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.
The revelation highlights a lack of nuclear safeguards on India under new Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while sanctions-bound Iran faces minute scrutiny in talks with world powers over its own nuclear programme.
New units at the Indian Rare Metals Plant would increase India's ability to produce weapons-grade uranium to twice the amount needed for its planned nuclear-powered submarine fleet, IHS Jane's said.
The facility, located near Mysore in Karnataka, could be operational by mid-2015, the research group said, basing its findings on analysis of satellite imagery and public statements by Indian officials.
"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 available from the government press office or the foreign ministry.
Unlike Iran, India is not a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. New Delhi tested its first nuclear weapon in 1974, provoking international sanctions that barred it from importing nuclear technology and materials.
It conducted tests again in 1998 that drew a quick response from Pakistan, triggering an arms race between the neighbours, who have fought three wars since independence in 1947.
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 expand India's nuclear power generation capacity.
The pact exempts military facilities and stockpiles of nuclear fuel from scrutiny by the International Atomic Energy Agency, a United Nations 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 its analysis of commercial satellite images, IHS Jane's has identified what appears to be a new uranium hexafluoride plant that would increase the uranium enrichment capacity of the Mysore facility.
The plant would be able to produce a surplus of around 160 kilos a year