Fizz Fizz Fizzle

Published: September 29, 2009 - 13:00 Updated: July 3, 2015 - 17:22

This bomb polemic completely ignores the fact that we are dealing with weapons of mass destruction that can kill thousands

Rakhi Chakrabarty Delhi

After the glory comes the dismay over a fizzle, 11 years too late. The nuclear tests conducted in the desert of Rajasthan in the summer of 1998 were welcomed with a hyperbolic burst of euphoria and national pride. Finally, India became a member of the elite club along with USA, UK, France, Russia and China with an H-bomb in its nuclear kitty.

Even then, scientists, both from India and the West, had expressed doubts over the success of the H-bomb. Peace activists and experts had opposed the bomb which could kill hundreds of thousands. But, the sceptics were brushed aside as detractors. It was claimed that the five tests were  "fully successful".

R Chidambaram, scientific advisor to the government of India, was chairman of Atomic Energy Commission in 1998. In 2000, he wrote an article in an international journal, Atoms for Peace, republished in 2008, that India had successfully conducted five carefully planned nuclear tests.

Chidambaram was one of the four top scientists who had led the Pokhran II programme. The others were APJ Abdul Kalam, then chief of DRDO, SK Sikka, head of nuclear weapons programme at BARC, and K Santhanam, then chief advisor, technologies in DRDO. He was the number two in DRDO after Kalam.

The first test on May 11, 1998 was an atomic bomb (A-bomb) of power equal to around 20,000 tons of TNT. "It worked like a dream," said Santhanam.

The problem arose with the second test that day. It was supposed to be a thermonuclear or hydrogen bomb (H-bomb). Santhanam claims the H-bomb failed.

Santhanam was put in charge by Kalam and Chidambaram to set up a vast array of seismic instrumentation inside and on the surface outside of the deep shafts. The thermonuclear (TN) device was placed at the bottom of the shafts.

The TN device was a two-stage one. The first was an A-bomb device which triggered the second stage: H-bomb. The A-bomb trigger worked as designed. But, the H-bomb "completely failed to ignite, let alone explode," Hardnews learnt. Seismic instrumentation network set up by Santhanam and his seven colleagues proved that.

After the test, scientists examined the shaft. It was found intact. If the H-bomb worked, the shaft would have been blown to smithereens, said Santhanam. That is clinching evidence that the TN device had totally failed.

Santhanam claimed that BARC and Chidambaram tried every test in the book to contradict world scientists and specialist media opinion to claim that the H-bomb not only worked but succeeded at the full power levels it was designed for.

After the test, the department of atomic energy claimed that the total nuclear yield of the TN device alone was 50 kt (kilotons). According to Santhanam, the actual total yield of the TN device (A-bomb plus H-bomb) was only 60 per cent of the design value of 50 kt, that is, around 30 kt. This matches the yield values obtained from seismic data from international sources.

According to former BARC chief, PK Iyengar, these numbers suggest that the thermonuclear burn may have been marginal or may not even have occurred at all. Iyengar was one of the top three scientists in charge of India's first nuclear tests at Pokhran in 1974.
Kalam, mentor of India's nuclear programme, however, has refuted these claims. He has asserted that the TN device produced the desired yield.

Homi Sethna, the guiding force behind Pokhran I, had said in a television interview, "What did he (Kalam) know about extracting, making explosive grade? He didn't know a thing." Scientists claim that Kalam is a missile technologist and not a nuclear scientist. So, he can't be an authority in these matters.

So, what's the truth?

It's confusing for a layman to decipher. It's scary, too, as it involves the security of the country surrounded by a nuclear power like China. Pakistan, too, has a nuclear arsenal. And India's relations with both are fraught with tension. Santhanam's revelations expose the nuclear asymmetry between India and China.

By refusing to do a re-check on India's nuclear capability, is the government compromising on the country's security? By steadfastly asserting that the test was successful, the government is resorting to a kind of logical fallacy called suppresso veri, suggesto falsi, that is, suppress the truth and suggest something false, said Santhanam.

Slamming Santhanam, National Security Advisor, MK Narayanan said, "Even if we are hit, we will have enough to be able to deliver something."

Scientists, however, think otherwise. They feel that India can counter an A-bomb with proven success. But, thermonuclear arsenal of an enemy cannot be countered only with an A-bomb. "This is well known in nuclear deterrence theory and practice," said Santhanam.

If there is uncertainty about the efficacy of nuclear deterrent, the very concept of deterrence fails. "This assumes even greater importance since we have a declared no first use policy," said Iyengar.

Scientists urge that the government form a technological committee comprising international experts to, at least, review the methodology adopted by Pokhran II scientists to establish their success claim. There are strong arguments for India to conduct nuclear tests to build up a credible minimum deterrent. "It is unscientific to embark on a long programme of weaponisation and develop elaborate plans for maintaining a credible nuclear deterrent based on just one, low-yield thermonuclear test. When we do not do this for ... even the Nano car, why do we want to take this risk with nuclear weapons?" asked Iyengar.

So, some scientists argue, relying on computer simulated tests alone is not a good idea. For the H-bomb or fusion device, India has conducted only one test whose success is under a mushroom cloud of doubts. One is an alarmingly small number, said Iyengar. This is, especially, because nuclear devices are complex systems. "To benchmark a computer simulation of a full-scale explosion using data from just one test" would be unwise and dangerous.

Scientists point out that most American nuclear weapons are fusion devices. These are light, sensitive material and offer better safety features. Now, here could be a plot. The US, knowing of India's dud bomb, is exerting pressure on India to sign the CTBT (Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty). That could actually freeze India as a non-weapon country, felt Iyengar. A large section of scientists aver that India is not yet in a position to sign the CTBT.

But, there is another question about Santhanam's timing. Why did he take so long to raise the issue? Santhanam retired in 2001. He was part of the science and technological wing of the R&AW in the late 1970s. He later moved to the DRDO and was known for his sharp mind. Nobody could fault him on indiscretion or intelligence leaks. He ran his unit with an iron fist and was not known to crave media attention.

One of Santhanam's former colleague told Hardnews that he had never mentioned this to the central government.

Santhanam claimed that towards the end of 1998, he had given the government a report to this effect. It was a classified document. He said that between May and October 1998, DRDO had come out with actual seismic readings vis-à-vis BARC's. There was a long discussion attended by then NSA Brajesh Mishra, four top scientists in charge of Pokhran II and the service chiefs. But, the issue was not resolved. "The two agencies - DRDO and BARC - agreed to disagree," said Santhanam. DRDO's readings showed much lesser yields than BARC's.

Then, Mishra took a voice vote. "This was highly unusual because the matter was technically very complex and the services were ill-equipped to give an opinion on yields. Most surprisingly, NSA concluded saying government would stand by Dr Chidambaram's opinion," Santhanam wrote in an English daily, co-authored by Ashok Parthasarathy, who was involved in Pokhran I in May, 1974 and was science and technology advisor to Indira Gandhi.

According to sources, the NDA government had mounted pressure on scientists to rush through the nuclear test preparations soon after they came to power in 1998. The BJP had promised in their manifesto that they would conduct nuclear tests when they come to power. The rush could have compromised efficacy.

Now, the UPA government, which has signed the civil nuclear deal with the US, has gone in for a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear tests. Experts told Hardnews that this could be a reason for the stand taken by the Manmohan Singh government that all is well.

According to Parthasarathy, there are precedents of the UPA government retracting. He cited the instance of the joint statement between India and Pakistan at Sharm-el Sheikh. "When he returned to India, there was much controversy over his accepting to delink terror and talks. So, the PM retracted. That was a very democratic response," he said.

The debate over the TN device and requirement for more tests should also be looked at with delicate sensitivity. In fact, this polemical discourse being reduced at taking pot shots at each other completely ignores the deadly reality that here we are dealing with weapons of mass destruction that can kill hundreds of thousands and debilitate generations. More so, a huge part of the world is anti-bomb.

This bomb polemic completely ignores the fact that we are dealing with weapons of mass destruction that can kill thousands Rakhi Chakrabarty Delhi

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This story is from print issue of HardNews