India’s Non-proliferation Credentials: Myth or Reality

Written By: Ghazala Yasmin Jalil

India claims that it has a flawless non-proliferation record and it should be made part of the mainstream nuclear club. It also wants a membership of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) partially based on this “spotless” non-proliferation record. In reality India’s non-proliferation record, however, is not as clean as it would have us believe. One of the most glaring examples is the 1974 nuclear explosion itself, for which India diverted nuclear fuel from Canadian reactors – supplied for peaceful and civilian use – to conduct a nuclear weapons test. Ironically, the NSG was created in the wake of this explosion specifically aimed at preventing the diversion of civil nuclear technology for military purposes in future. While India has always taken the moral high ground in non-proliferation by demanding complete nuclear disarmament and non-discriminatory approach, in practice it has pursued an aggressive nuclear weapons programme in order to achieve a major regional and global power status. India’s path to a nuclear weapon status is replete with many proliferation activities like illicit procurement, centrifuge know-how leakage, and a poor implementation of national export control system. Moreover, the safety and security of its nuclear installations is also in question where there are many instances of nuclear thefts and security breaches. India’s non-proliferation record is far from impeccable as it claims due to long list of documented breaches.


Diversion of Foreign Civil Nuclear Assistance for Weapons Use
The single most important and glaring example of India’s nuclear proliferation is the 1974 nuclear explosion, called the ‘Smiling Buddha.’ The nuclear explosion used the plutonium from the nuclear reactor supplied by Canada. Thus, India is the first country that diverted plutonium from reactors supplied for peaceful purposes towards making a nuclear bomb. The plutonium was produced in the Canadian-Indian Reactor, U.S. (CIRUS), which had been operating since 1960. It was built by Canada under the “Atoms for Peace” programme. The 21 tons of heavy water needed to operate the reactor were supplied by the U.S. In return, India had a written agreement with the suppliers that obliged it to use the nuclear reactor for peaceful purposes. Once confronted, India claimed that it was a “peaceful nuclear explosion.”


indianonpro.jpgIndia had another agreement with the U.S. in 1963, which covered the two nuclear power reactors at Tarapur and their fuel. The spent fuel from these reactors is in storage and contains India’s most reactor grade plutonium. India claims that it can reprocess the spent fuel to extract plutonium for use in its civilian power reactors as fuel. That plutonium can be used for nuclear weapons. Reportedly, the plutonium from Tarapur reactors is enough to make hundreds of nuclear warheads. However, the 1963 agreement required India to get approval from the U.S. for reprocessing the plutonium placed at its disposal. India disputes this and insists that it is free to reprocess the spent fuel at any time. The U.S. has kept the matter dormant because it is an irritant in relations between the two countries. This is yet another glaring instance of nuclear proliferation done by Indian.

Illicit Procurement
Indian nuclear entities and companies have procured nuclear dual-use material and equipment without revealing to the supplier that the end user is an unsafeguarded uranium enrichment plant. The Institute of Science and International Security (ISIS) released two reports in 2006, which give details of India’s proliferation activities.1 The ISIS reports reveal that India has a tendering process for acquiring equipment for its gas centrifuge programme. The Department of Atomic Energy’s (DAE) sub-entity Indian Rare Earths (IRE) uses websites and newspapers to invite companies for supply or manufacture of equipment without specifying that the end user is a gas centrifuge programme under the DAE. According to the ISIS report, this process has been going on for years with hundreds of advertisements for tenders.

Another instance is when in August 2005, an Indian ordnance factory attempted to use a Polish and a Europe-based Egyptian firm to obtain a controlled item – a three-roller four-axis CNC flow-forming machine from a European supplier. The accompanying specifications showed that it could be used to manufacture missile casings.2

The ISIS 2008 report establishes Indian illicit procurements of Tributyl Phosphate (TBP), which is a dual use chemical used in nuclear programme to separate plutonium. India used her trading companies to procure TBP secretly from German and Russian suppliers. The end user for the substance was Nuclear Fuel Complex in Hyderabad. These middle companies procured the TBP without the supplier knowing that the substance was meant for unsafeguarded nuclear programme.3

Centrifuge Know-How Leakage
The ISIS reports also reveal that India’s tendering process for acquiring equipment for its gas centrifuge programme also leaks sensitive gas centrifuge information. Interested bidders can purchase documents, which cost around U.S. $10, and some of them contain detailed drawings and manufacturing instructions for direct use centrifuge components and other sensitive centrifuge related items. The tender advertisements do not indicate to the bidder that the items will be used in a gas centrifuge facility. However, the whole tendering process was meant to outfit the Indian gas centrifuge programme, codenamed Rare Materials Project (RMP) under the DAE. The tender documents contain drawings and precise specifications. The level of detail is such that these documents would be considered classified in supplier countries. The bidding companies may leak the designs for secret nuclear programmes. Therefore, this opens many direct and indirect avenues for proliferation.

Poorly-Implemented National Export Control System
Indian export controls are poorly implemented with a greater possibility of onward proliferation. An ISIS report raises the issue that under inadequate Indian export controls, once imported items are re-exported it can be a great source of concern vis-à-vis onward proliferation. This turns more dangerous as proliferant states are known to target Indian industries.6 With the India-U.S. civil nuclear deal coming through and many other Western countries engaging in nuclear trade with India, there will be a dramatic increase in nuclear dual-use items. This will further strain an already inadequate export control system.

Illicit Heavy Water Acquisitions
India's nuclear programme requires a steady stream of heavy water. During the 1980s, India arranged secret shipments of Chinese, Soviet and Norwegian heavy water to help start the Madras and Dhruva reactors through a West German nuclear materials broker named Alfred Hempel. Between 1983 and 1989 India received at least 80 tons of Soviet heavy water under the table, and 26.5 tons of Norwegian heavy water through diversions.7

Nuclear Thefts and Accident
India has had a long history of thefts of nuclear material and mishaps or near-accidents at its nuclear facilities. This raises concerns over onward proliferation of nuclear materials as well as the safety and security of its nuclear facilities. Limited access to fissile material and international safeguards on nuclear facilities are the main barriers to nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism. However, India has a poor record on both counts. In fulfilment of the terms of the India-U.S. nuclear deal, India has placed 22 of its nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards.8 But there is a long list of incidents of theft of nuclear material as well as concerns over the safety of its nuclear installations. Potential effects of plutonium or uranium thefts go beyond national borders with the possibility of onward proliferation and threats of nuclear terrorism.

According to a 1996 report made available to IAEA, Indian nuclear facilities have had 130 instances of safety related concerns, of which 95 required urgent action.9 According to an Indian parliamentary report, 147 mishaps or security related occurrences were reported in Indian atomic energy plants between the period 1995 to 1998. Out of these instances, 28 were of acute nature and 9 of these occurred in nuclear power installations.10

The incidents of nuclear theft date back to the 1980s but increased manifold in the 1990s and 2000s. This article would just mention a few of the theft cases. In July 1998, Indian Central Bureau of Intelligence (CBI) uncovered a theft racket of Uranium in Tamil Nadu. Of the 8 kg seized, 6 kg was weapons grade unenriched uranium.11 This led to cases of further seizure of uranium on July 31, 1998 of 2kg uranium. Samples showed 2.2% enrichment which indicated that it had come from an atomic research centre. On May 1, 2000 Mumbai police seized 8.3 kg uranium from scrap dealers which originated from the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), which was said to be depleted but radioactive.12

Also in November 2000, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported two incidents of uranium theft in India. In one incident, the Indian police seized three uranium rods and arrested eight persons on charges of illicit trafficking of nuclear material. In the second incident, the Indian police seized 57 pounds of uranium and arrested two men on charges of illicit trafficking of radioactive material.13 Again in November 2000, the Indian intelligence seized 25kg of highly radioactive uranium from a scrap dealer in Bibi Cancer Hospital.14 In August 2001, the revelation of 200 grams of semi-processed uranium theft in West Bengal led to the arrest of a uranium smuggling gang.15 In December 2006, a container packed with radioactive material was stolen from Indian fortified research atomic facility near Mumbai. Again in September 2008, Police in the north-eastern Indian state of Meghalaya arrested five people on charges of smuggling uranium ore.16

In March 2010, a gamma unit containing Cobalt-60 pencils was improperly disposed off by University of Delhi in violation of national regulations for radiation protection and safety of radioactive sources. This incident resulted in the material landing in the hand of a scrap dealer in West Delhi which led to the death of one person and seven were reportedly affected by radiation injuries.17 Also in 2013, leftist guerrillas in Northeast India illegally obtained uranium ore from a government-run milling complex and strapped it to high explosives to make a crude bomb before they were caught by the police.18

There have been instances in India where employees have carried out damaging activities within a nuclear facility. For instance, in 2009, a disgruntled employee at the Kaiga Atomic Power Station in Karnataka was reportedly responsible for contaminating drinking water supply with heavy water from the plant which led to the poisoning of 45 employees. Similarly, there have been media reports that there have been 25 intrusions at Bhabha Atomic Research Center (BARC) in the last two years.19

The long list of nuclear thefts in India raises concerns over the presence of a nuclear mafia in India and organised crime relating to nuclear materials. This has been a great source of concern since the effects of national nuclear theft go beyond national borders. Such incidents are likely to lead to nuclear terrorism which is an international issue of concern.

Of even greater concern are finding of a 2012 analysis by the British Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in New Delhi which highlighted the potential of theft of material suitable for use in weapons of mass destruction from insufficiently protected nuclear and chemical facilities in India. The report concluded that there is a potentially high risk of the material falling into the hands of wrong elements and radiological material being used in the form of a “dirty bomb” in terrorist activities.20

Another analysis published by the Foreign Policy magazine expresses grave concerns that India is not adequately safeguarding its fast-expanding nuclear installations and materials. An incident in October 2014 raised fresh concerns over the safety of Indian nuclear facilities when a person of the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), which was assigned to protect India's nuclear facilities and weapons related materials and installations, opened fire and killed several people in the very facility he was assigned to protect.21

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, an estimated 90 to 110 nuclear warheads are stored in six or so nuclear sites which are guarded by CISF. A 2013 confidential draft report of the Home Ministry revealed that the force is short staffed, ill equipped and inadequately trained.22

The U.S. and other Western countries have long expressed concerns over the safety of India’s nuclear facilities. However, India refuses any help from the U.S. in improving its nuclear safety and its nuclear programme that still remains shrouded in secrecy. This, however, is a matter of grave concern, especially with India-U.S. civil nuclear deal coming through. Moreover, many other countries are eagerly engaging in nuclear trade with India. This means that close to 60 reactors may be operational in the next two decades. With a poor nuclear safety and security record, it only means that there would be dozens more nuclear reactors that would be vulnerable to theft and accidents.

Of even greater concern are latest reports that India is also building a top secret nuclear city to produce thermonuclear weapons in Southern Karnataka. Reportedly, it will be the subcontinent’s largest complex of nuclear centrifuges, atomic research laboratories and weapons testing facilities and is expected to be completed in 2017.23 Of much significance are the reports that India is building thermonuclear weapons which have a much greater explosive force. This again follows the same clandestine pattern where India exploded its first “peaceful” nuclear device, when it tested first in 1998, and is now pursuing thermonuclear weapons without the international community and especially the U.S. being aware of it. This signifies that India is the engine of nuclear proliferation and nuclear competition in South Asia. This will not only further heighten Pakistan’s threat perceptions and that of China, but may give them an incentive to pursue thermonuclear weapons of their own. This would only fuel a pointless nuclear arms race. Moreover, having a nuclear city means adding to the already extensive number of Indian nuclear facilities that need to be safeguarded. The safety and security of India’s nuclear facilities thus becomes a matter of even graver concern. This may lead to onward proliferation or nuclear terrorism, or both.

It is clear that India has a poor nuclear materials safety record. According to the 2014 NTI (Nuclear Materials Security Index), which assesses the security of nuclear materials around the world, India scores below Pakistan, and is ranked only above North Korea and Iran.

Black Diamonds Incident
Black diamonds are found naturally and considered rare. However, Indian scientists have been trying to create them artificially through radioactive processes. In 1992, scientists from BARC were reportedly involved in exporting ‘black diamonds’ internationally. Scientists were using research reactor APSARA to irradiate natural diamonds, making them darker and radioactive and selling them on the international market. These diamonds have dangerously high levels of radioactivity.24 BARC is central to India’s nuclear weapons infrastructure. The fact that scientists from this facility were willing to engage in illegal and dangerous practices heightens fears that other nuclear material may also be available for illicit trade.

Proliferation by Individuals and Entities: Links with Iranian and Iraqi Programmes
India has a history of cooperation with Iran.25 It had a nuclear cooperation agreement with Iran signed in 1975. During the period of 1980-3, India helped in building the Bushehr nuclear plant and also sent scientists and personnel to Iran in 1982. India negotiated a deal for the sale of a 10 MW nuclear reactor to Iran in 1991 despite U.S. displeasure. Nuclear scientist Dr. Prasad, head of the Nuclear Corporation of India worked in Bushehr after his retirement. Another scientist Narander Singh also worked in Iranian nuclear facilities.26

President George W. Bush administration sanctioned several Indian entities for transferring technologies and know-how to Iraq and Iran that could contribute to chemical or biological weapons programmes.27 The U.S. clamped sanctions on five Indian entities and four individuals for their involvement in proliferation. In 2002-03, the U.S. imposed sanctions on the Indian entity Hans Raj Shiv for transferring WMD equipment and technology to Iraq.28 Protech Consultants Pvt Ltd came under sanctions in 2003 for transfers to Iraq. NEC Engineers Pvt Limited came under the U.S. sanctions in 2003 for proliferation activities related to chemical and biological weapons.29

An Indian scientist Dr. Prasad and former Chairman of Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited Dr. Surendar came under sanctions in 2004 for facilitating WMD and missile related programme.30 In 2007, two Indian nationals Sudarshan and Mythili were arrested in the U.S. for illegally transferring latest computer technology meant for missile guidance system for their government’s research and development entities.31 Likewise, Sabero Organic and Sandhya Organic Chemicals Pvt Ltd were sanctioned in 2005 for proliferation to Iran.

India has time and again claimed that the country has a spotless non-proliferation record. However, the long list of proliferation activities ranging from nuclear theft and accidents, diversion of peaceful material for weapons use, illegal nuclear materials procurement, centrifuge know-how leakage prove that this claim is a myth, far removed from the reality. In fact, “the spotless nonproliferation record” is a narrative that India is being aided and abetted by its Western allies firstly, because their strategic interests are converging and building India as a strong regional power to counter a rising China is in their interest. Secondly, the narrative also helps pave a smooth path for Western countries to engage in lucrative nuclear business with India.


The writer is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad and focuses on nuclear and arms control & disarmament issues.

E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


1 David Albright and Susan Basu, “India’s Gas Centrifuge Program: Stopping Illicit Procurement and the Leakage of Technical Centrifuge Know-How,” Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) Report, March 10, 2006,, and David Albright and Susan Basu, “Neither a Determined Proliferator Nor a Responsible Nuclear State,” Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) Report, April 5, 2006,
2 David Albright and Susan Basu, “India’s Gas Centrifuge Program: Stopping Illicit Procurement and the Leakage of Technical Centrifuge Know-How,” op.cit, p. 5.
3 David Albright and Paul Brannan, “Indian Nuclear Export Controls and Information Security: Important Questions Remain,” September 18, 2008,
4 David Albright and Susan Basu, “Neither a Determined Proliferator Nor a Responsible Nuclear State,”op.cit, p. 3.
5 David Albright and Susan Basu, “Neither a Determined Proliferator Nor a Responsible Nuclear State,” op.cit, p. 4.
6 David Albright and Susan Basu, “Neither a Determined Proliferator Nor a Responsible Nuclear State,”op.cit, p. 2.
7 India Moves From Smuggling to Exporting Heavy Water, The Risk Report, Volume 1 Number 2 (March 1995)
8 India country profile –Nuclear,
9 NayanChanda, “The Perils of Power”, Far Eastern Economic Review, February 4. 1999, pp.10–17
10 Ritu Sarin, “Hunt for yellow cake,” The Indian Express, June 4, 1998.
11 “Uranium Racket unearthed,” Press Trust of India, July 24, 1998.
12 The Times of India, May 6, 2000.
13 Dr. Shireen Mazari and Maria Sultan, “Nuclear Safety and Terrorism: A Case Study of India,” Issue 19, Islamabad Papers, 2001, ISSI
14 Ibid.
15 “Uranium smugglers caught in India,” BBC News, August 27. 2001
16 “India Arrests for ‘uranium theft’”, BBC News, September 10, 2008,
17 Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, “Nuclear Security in India,” Observer Research Foundation (ORF).
18 Adrian Levy and Jeffrey Smith, “Fast, Radioactive and Out of Control,”Foreign Policy, December 17, 2015,
19 Ibid.
20 “Report cites risk of WMD material theft in India,”June 19, 2012,
21 Adrian Levy and Jeffrey Smith, “Fast, Radioactive and Out of Control,”Foreign Policy, op.cit.
22 Referred to in Adrian Levy and Jeffrey Smith, “Fast, Radioactive and Out of Control,” Foreign Policy, op.cit.
23 Adrian Levy, “India is Building a Top-Secret Nuclear City to Produce Thermonuclear Weapons, expert say,”Foreign Policy, December 16, 2015,
24 Dr.ShireenMazari and Maria Sultan, “Nuclear Safety and Terrorism: A Case Study of India,”op.cit.
25 Iran has long been accused and sanctioned for pursuing the path to nuclear weapons development and a deal was recently finalized that hoped to halt or considerably slow down the progress on producing nuclear weapons grade fissile material.
26 “India’s Proliferation Record,”
27 Arms Control and Proliferation Profile: India,
28 U.S. Senate Report to Committee on Foreign Relations on U.S.-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation and U.S. Additional Protocol Implementation Act, 20 July 2006, available at
29 Ibid.
30 Paul K. Kerr, “U.S. Nuclear Cooperation with India: Issues for Congress,” CRS (November, 2009), p.8, available at
31 Indians held in U.S. for selling missile parts,” The Dawn, 5 April 2007, available at


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