“Then the groundwater began to vanish,” councilor Karianna said. The district is a semi-arid zone, and local records, still written in ink, show that between 2003 and 2007, droughts had caused the suicides of 101 farmers whose crops failed. Now, due to the construction, a critical man-made reservoir adjacent to Ullarthi was suddenly fenced off. Bore wells dug by the nuclear and military contractors as the construction accelerated siphoned off other water supplies from surrounding villages.
Seventeen miles of 15-foot-high walls began to snake around the villagers’ meadows, blocking grazing routes, preventing them from gathering firewood or herbs for medicine. Hundreds rallied to knock holes into the new ramparts. “They were rebuilt in days,” Karianna said, “so we tried again, but this time teams of private security guards had been hired by someone, and they viciously beat my neighbors and friends.”
BARC and the DRDO still provided no detailed explanations to anyone on the ground about the scope and purpose of their work, Karianna added. “Our repeated requests, pleadings, representations to all elected members at every level have yielded no hard facts. It feels as if India has rejected us.” Highlighting local discontent, almost all of the villagers ringing the kavals boycotted the impending general election, a rare action since India’s birth as an independent democracy.
The growing local discontent, and the absence of public comment by the U.S. or European governments about the massive project, eventually drew the attention of independent nuclear analysts.
Suspicions stoked by satellite photos
Serena Kelleher-Vergantini, an analyst at the Washington, D.C., based nonprofit, the Institute for Science and International Security, scoured all the available satellite imagery in the summer of 2014. Eventually, with the help of the Bangalore-based environmental group, she zeroed in on the construction site in the kavals. The journal IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review was separately doing the same in London, commissioning Kelley, formerly of the IAEA, to analyze images from the Mysore plant.
What struck both of them was the enormous scale and ambition of the projects as well as the secrecy surrounding them. The military-nuclear park in the kavals, at nearly 20 square miles, has a footprint comparable to the New York state capital, Albany. After analyzing the images and conducting interviews with atomic officials in India, Kelleher-Vergantini concluded that the footprint for enrichment facilities planned in the new complex would enable scientists to produce industrial quantities of uranium, although the institute would only know how much when construction had progressed further. As Kelley examined photos of the second site, he was astonished by the presence of two recently expanded buildings that had been made lofty enough to accommodate a new generation of tall, carbon-fiber centrifuges, capable of working far faster to enrich uranium than any existing versions.
Nuclear experts express the productiveness of these machines in Separative Work Units, abbreviated to SWUs (pronounced swooz). Kelley concluded that at the second site, the government could install up to 1,050 of these new hyper-efficient machines, which together with about 700 older centrifuges could complete 42,000 SWUs a year — or enough, he said, to make roughly 183 kilograms (403 pounds) of weapons-grade uranium. A new H-bomb, with an explosive force exceeding 100,000 tons of TNT, would require just 4 to 7 kilograms of enriched uranium, according to the International Panel on Fissile Materials, a group of nuclear experts from 16 countries that seek to reduce and secure uranium stocks.
Retired Indian nuclear scientists and military officers said in interviews that India’s growing nuclear submarine fleet would be the first beneficiary of the newly-produced enriched uranium.
India presently has one indigenous vessel, the INS Arihant, constructed in a program supervised by the prime minister’s office. Powered by an 80-megawatt uranium reactor developed by BARC that went critical in August 2013, it will formally enter military service in 2016, having undergone sea trials in 2014. A second, INS Aridaman, is already under construction, with at least two more slated to be built, a senior military officer said in an interview. Each would be loaded with up to 12 nuclear-tipped missiles. The officer, who was not authorized to be named, said the fleet’s expansion gained a new sense of urgency after Chinese submarines sailed across the Bay of Bengal to Sri Lanka in October 2014, docking in a port facility in Colombo that had been built by Chinese engineers.
Asked what else the additional uranium would be used for, a senior scientist at the DRDO, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said it would mostly be used to fuel civilian nuclear power reactors and contribute to what he called “benign medical and scientific programs.” The government has not made such a promise publicly, however, or provided details. India does not have to report what it does with its indigenous uranium, “especially if it is not in the civilian domain,” said Sunil Chirayath, a research assistant professor at Texas A&M University who is an expert on India’s civilian nuclear program.
A senior Obama administration official in Washington, who was not authorized to be quoted by name, expressed skepticism about the government scientist’s private claim. The official said that India’s civilian nuclear programs, including power stations and research establishments, were benefiting from new access to imported nuclear fuel (after the embargo’s removal) and now require almost “no homemade enriched uranium.”
India has already received 4,914 tons of uranium from France, Russia, and Kazakhstan, for example, and it has agreements with Canada, Mongolia, Argentina and Namibia for additional shipments. In September 2014, Prime Minister Tony Abbott of Australia signed an agreement to make Australia a “long-term, reliable supplier of uranium to India,” a deal that has sparked considerable controversy among Australians.
The International Panel on Fissile Materials estimates that the Arihant class submarine core requires only 65kg of uranium, enriched to 30 per cent. Using this figure and the estimated capacity of the centrifuges India is installing in Mysore alone — not even including Challakere — Kelley concluded that even after fueling its entire submarine fleet there would be 160kg of weapons-grade uranium left over, every year, or enough to fuel at least 22 H-bombs.
His calculation presumes that the plant is run efficiently, and that its excess capacity is purposeful and not driven by bureaucratic inertia – two large uncertainties in India, a senior U.S. official noted. But having a “rainy day” stockpile to deter the Chinese might be the aim, the official added.
Source: Institute for Science and International Security, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
Attempting to match China’s nuclear arsenal?
A retired official who served inside the nuclear cell at the Indian prime minister’s office, the apex organization that supervises the military nuclear program, conceded that other uses besides submarines had been anticipated “for many years.” He pointed to a “thermonuclear bomb program” as “a beneficiary,” and suggested India had had no choice but to “develop a new generation of more powerful megaton weapons” if it was to maintain “credible minimum deterrence.” Once this meant the bare minimum required to prevent an attack on India, but a new Indian doctrine adopted in 2003 — in response to Pakistan’s increasingly aggressive nuclear posture — altered this notion: “Nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage.”
The official said: “China has long had a thermonuclear capability, and if India is to have a strategic defense worth its salt, and become a credible power in the region, we need to develop a similar weapon and in deployable numbers.” U.S. and British officials affirmed that they have been aware of this discussion among Indian scientists and soldiers for years.
Asked for comment, Vikas Swarup, India’s official spokesman for the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi did not respond to email or calls.
In an interview, General Balraj Singh Nagal, who from 2008 to 2010 ran India’s Strategic Forces Command within its Nuclear Command Authority, declined to discuss specific aspects of the nuclear city in Challakere or the transformation of the Rare Materials Plant close to Mysore. But he said that keeping pace with China and developing a meaningful counter to its arsenal was “the most pressing issue” facing India.
“It’s not Pakistan we are looking at most of the time, like most in the West presume,” General Nagal said. “Beijing has long managed a thermonuclear program, and so this is one of many options India should push forwards with, as well as reconsidering our nuclear defense posture, which is outdated and ineffective. We have to follow the technological curve. And where China took it, several decades before us, with the hydrogen bomb, India has to follow.”
The impact of the U.S.-India deal and India’s fissile production surge on the country’s neighbors can already be seen. “Pakistan recently stepped up a gear,” the recently retired British Foreign Office official said. He pointed to an increase in Pakistan’s plutonium production at four new military reactors in Khushab, a reprocessing plant known as Pinstech, near Islamabad, and a refurbished civilian plutonium reprocessing plant converted to military use in Chashma, as well as “the ramping up of uranium production at a site in Dera Ghazi Khan.”
The retired foreign office official added: “India needs to constantly rethink what deterrence means, as it is not a static notion, and everyone understands that. But the balance of power in the region is so easily upset.” The official said that in choosing to remain publicly silent, the United States was taking a risk, evidently to try and reap financial and strategic rewards.
Officials at the Pentagon argued before Washington reached its 2008 nuclear deal with India that lifting sanctions would lead to billions of dollars worth of sales in conventional weapons, according to a U.S. official privy to the discussions.That prediction was accurate, with U.S. exports of major weapons to India reaching $5 billion from 2011 to 2014, and edging out Russian sales for the first time.
“But the U.S. is also looking for something intangible: to create a new strategic partner capable of facing down China,” and so India has taken advantage of the situation to overhaul its military nuclear capability, the British official noted. Pushing back China, said the official, who has worked for 30 years in counter terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and nonproliferation, especially in Southern Asia, is regarded as being “in everyone’s interest.”
White House officials declined to comment on this claim on the record. But Robert Einhorn, the State Department’s former top nonproliferation official, told the Carnegie conference in March that some officials in the Bush administration had the ambition, in making a nuclear deal with India, to “work together to counter China, to be a counterweight to an emerging China.” He added that in his view, that ambition has not been realized, due to India’s historic insistence on pursuing an independent foreign policy. He also said the nuclear deal had unfortunate repercussions, because other nations concluded that Washington was playing favorites with India.
In Challakere, construction continues despite a ruling by the National Green Tribunal on August 27, 2014, that called for a stay on all “excavation, construction and operation of projects” until environmental clearances had been secured. Blocked roads were to be re-opened with access given to all religious sites, said Justice M. Chockalingham and Dr. R. Nagendran of the tribunal. But when villagers have attempted to pass over or through the fences and walls, they are met by police officers who hand out photocopied notes in English: “Environmental clearances has (sic) been awarded [to BARC] dated 24 July 2014, which is a secret document and cannot be disclosed.”
Councilor Karianna said: “Still, to this day, no one has come to talk to me, to explain to us, what they are doing to our land,” which he depicted as being at the “epicenter of historic India.”
The kings of Mysore once used the kavals as a crucible for experimental breeding of the muscular cows, known as Amrit Mahal, recognizable by their ebony hump and ape-hanger horns, which hauled chariots and six-ton cannons into four, bone-crushing campaigns against the British Empire fought in the last three decades of the 18th century. The cattle remain, picking their way between towering rough stone walls and barbed wire fences patrolled by private security guards, while weavers like those in Karianna’s village continue to manufacture thick, black kambli or goat-wool blankets that are bought in bulk by the Indian army for its troops facing down Pakistan and China, and stationed in the thin air of the Himalayas to the north.
“Is this what ‘national interest’ means?” Karianna asked, looking out over the rolling pasture, enveloped in the red dust kicked up by diggers. “We sit beneath out ancient trees and watch them tear up the land, wondering what’s in store.”
National security managing editor R. Jeffrey Smith contributed to this article from Washington, D.C.
Adrian Levy is an investigative reporter and filmmaker whose work has appeared in the Guardian, The Observer, The Sunday Times, and other publications. His most recent books are: The Meadow, about a 1995 terrorist kidnapping of Westerners in Kashmir, and The Siege: The Attack on the Taj, about the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai.
This story was co-published with Foreign Policy and the Huffington Post. It is part three of a four-part series about india’s civil and military nuclear program. The other articles can be found here: https://www.publicintegrity.org/national-security/nuclear-waste