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Rogue Pakistan’s attempts to brand India as an “Irresponsible” Nuclear Power is bound to backfire

Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan.

In December 2021, a vessel MV Seago Piraeus, was repatriated from Port Mombasa, Kenya for emitting radiation from a container (TCKU3337296), booked by M/s Prama Exports. Upon reaching the Indian port JNPT on December 25, 2021, the cargo was duly inspected by Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) officials, who concluded presence of “Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material” (NORM)-Thorium-232 with marginally higher radiation levels.

The radiation background of the container at 1 mtr distance was found to be 0.02 to 0.04 µSv/h and at container 1 mtr – 3 mtr height from base (two locations at opposite outside walls of the container: 32 µSv/h and 8 µSv/h). BARC officials determined that the amount of material would be in larger content, resulting in a marginally higher radiation field.

According to BARC officials, NORM is non-hazardous and is not dangerous to a person coming in close proximity to it and allowed in small quantities under exemption certificate which is issued by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB).

The onboard crew members were medically examined by the Kenyan port health authorities on December 18, 2021, and were found to be safe with no symptoms of any radiation exposure.              An examination of the container revealed that the Gas Mantle consignment (procured from M/s ADC Engineering Company, Valsad, Gujarat) was the root cause of radiation. M/s ADC Engineering Company, manufacturer of the gas mantle was issued appropriate license by AERB for using Th-232, Thorium Nitrate as raw material on February 05, 2020 for the period of three years (expiry date of February 04, 2023), and therefore was eligible for handling the radioactive substance. Whereas, a technical violation was committed on the part of exporter M/s Prama Exports for engaging in export of the item without a clearance from AERB.

M/s Prama Exports was subsequently issued a license by the AERB on March 14, 2022, for shipment of the above gas mantles to manufacturer M/s ADC Engineering Company.

Such false allegations by Pakistan fit into its larger disinformation campaign focused on discrediting India internationally in matters of nuclear safety.  Prior to the “MV Seago Piraeus” incident, Pakistan’s foreign ministry had cited their instances of alleged “theft and sale of radioactive material” in India, which turned out to be bogus claims, made with malicious intent.  Earlier, on 31 August 2021, the official Twitter handle of Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs had tweeted that it had “noted their instances of theft and illicit sale of radioactive material in India” and how those “repeated incidents raise serious concerns about safety and security of nuclear and other radioactive material in India”.  The allegations were manifestly fake, as established conclusively with investigation undertaken by credible agencies like the National Investigation Agency (NIA), Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and Variable Energy Cyclotron Centre in Kolkata.

It is well known that India has robust mechanisms in place to prevent leakage or pilferage of radioactive material. The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), is the central agency for carrying out regulatory and safety functions in India. It has the power of the Competent Authority to enforce rules and regulations framed under the Atomic Energy Act of 1962, for radiation safety in the country. India’s nuclear waste management is governed by Atomic Energy (Safe disposal of radioactive waste) Rules, 1987. Additionally, AERB has also issued Management of Radioactive Waste Safety Codes. India also has a dedicated unit, i.e., Nuclear Controls and Planning Wing (NCPW), within the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), which is responsible for the State System of Accounting and Control (SSAC) for nuclear material.

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Unlike Pakistan, India has a responsible nuclear program, under the safeguards of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). India is an active participant in the IAEA Incident and Trafficking Database and has also constituted an Inter-Ministerial Counter Nuclear Smuggling Team (CNST),          

Indeed, Pakistan calling India an “irresponsible nuclear power” is a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black.  The chilling details of Pakistan’s lax control over its nuclear know-how and technology became evident to the entire world in the 1970s when the “AQ Khan network” was implicated in the Netherlands for nuclear espionage.  Since, there were repeated exposes of Pakistan’s links with efforts of North Korea, Libya and Iran to develop their respective nuclear programs, to develop nuclear weapons.  AQ Khan and his Khan Research Laboratories were subject of intense investigation by US authorities in 2004, after centrifuges recovered from Libya were traced to Khan.  The public and televised confession made by AQ Khan on 04 February 2004, admitting to his role in transferring nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya, in the period 1989-1997, is still remembered in the non-proliferation circles.

Despite the sordid saga of the “Nuclear Walmart” run by the AQ Khan network, Pakistan did not learn its lessons.  In 2020, the US Department of Justice indicted Pakistani businessmen for operating an international network of front companies to export US origin products to Pakistan for use in that country’s nuclear program.  The accused transported goods to Pakistan’s Advanced Engineering Research Organization and the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission without expert licenses.  More recently, Pakistan attempts to procure “dual-use” equipment and technology from China have been exposed.  In early February 2020, a Chinese flagged vessel “Da Cui Yun” was investigated in the Indian port of Kandla (Gujarat), when Port authorities detected presence of an “autoclave” – an equipment enclosing a pressure chamber used for launch of ballistic missiles.  It was surmised that the “auto-clave” which is a dual-use item covered under stipulations of Nuclear Suppliers Group and other nuclear non-proliferation regimes (NPT), was destined for the Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO) of Pakistan, which is developing Pakistan’s ballistic missile programme.

Pakistan’s irresponsible nuclear behavior is also evident in its programme to develop a sea-based nuclear deterrent by modification of its fleet of French origin Agosta 70 and Agosta 90B submarines.  Tests of Babur-3 nuclear capable cruise missiles from submarine platforms imported from foreign countries reflect Pakistan’s high-risk proliferation behavior.  Likewise, a nuclear capable `Road’ air to surface cruise missile is also intended to be fitted on aircraft of western origin like Mirage-III and F-16 fighter jets.

All in all, Pakistan hardly has any credibility or moral standing to accuse India of “irresponsible nuclear behavior” when its own track record in these matters is utterly obnoxious.  Pakistan has been, and will remain a major proliferation concern for the world.  It has embarked upon ambitious strategic programmes with China and Turkey, entailing very close cooperation on sensitive technologies such as missiles, submarines and under-water torpedoes.  Even as Pakistan’s economy continues to remain in the doldrums, the world needs to remain alert about the high risk of nuclear proliferation emanating from Pakistan.

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(Shantanu Mukharji is a retired IPS officer, a security analyst and a former National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister of Mauritius. Views expressed are personal and exclusive to India Narrative)