India’s Nuclear Test Was A Dud?September 5, 2009
S. M. Hali
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan—The admission by a senior Indian nuclear scientist that the Indian nuclear tests at Pokharan-II in May 1998 were a dud, have shaken India. This revelation has confirmed the suspicion voiced by international as well Pakistani scientists immediately after the tests that the seismic measurements indicated that the only thermonuclear device tested was a “fizzle”. In nuclear parlance, a test is described as a fizzle when it fails to meet the desired yield. K. Santhanam, senior scientist and DRDO representative at Pokharan II, director for 1998 test site preparations, told Times of India that the yield for the thermonuclear test, or hydrogen bomb in popular usage, was much lower than what was claimed. The test was said to have yielded 45 kilotons (KT) but was challenged by western experts who said it was not more than 20 KT. The exact yield of the thermonuclear explosion is important as during the heated debate on the India-US nuclear deal, it was strenuously argued by the government’s top scientists that no more tests were required for the weapons program and computer simulations would be enough in future design.
The question here arises regarding the timing of the disclosure of the failure of thermonuclear tests. Why would Santhanam go public, with such deliberation, on something that was commonly discussed and widely acknowledged in scientific circles?
The answer, according to some nuclear experts, is to ward off growing American pressure on India to sign various nuclear containment treaties and perhaps enable India to conduct one last series of tests to validate and improve its nuclear arsenal.
US nuclear experts, taking cognizance of Santhanam’s admission have also concluded that Indian scientists are yearning to conduct more nuclear tests to validate and improve the country’s arsenal before the Obama administration shuts the door on nuclear explosions.
Henry Sokolski, Executive Director of the Washington DC-based Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, confirmed the same and opined that Washington has long believed that geo-political objectives rather than scientific or technical metrics drives New Delhi’s nuclear weapons quest.
In scores of research papers and studies in the immediate weeks and months of the 1998 nuclear tests in Pokharan, US and British scientists repeatedly questioned the reported yield of the Indian thermo-nuclear device, saying it was well below India’s claim of 43-45 kilotons.
In fact, some scientists, notably Terry Wallace, then with the University of Arizona and now attached to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, put the combined yield of the three May 11 tests at as low as 10 to 15 kilotons. Two other tests on May 13 involved sub-kiloton devices for tactical weapons, which US scientists doubted even, took place.
India thus appears to be divided in two groups, those who want to test and those who do not.
P.K. Iyengar former head of Bhabha Atomic Research Center and former chairman of Atomic Energy Commission of India, told BBC that he had made it clear in 2002 that India’s nuclear tests were ‘inconclusive and ambiguous’.
Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh and former National Security Advisor, Brajesh Mishra, quoting former Indian President and scientific adviser to the Defence Minister Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam for claiming success of the Pokharan-II tests, have discredited Santhanam’s exposé. Vicky Nanjappa’s interview of K. Santhanam for Rediff.com in ‘Why K Santhanam said Pokharan II was not a success’ quotes Santhanam, when asked to comment on Dr. Kalam’s rebuttal, as saying: “I would like to react to that. First of all, Dr Kalam is not a nuclear scientist. He is a missile scientist and he was not present there at that time. He is blissfully ignorant of the facts. Do I need to say more?”
Even Santhanam, regarding the belated timing of his disclosure admits that “There is a change in the administration in the United States of America. They are bound to further pressurize India to sign the CTBT. In such an event it was necessary to make such a statement or speak the truth on the issue so that India does not rush into signing the CTBT.”
Gary Milholin Director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control confirms the same: “An Indian test would be very toxic to cooperation it has just gained under the nuclear deal.”
N M Sampathkumar Iyangar, a subcontractor of the Indian nuclear and space establishments before their focus turned to weapon development, in his Op-Ed, ‘India’s 1998 nuke ‘fizzle’, confirms Santhanam’s exposé and adds more spice to it. He claims that the 1998 thermonuclear devices were the only “technology advancement” over the detonation of a crude device in 1974 at Pokharan. The absence of scrutiny turned India’s Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) into a den of nepotism and corruption. Pokharan-II, while boosting Vajpayee’s image and fuelling a ruinous arms race in the subcontinent also bailed out DAE mandarins who had siphoned off funds with the promise of generating “20,000 MW by the year 2000” through nuclear power. Nine years later the DAE has failed to establish even 10 per cent of that capacity. Santhanam’s disclosure that the test of the thermonuclear device that he coordinated was a “fizzle” has let a cat among the pigeons.
Outgoing Indian Naval Chief Admiral Sureesh Mehta has also tried to discredit Santhanam, reportedly with vested self interest, as he is hoping to land a lucrative post-retirement placement as an Advisor on the Russian Missile program in India. Bharat Karnad, Indian security expert opines that Santhanam’s confession is important and puts the onus on the government, which has to prove that India does have a thermonuclear deterrent and not a dud.
This is an extraction from the original column by the author published in The Nation. Mr. Hali is a host of a television talk show and a columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com