India is expanding a covert uranium enrichment plant that could potentially support the development of thermonuclear weapons, defence research group IHS Jane's said today.
Experts say the revelation highlights a lack of nuclear safeguards in the country, even as sanctions-bound Iran faces minute scrutiny of its nuclear programme.
New units at the Indian Rare Metals Plant [the correct name of the organisation is Indian Rare Earths Ltd- Ed] would boost 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 southern India, 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 would probably 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."
He said in a statement. "The expansion of India's uranium enrichment facilities allows the country to press ahead with the introduction of its ballistic missile nuclear submarine fleet, part of an effort to enhance its existing nuclear deterrent in the face of perceived threats from both China and Pakistan.''
Karl Dewey, Proliferation Editor at IHS Jane's Intelligence Review, added: ''The enrichment plant was originally built to provide uranium for submarine reactors. But there is now significant excess capacity for other purposes, most likely nuclear weapons.''
Pakistan reacted to the report with concern. Tariq Azeem, a senior aide to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, said it underscored India's "established hegemony".
"This is something that India has been trying to develop for a long time," he said. "We don't want a nuclear race. That doesn't bode well for either country."
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 a nuclear 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 US companies 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.
The Mysore plant is not subject to IAEA safeguards.
Robert Kelley, consultant to IHS Jane's Intelligence Review, added, ''The US continues to treat India as a bona fide nuclear weapons state despite India's failure to ratify the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Mysore's original centrifuge plant was constructed in 1992, although in 2010 site clearance for a new, even larger, suspected centrifuge hall began.
It is this new facility that could soon be operational. India is generally vocal in publicising its defence industry successes, but has revealed little about operations at Mysore, possibly to reduce attention to its nuclear trade agreements with the US.''