India's reported move to develop a covert uranium enrichment plant that could support the development of thermonuclear weapons could raise the stakes in a regional arms race with China and Pakistan, analysts said.
New units at the Indian Rare Metals Plant would boost India's ability to produce weapons-grade uranium to twice the amount needed for its planned nuclearpowered submarine fleet, IHS Jane's said on Friday.
The IHS findings have been corroborated by other analysts, with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) writing this month that the Mysore facility could signify India's intent to move towards thermonuclear weapons.
"Whether or not India uses the plant mainly for fuel for reactors and naval vessels as is sometimes surmised, it adds to India's already far greater advantage over Pakistan in terms of nuclear weapons production potential," said Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the non-proliferation programme at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
"It also brings India closer to matching China, which is how most Indians would probably see it."
The facility, near Mysore in southern India, could be operational by mid-2015, IHS Jane's 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," said Matthew Clements, editor of IHS Jane's Intelligence Review. "One potential use of this would be for the development of thermonuclear 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 about 160kg a year of uranium enriched to 90 per cent purity, IHS Jane's reckons. That is roughly double the needs of the nuclear submarine fleet that India is developing to supplement its land-based missile arsenal - and enough to make five atomic bombs.
By blending the uranium with its existing stock of plutonium, India could develop thermonuclear weapons that have a more complex detonation process and greater force than simpler weapons. India is estimated by SIPRI to hold 90 to 110 nuclear weapons in its arsenal.
The assessment revealed incremental progress at Mysore since the US-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), in a report last December, identified the construction of a new gas centrifuge plant.
India's new Arihant class of submarine is assessed to have an 80-megawatt onboard reactor that contains about 65kg of uranium. One submarine is operational, a second is being built and a third is planned, ISIS said.
No comment was available from the Indian government. Pakistan reacted with consternation, with a senior aide to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif saying the news underscored India's "established hegemony".
"This is something that India has been trying to develop for a long time," said Tariq Azeem. "We don't want any nuclear race. That doesn't bode well for either country."
Unlike Iran, India is not a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
A civil nuclear cooperation deal with the nited States, sealed in 2008, gave India access to know-how and fuel in return for a pledge - so far unfulfilled - to bring in US 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 IAEA declined to comment.
The exemption, granted by the administration of former U.S. president George W. Bush, faced opposition from China and Pakistan - India's regional rivals - as well as European countries, which said it would undermine efforts to control the spread of nuclear weapons.
In Washington, a State Department spokeswoman played down the IHS Jane's report, saying the United States remained committed to its civil nuclear deal and strategic relationship with India.
"It's one report ... We're not in a position to speculate on its conclusions," said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi set to be asked to address US Congress
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, once denied a visa to enter the United States over massacres of Muslims, is expected to receive the honour of addressing a joint session of the US Congress during a visit to Washington in September.
House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Ed Royce wrote to House Speaker John Boehner on Friday and asked that he invite Modi to address a joint session of the House and Senate.
"In every aspect - whether it be in political, economic or security relations - the United States has no more important partner in South Asia," the letter said. "It is not an overstatement to say that the US-India relationship will be one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century."
Boehner's office did not immediately announce a response. Aides said they expected an invitation would be issued to the Indian leader.
The Bush administration denied Modi a visa in 2005 under a law barring foreigners who have committed "particularly severe violations of religious freedom".