India uranium enrichment activity revealed by Google Earth?

R.K. Sinha, Director, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre.  

A DC-based think-tank has used evidence of construction activity visible on freely available Google earth satellite images to argue that India’s uranium enrichment programme is being expanded.

Releasing satellite imagery of the Rare Materials Plant (RMP) near Mysore on Wednesday, the Institute for Science and International Security said an image that it noticed from February 28, 2011, suggests the new facility under construction is roughly 210 meters by 150 meters.

A report in Nuclear Intelligence Weekly earlier this month had additionally noted that Bhabha Atomic Energy Centre Director R.K. Sinha had admitted that India was “building a new uranium enrichment facility” but it was unclear whether Mr. Sinha was referencing the RMP site or a planned new enrichment facility near the town of Chitradurga, according to ISIS.

One of the images shows two cranes adjacent to the construction sites, whereas the satellite image from March 2010 reportedly showed mostly excavation work and site clearing for the new facility. According to ISIS, the facility adjacent to the new construction is in all likelihood the existing uranium enrichment facility.

This older enrichment facility was approximately 130 meters by 130 meters, ISIS analyst Paul Brannan said, noting, however, that the new facility under construction would be "much larger" than its predecessor. Extending that logic further, Mr. Brannan said that if the facility under construction was intended to be a new uranium enrichment plant, "it may house a greater number of centrifuges, giving India a larger enrichment capacity".

The discovery corroborates observations made based on procurement evidence in 2006, that India would soon add at least 3,000 gas centrifuges to its enrichment programme and that its uranium enrichment program would likely continue to expand, Mr. Brannan said. "A new gas centrifuge plant would indicate that the military uranium enrichment program is indeed expanding and that further procurement activities are likely ongoing," his paper noted.

India requires enriched uranium as fuel for its nuclear submarine programme as well as for light water reactors. Though the Department of Atomic Energy imports LEU for these reactors, it has begun to show greater interest in indigenous fuel production of late. Its nuclear weapons programme is generally believed to be based on plutonium but Western analysts believe India might also be pursuing the enriched uranium route.

The publishing of sensitive photographs of the site suggests there are yet further issues for the Indian government to resolve with Google Earth. Back in 2006, media reports suggest that Indian officials, from then President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam to several top functionaries of the Indian Space Research Organisation, had voiced concerns surrounding Google Earth publishing photographs of sensitive sites on Indian soil.

At the time Google Earth reportedly agreed to blur out such photographs, although this week’s discovery shows the Mysore site in striking detail.

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Printable version | Apr 23, 2021 8:32:01 AM |

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