By Ahmad Khan
By Ahmad Khan
There have been repeated confirmed reports that India is constructing a new nuclear city at Challakere, Karnataka. The city-size complex will produce highly enriched uranium to not only fuel its nuclear powered submarines, but also feed its thermonuclear bombs.
The local population has protested against the construction. David Albright and Serena Kelleher-Vergantini of the Washington-based think tank ISIS has done a detailed assessment from satellite imagery captured by the US. In 2014, Albright and Kelleher-Vergantini reported that an area of 10,000 acres in the Chitradurga district of Karnataka was being mysteriously fenced off between 2009 and 2010. In the new nuclear city, a Special Material Enrichment Facility (SMEF) will be built by 2017. The facility will be used for both civilian and military purposes; however, it will ostensibly double the present uranium enrichment capacity in India.
Investigative journalist Adrian Levy had published detailed stories based on satellite imageries and interviews with local residents and some former Indian nuclear scientists on the construction at Challakere. The Indian government has not yet denied any report published by ISIS or Adrian Levy. It is generally believed that the state’s nuclear activities remain highly concealed. Local media has also reported the allocation of place, fencing and beginning of construction work at the site. It would also be difficult to hide these developments from the US-based global enterprise of intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance satellite systems.
At present, India has two enrichment facilities; one is at the Rare Materials Plant (RMP) and the other at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. One assessment by IHS Jane’s suggests that the total capacity of the RMP facility is 42,000 separating work units (SWU) per year. SWU is a unit of process to separate isotopes of uranium from natural ones during enrichment. India claims that the RMP facility is dedicated to enrich uranium to fuel their existing and upcoming fleet of four to six nuclear submarines. But the assessed capacity of RMP is beyond the fuel requirement.
India has a long-term plan to build its nuclear triad. To that purpose, it began its nuclear submarine program somewhere between the late 1980s and early 1990s. Initially, India received help from Russia and was finally able to build and operationalize its first nuclear-powered submarine INS-Arihant in 2015.
It is generally thought that the SMEF will increase the existing enrichment capacity from 42,000 to 100,000 SWU/yr. Intrinsically, the excessive enrichment facility, other than making nuclear fuel for a submarine fleet, would be used for making thermonuclear weapons.
It is clear the India has only one operational third-generation nuclear-powered submarine at the moment and it is aiming to induct six more. The enrichment capacity to produce fuel for an entire nuclear-powered submarine fleet in the next ten years is less than half of the existing enrichment capacity of India.
There is empirical evidence that India had nuclearized South Asia and has triggered an arms race in which Pakistan was compelled to seek a balance and deter New Delhi from coercion. There have been ominous developments that should raise alarms globally, such as developing multiple, independently targetable re-entry vehicles, a large arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons, ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, placing weapons on launch on warning status, bringing nuclear weapons into the Indian Ocean and a ballistic missile defence shield. It is both the intent and nuclear capability that counts.
Sartaj Aziz has offered India a bilateral arrangement for not conducting a nuclear test. Besides that, Pakistan has offered several restraint-and-confidence building measures as a prelude to conflict resolution in South Asia. Unfortunately, this outreach has fallen on deaf ears and Islamabad is experiencing CBM fatigue, hubris and intransigence from India.
New Delhi has outrightly rejected Pakistan’s proposal for a bilateral nuclear non-testing agreement and it seems improbable that India will sign one. It would not be difficult to see that if India agrees to sign the agreement, that would not only end the chances of further testing of Indian nuclear weapons, but would also give rise to questions on the purpose for expanding the enrichment facility and its existing HEU stock.
India has the largest unsafeguarded nuclear program among the non-NPT states. A new nuclear city at Challakere would be another facility outside the IAEA safeguards. At present, it has rigorously pursued its membership for the nuclear supplier group (NSG). The development at Challakere would be a major challenge for the champions of non-proliferation efforts and for those who are supporting India’s quest for NSG membership. Seeing India’s force posture developments and its nuclear policy, the world should rescind its extra-ordinary cooperation in the NSG and deny membership of the Group.
*Ahmad Khan is a visiting fellow at the Institute of Strategic Studies [email protected]
1. Rajaraman, an emeritus professor of Physics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, India and co-chairman of the International Panel on Fissile Material, wrote that HEU produced from the RMP facility could have been used in the 1998 nuclear tests as part of a thermonuclear device. In 2011, K. Santhanam, a former senior scientist and DRDO representative at Pokhran II, admitted that the yield of thermonuclear device was much below expectations and the test was perhaps more a fizzle than a big bang. Therefore, the statements of these two prominent Indian nuclear scientists suggest that the new nuclear city would give India a strong incentive to produce HEU for developing thermonuclear weapons as Santhanam’s claim would be an attempt to build a rationale for India to test thermonuclear devices in future. In addition, P. K. Iyengar, who was also a key member of the Pokhran-I test in 1974, told a correspondent of Indian magazine Outlook that after the 1998 test he met the BJP leadership in 2000 and stressed that they needed more tests to develop the thermonuclear weapons.