Charting Nuclear Security Progress in South Asia

Part of the Policy Perspectives Series

The nuclear security summits have come and gone, but the challenge of nuclear terrorism is still with us. As long as weapons-usable fissile material (highly enriched uranium, or HEU, and separated plutonium) is used in the civil sector, there is a risk that the material could fall into the wrong hands. For decades, governments have grappled with the problem of providing enough assurances that the production, use, and stockpiling of these materials in civilian economies do not increase the risks of nuclear terrorism or proliferation.

The nuclear security summits held from 2010 to 2016 helped promote support for the minimization and, where possible, elimination of HEU in civil uses. Once sent all over the world as fuel for research reactors, this material is now recognized as posing significant dangers.

There has been less progress on mitigating the risks of separated plutonium, on the other hand. Civilian plutonium has eluded restrictions for many years. One of the challenges to practitioners of nuclear security looking ahead will be to come up with viable solutions to ensure that production, use, and stockpiles of separated plutonium do not heighten the risks of nuclear terrorism.

In South Asia, there are substantial stockpiles of separated plutonium and enriched uranium that are growing rapidly. Only a fraction of the material is internationally monitored because neither country has joined the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and therefore has no comprehensive International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. Rising bilateral tensions and challenges from nonstate actors contribute to the risk matrix.

Luckily, experts in South Asia recognize that steps are needed to mitigate the risks. India and Pakistan have taken some steps in the last decade to improve nuclear security. For example, India chose to adhere to several export control regimes in exchange for an exemption from Nuclear Suppliers Group guidelines engineered by the United States in 2008. As a result of the U.S.-India deal, India also placed additional nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards. Both countries participated in the four nuclear security summits and built centers of excellence to train their personnel in nuclear security. India also joined 37 other countries in June 2016 to support the Joint Statement on Strengthening Nuclear Security Implementation (INFCIRC/869).

Looking ahead, however, there are many ways in which India and Pakistan could improve their nuclear security and positively shape external perceptions of the region. This Policy Perspectives proposes that both states submit reports about their fissile material under an existing mechanism, the Guidelines for the Management of Plutonium (INFCIRC/549). The guidelines were established almost two decades ago among a small group of states to provide greater information about and predictability regarding stocks of plutonium, both separated and in spent fuel. Reporting on civilian plutonium stockpiles is a modest step in the overall context of risk reduction but an important one in the broader context.

Sharon Squassoni

Cindy Vestergaard

Director, Nuclear Safeguards Program, Stimson Center