arihant, a nuclear-powered submarine whose reactor operates with 40% enriched uranium. India plans an additional two to four more such vessels and the maintenance of this fleet precludes a high score for India in the first category of the NMSI. Finally, India has hesitated to sign the FMCT because the treaty would limit its fissile material stockpile while committing no other power to disarm (Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty worked out very well).

India’s “Security and Control Measures” remain weak as the Comptroller and Auditor General has already reported in 2012. Record-keeping, the ability to detect and prevent theft on nuclear material, periodic background checks on personnel, licensing, regular assessments, and internal surveillance all remain wanting but there is a silver lining – an International Atomic Energy Agency assessment in November 2012 found India’s reactors in Rajasthan to be safe and the facility to have sound procedures. Delhi’s problem is not a lack of awareness in these matters but an irrational devotion to secrecy and limited qualified manpower to implement all the safety precautions immediately.

NTI IndiaSimilarly, “Global Norms” seeks membership to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM), the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (ICSANT), the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT), and other such regimes. The section also measures safety by considering contributions to the World Institute for Nuclear Security (WINS) and the IAEA Nuclear Security Fund, much like papal indulgences once upon a time. However, there may be reasons a state might not want to accede to a treaty but may still behave in a responsible manner, sometimes even more so than signatories to the treaty. A classic example is the NPT – India has been a better non-signatory member of that treaty than either the United States or China. It is also highly unlikely that a state would allow a terrorist to go unpunished if its nuclear facilities were attacked because it was a non-signatory to an international treaty affirming the same.

Perhaps India’s single gravest failing is, as “Domestic Commitments and Capacity” highlights, the failure to have an independent nuclear regulatory authority. This was also mentioned in the 2012 CAG report but secrecy and inertia have meant that the country’s Atomic Energy Regulatory Board is yet to develop any teeth. However, India has committed to and implemented other standards such as the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540 as well as the CPPNM.

“Risk Environment” tries to measure political stability and regional conflict but has its own problems. For one, public unrest and violence has varying reasons – the Taliban attack on a Pakistani military base housing nuclear material, for example, is quite different from the large demonstrations that rocked India after the gangrape of a woman in Delhi last year, the Taksim Square protests, or the Occupy movement. The Airin Riots in Osaka in 1990 or the Koza Riot on a US military base in Okinawa in 1970 hardly put Japan’s fissile material or US nuclear weapons on the island in any danger. If disputes, tensions, and armed conflict were truly a criterion, the United States would be close to the bottom of the chart for the talented multitasking it does in this department.

None of this is to disparage the NMSI – the report attempts to create a broad framework in which to understand the safety of nuclear materials, and in this it has been successful. There is little doubt that India’s nuclear establishment needs to be more forthright on transparency, regulations, and security, that India lags behind Japan or the United States in these matters as the NMSI indicates. To read the report with greater accuracy than it promises is unfair and one’s understanding would be compromised due to the various reasons that have been pointed out. A comprehensive report on any country that factors in its individual peculiarities would require significantly more heft and would only attract experts, leaving policymakers and educated citizens in the dark. The NMSI is an excellent first step towards forming a global evaluation system for nuclear safety but it should be read with discernment and an awareness of its limitations.