Challakere, India — When laborers began excavating protected pastureland in India’s southern Karanataka state in 2012, members of the nomadic Lambani tribe were startled. For centuries, the scarlet-robed herbalists and herders had freely crisscrossed the undulating meadow there, known as kavals, and this uprooting of their rich landscape came without warning or explanation.
By autumn, Puttaranga Setty, a wiry groundnut farmer from Kallalli, encountered a barbed wire fence blocking off a well-used trail. His neighbor, a herder, discovered that the road from this city to a nearby village had been diverted elsewhere. They rang Doddaullarti Karianna, a weaver who sits on one of the village councils that funnel India’s sprawling democracy down to the grass roots.
Karianna recalls being baffled and frightened by the news. He said the 365,000 residents of the farming and tribal communities that live in over sixty villages alongside the kavals believe they are protected by a female deity that rises from the pasture, and so the “thought of not having [access to] the kavals was terrifying; like saying there will be no Gods.”
Officials with India’s state and central governments refused to answer his questions. So Karianna sought legal help from a combative ecological-advocacy group in Bangalore that specializes in fighting illegal encroachment on greenbelt land. But the group’s lawyers were also stymied. Officials warned its lawyers that the prime minister’s office was running the project from New Delhi.
“There is no point fighting this, we were told,” Leo Saldanha, a founding member of the advocacy group recalled. “You cannot win.” Indeed, an unprecedented election boycott and protests by thousands of local residents, some violent, have had no effect.
Only after construction on the site began that year did it finally become clear that two secretive agencies were behind a project that experts say will be the subcontinent’s largest military-run complex of nuclear centrifuges, atomic research laboratories and weapons and aircraft testing facilities. Among the project’s aims: to expand the government’s nuclear research, to produce fuel for India’s nuclear reactors, and to help power the country’s fleet of new submarines, one of which underwent sea trials in 2014.
But another, more controversial ambition, according to retired Indian government officials and independent experts in London and Washington, is to give India an extra stockpile of enriched uranium fuel that could — if India so decides — be used in new hydrogen bombs (also known as thermonuclear weapons), substantially increasing the explosive force of those in its existing nuclear arsenal.
Such a move would be regarded uneasily by India’s close neighbors, China and Pakistan, which experts say might respond by ratcheting up their own nuclear firepower. Pakistan in particular considers itself a fierce military rival, having been entangled in four major conflicts with India, as well as frequent border skirmishing.
New Delhi has never published a detailed account of its nuclear arsenal, which it first developed in 1974. Until now, there has been little public notice, outside India, about the construction at Challakere and its strategic implications. The government has said little about it, and made no public promises about how the highly enriched uranium to be produced there will be used. As a military facility, it is not open to international inspection.
But a lengthy investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, including interviews with local residents, senior and retired Indian scientists and military officers connected to the nuclear program, and foreign experts and intelligence analysts, has pierced some of the secrecy surrounding the new facility, parts of which are set to open next year. It makes clear that it will give India a nuclear capability – the ability to make many large-yield nuclear arms – that most experts say it presently lacks.
And if these tasks require the trampling of the kavals, so be it.
The independent Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimates that India already has between 90 and 110 relatively low-yield nuclear weapons, as compared to Pakistan’s estimated stockpile of up to 120. And China, to India’s north, is estimated to have more than 260 warheads.
China successfully tested a thermonuclear weapon — involving a two-stage explosion, typically producing a much larger force and far greater destruction than single-stage atomic bombs — as long ago as 1967, while India’s scientists claimed to have detonated a thermonuclear weapon in 1998. But test site preparations director K. Santhanam said in 2009 it had “fizzled,” rendering the number and type of such weapons in India’s arsenal uncertain to outsiders.
India, according to a recent report by former Australian nonproliferation chief John Carlson, is one of just three countries that continue to produce fissile materials for nuclear weapons (the others are Pakistan and North Korea). The enlargement of India’s thermonuclear program would more clearly position the country alongside Britain, the United States, Russia, Israel, France, and China, which already have significant stocks of such weapons.
Few authorities in India are willing to discuss these matters publicly, partly because the country’s Atomic Energy Act and the Official Secrets Act shroud everything connected to the Indian nuclear program, and in the past have been used to bludgeon those who divulge details. Spokesmen for the two organizations involved in the Challakere construction, the Defense Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), and the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), which has played a leading role in nuclear weapons design, declined to answer the Center’s questions about the government’s ambitions for the new park, as did the Indian ministry of external affairs.
Western analysts, speaking on condition that they not be named, say however that preparatory work for this effort has been underway for four years, at a second top-secret site known as the Rare Materials Plant, 160 miles to the south in Rattehalli, close to the city of Mysore. Recent satellite photos of that facility have revealed the existence of a new nuclear enrichment complex that is already feeding India’s weapons program, and some Western analysts maintain, laying the groundwork for a more ambitious hydrogen bomb project. It is effectively a test bed for Challakere, they say, a proving ground for technology and a place where technicians can practice producing the highly enriched uranium the military would need.
The environment ministry approved the Mysore site’s construction as “a project of strategic importance” that would cost nearly $100 million in Oct. 2012, according to a letter marked Secret, from the ministry to atomic energy officials that month. Seen by the Center, this letter spells out the ambition to feed new centrifuges with fuel derived from yellowcake — milled uranium ore named after its color — shipped from mines in Jadugoda, 1,200 miles away in India’s north, and to draw water from the nearby Krishna Raja Sagar dam.
Finding authoritative information about the scope and objectives of these two massive construction projects is not easy. “Even for us, details of the Indian program are always sketchy, and hard facts thin on the ground,” a circumstance that leaves room for misunderstanding, a senior Obama administration official said in Washington.
But Gary Samore, who served from 2009 to 2013 as the White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction, said “I believe that India intends to build thermonuclear weapons as part of its strategic deterrent against China.” Samore said it is unclear when India will realize this goal of a larger and more powerful arsenal, but “they will.”
A former senior British official who worked on nuclear issues likewise said intelligence analysts on both sides of the Atlantic are “increasingly concerned” about India’s pursuit of thermonuclear weapons and “actively monitoring” both sites. U.S. officials in Washington said they shared this assessment. “Mysore is being constantly monitored, and we are constantly monitoring progress in Challakere,” a former White House official said.
Robert Kelley, a former project leader for nuclear intelligence at Los Alamos, who served twice, from 1992-1993 and 2001-2005, as the director of the Iraq Action Team at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said that having analyzed the available satellite imagery, as well as studying open source material on both sites, he believed that India was pursuing a larger thermonuclear arsenal. He warned that its development “will inevitably usher in a new nuclear arms race” in a volatile region, where India, China, and Pakistan have border disputes, wary militaries, and diplomats who sometimes deploy incendiary rhetoric.
However, Western knowledge about India’s weapons are stored, transported and protected, and how the radiological and fissile material that fuels them is guarded and warehoused — the chain of custody — remains rudimentary.
After examining nuclear security practices in 25 countries with “weapons usable nuclear materials,” the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington, in January 2014 ranked India’s nuclear security practices 23rd, only above Iran and North Korea. An NTI analyst told the Center India’s score stemmed in part from the country’s opacity and “obfuscation on nuclear regulation and security issues.” But the group also noted the prevalence of corruption in India and the insecurity of the region: the rise of Islamist jihad fronts inside India and in nearby Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as home-grown leftist insurgencies.
“Many other countries, including China, have worked with us to understand the ratings system and better their positions,” but India did not, the analyst said.
Spokesmen for the two organizations involved in the Challakere construction, the Defense Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), and the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), which has played a leading role in nuclear weapons design, declined comment about the government’s ambitions for the new park.
Like the villagers nearby, key members of the Indian Parliament say they know little about the project. One veteran lawmaker, who has twice been a cabinet minister, said his colleagues are rarely briefed about nuclear weapons-related issues. “Frankly, we in Parliament discover little,” he said, “and what we do find out is normally from Western newspapers.” In an interview with Indian reporters in 2003, Jayanthi Natarajan, a former minister for environment and forests and past member of a parliamentary committee on defense and atomic energy matters, said that she and other members of Parliament had “tried time and again to raise [nuclear-related] issues … and have achieved precious little.”
Starting work while the nuclear deal’s ink is still wet ::
Nonetheless, lawyers acting for the villagers living close to Challakere eventually forced some important disclosures. The Parliament’s representative for the region heard about plans for the park from the Indian defense minister as early as March 2007, according to a copy of personal correspondence between the two, seen by the Center.
This was the very moment India was also negotiating a deal with the United States to expand nuclear cooperation. That deal ended nearly three decades of nuclear-related isolation for India, imposed as punishment for its first atom bomb test in 1974. U.S. military assistance to India was barred for a portion of this period, and Washington also withheld its support for loans by international financial institutions.
The agreement was highly controversial in Washington. While critics warned it would reward India for its secret pursuit of the bomb and allow it to expand its nuclear weapons work, supporters emphasized language in which India agreed to identify its civilian nuclear sites and open them to inspection by the IAEA.
India also said at the time that it would refrain from conducting new atomic weapons tests. And in return for the waiving of restrictions on India’s civil nuclear program, the President was required to determine that India was “working actively with the United States for the early conclusion of a multilateral treaty on the cessation of the production of fissile materials for use in nuclear weapons.” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April 2006 that the deal would not trigger an arms race in the region or “enhance [India’s] military capacity or add to its military stockpile.” Rice added: “Moreover, the nuclear balance in the region is a function of the political and military situation in the region. We are far more likely to be able to influence those regional dynamics from a position of strong relations with India and indeed with Pakistan.”
Opponents of the deal complained, however, that it did not compel India to allow inspections of nine reactor sites known to be associated with the country’s military, including several producing plutonium for nuclear arms. The deal also allowed 10 other reactor sites subject to IAEA inspection to use imported uranium fuel, freeing up an indigenously-mined supply of uranium that was not tracked by the international community and could now be redirected to the country’s bomb program.
Given India’s “need to build up [its] nuclear deterrent arsenal as fast as possible,” it should “categorize as many power reactors as possible as civilian ones, to be refueled by imported uranium, and conserve our native uranium fuel for weapons grade plutonium production,” strategist Krishnaswamy Subrahmanyam, a longtime adviser to the Indian government, notoriously wrote in December 12, 2005, in The Times of India.
By May 2009, seven months after the US-India nuclear cooperation deal was ratified by Congress, the Karnataka state government had secretly leased 4,290 acres adjacent to Varavu Kaval and Khudapura villages in the district of Chitradurga to the defense research group and another 1,500 acres to the Indian Institute of Science, a research center that has frequently worked with the DRDO and India’s nuclear industry, the documents obtained by lawyers showed.
In December 2010, a further 573 acres were leased to the Indian Space Research Organisation and 1,810 acres were bought by the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. Councilor Karianna said the villagers were not told at the time about any of these transactions, and that the documents, which they saw two years later, “were stunning. We were being fenced in — behind our backs.”
Srikumar Banerjee, the chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Commission, first offered an official glimpse of the project’s ambitions in 2011, when he told CNN’s Indian news channel that the enrichment plant could be used to produce nuclear fuel, or slightly enriched uranium, to power India’s heavy and light water reactors. However, Banerjee added that the site would also have a strategic use, a designation that would keep international inspectors away.
Erecting barricades and draining the local water supply ::
The sensitivity of the Challakere project became clearer after the legal team filed a lawsuit in 2012 at the High Court of Karnataka demanding a complete accounting of pasture land being seized by the authorities, only to learn from the state land registry that the Indian army was to be granted 10,000 acres too, as the future home for a brigade of 2,500 soldiers. The State Reserve Police, an armed force, would receive 350 acres, and 500 acres more was being set aside for a Commando Training Centre. The nuclear city close to Challakere would, in short, be ringed by a security perimeter of thousands of military and paramilitary guards.
In July 2013, six years after the plans were green-lit by Delhi, the National Green Tribunal — India’s environmental agency — finally took up the villager’s complaints. It dispatched investigators to the scene and demanded that each government agency disclose its ambitions in detail. The DRDO responded that national security trumped the tribunal and provided no more information.
While the IAEA would be kept out, villagers were being hemmed in. By 2013, a public notice was plastered onto an important shrine known as Boredevaragudi warning worshippers it would soon be inaccessible. A popular altar for a local animist ceremony was already out of bounds. The route for a festival of Hiriyara Habba at Khudapura, which celebrated the community’s ancestors, was also blocked.
Source: Defence News