India is expanding a covert uranium enrichment plant that could potentially support the development of thermonuclear weapons, a defence research group said on Friday, raising the stakes in an arms race with China and Pakistan, Reuters reported.
New units at the Indian Rare Metals Plant would increase India's ability to produce weapons-grade uranium beyond what is needed for its planned nuclear-powered submarine fleet, IHS Janes said.
The facility, located near Mysore in southern India, could be operational by mid-2015.
"Taking into account all the enriched uranium likely to be needed by the Indian nuclear submarine fleet, there is likely to be a significant excess," Matthew Clements, editor of IHS Jane's Intelligence Review, told Reuters.
"One potential use of this would be for the development of thermonuclear weapons." No comment was immediately available from the Indian government press office or the foreign ministry.
India, which is not a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, tested its first nuclear weapon in 1974, leading to the imposition of international sanctions that barred it from importing nuclear technology and materials.
It conducted tests again in 1998 that were followed by a similar set of tests by Pakistan.
A civil nuclear cooperation deal with the United States, sealed in 2008, gave India access to know-how and fuel in return for a pledge - so far unfulfilled - to bring in U.S. firms to build nuclear power stations.
The pact exempts military facilities and stockpiles of nuclear fuel from scrutiny by the International Atomic Energy Agency, a United Nations energy safety watchdog. The Mysore plant is not subject to IAEA safeguards.
The exemption, granted by the administration of President George W. Bush, faced opposition from China and Pakistan, India's regional rivals, and European nations who said it would undermine efforts to control the spread of nuclear weapons.
Based on analysis of commercial satellite images, IHS Janes has identified what appears to be a new uranium hexafluoride plant that would increase the uranium enrichment capacity of the Mysore facility.
Its capacity to produce uranium enriched to 90 percent purity, or weapons grade, would be roughly double the needs of India's nuclear submarine fleet that is being developed to complement its land-based arsenal.
The facility would produce a surplus of around 160 kilos a year of weapons-grade uranium, IHS Janes reckons.
"We aren't suggesting that this action alone will create an immediate standoff, but it's going to create a further level of complexity in an already difficult situation," said Clements of the regional security implications.
IHS's findings have been corroborated by other analysts, with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute writing in a report this week that the Mysore facility could signify India's intent to move towards thermonuclear weapons.
The enriched uranium produced from the facility could be blended with India's existing stock of plutonium to expand an existing arsenal that is estimated to hold 90-110 nuclear weapons, SIPRI said.