Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security suggests that India appeared to have followed through on its publicly announced intention to build the SMEF and started constructing a large enrichment centrifuge complex near Chitradurga, Karnataka.

Karnataka appeared to be a site of hectic activity for India’s covert uranium enrichment programme as well as a secret testing ground for armed drones, according to satellite photographs and other evidence compiled by a U.S. think-tank.

The discovery that India’s nuclear establishment has pressed forward into the early development stages for a Special Material Enrichment Facility (SMEF) came as the second instance of the veil of secrecy surrounding a nuclear facility being pierced in less than two weeks, in the same State.

On June 20, 2014 IHS Jane’s revealed that India was possibly extending Mysore's Indian Rare Metals Plant into clandestine production of uranium hexafluoride that could theoretically be channelled towards the manufacture of hydrogen bombs.

This week the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) suggested that the country appeared to have followed through on its publicly announced intention to build the SMEF and started constructing a large enrichment centrifuge complex near Chitradurga, Karnataka, where, between 2009 and 2010, approximately 10,000 acres of land were allegedly diverted for various defence purposes.

Within this walled-off tract, 1,410 acres in Ullarthi Kaval and 400 acres in Khudapura were allocated to the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre for the purpose of developing the SMEF, the ISIS said, adding that a further 4,000 acres in Varavu Kaval and 290 acres in Khudapura were allocated to the Defence Research and Development Organisation for the purpose of developing and testing “long-endurance (48-72 hours) Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles.”

So far as the drone programme was concerned, the April 17, 2014 Airbus commercial satellite imagery appeared to show two areas isolated with 10 km and 5 km walls, as well as a 3.5 km runway and a secondary runway that was “clearly visible” south of this area, believed to be in DRDO’s test centre for long-endurance UAVs and UCAVs.

The speed of the development work underway appears to be evidenced by the fact that a photograph of the site taken on May 2, 2013 only showed that one wall and fencing were under construction, small excavation activity was taking place in several areas, and the DRDO runway and surrounding buildings, were “clearly at the initial construction stage”.

Similarly in Ullarthi Kaval satellite imagery from April 4, 2014 was said to show “pieces of land of being fenced off by what appears to be a wall... a row of five medium size and five smaller buildings… visible on the eastern perimeter of the site, as well as what appear to be possible wells.”

In this regard the ISIS however cautioned, “It is unwise to build a nuclear enrichment facility almost adjacent to a UAV and UCAV test centre. A statement from BARC could resolve this question and would be welcome.”

Evidence supporting these conjectures was compiled from commercial satellite photographs attributed to Airbus, as well as publicly available information, noted the ISIS, including reports by environmental groups that have sought to challenge the sighting of the BARC facility in Karnataka as illegal.

The report’s authors, David Albright and Serena Kelleher-Vergantini, said that the new facility “will significantly increase India’s ability to produce enriched uranium for both civil and military purposes, including nuclear weapons”, urging India to therefore announce that the SMEF would be subject to International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards, committed only to peaceful uses.

The report also warned that India “has allegedly pursued illegal means to outfit the RMP and is likely to attempt to do so for this new enrichment plant”, and thus alerted other governments and suppliers of nuclear-related dual use goods to the need for vigilance “to prevent efforts by Indian trading and manufacturing companies to acquire such goods”, for either plant.

At the heart of India’s apparently strong enrichment thrust is an urgent need for Highly Enriched Uranium for the indigenously developed INS Arihant nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine and probably for nuclear and thermonuclear weapons.

Yet according to the ISIS India as a non-signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty faces the risk of trade bans from, for example, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which may have concerns about the suitability of Indian nuclear entities as to receive nuclear imports regardless of the U.S.-India civil nuclear cooperation agreement’s separation between military and civil nuclear programmes.