H-bomb or a fizzle?

08 September 2009
The claim that the May 1998 thermonuclear test failed should not be used to demand further testing. India does not need hydrogen bombs for security

STRANGE are the ways of our nuclear and foreign policy experts and the defence-science establishment. For four decades, Indian diplomacy has concentrated on and invested tremendous energies into fighting off and avoiding any legally binding commitments on arms control and nuclear disarmament or restraint. The last memorable occasion on which India did so was in 1996, when the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was negotiated at the United Nations Conference on Disarmamen t in Geneva. Having condemned the CTBT as intrinsically unworthy, ineffectual, unequal and discriminatory, India’s representative Arundhati Ghose famously declared that India will not sign it, “not now, not ever”. Yet, Arundhati Ghose, like much of the South Block establishment, now says just the opposite. India should sign the CTBT if the Treaty, put into cold storage in the United States under Republican pressure, is ratified by the Senate, as U.S. President Barack Obama wants it to do. Ironically, before it came on the negotiating agenda of the Conference on Disarmament, India had long held the CTBT, in contrast to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, as a model of a universal, non-discriminatory and equal treaty. But as the crunch came close, India started hedging. The CTBT was soon reviled as a sham, a facade, and a trap set by the Nuclear-5 to prevent India from crossing the nuclear threshold. Just how hollow was the conviction of many ardent supporters of India’s “principled” opposition to the CTBT became evident when they suddenly switched sides to back the Treaty after India blasted its way into the global nuclear club by conducting the five Pokhran-II tests of May 1998. Indeed, by 1999, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who had made the fateful decision to cross the Rubicon – with the consent of, if not at the behest of, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh – was signalling that India would consider signing the CTBT. But if consistency and strength of conviction are not the hallmarks of our nuclear policymakers, then transparency, internal cohesion and accountability are not the forte of the designers and makers of nuclear weapons and other armaments either. The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) have long been notorious for announcing targets they rarely achieve, exceeding generously set cost estimates, and making extravagant and boastful claims about their “indigenous” technological prowess and accomplishments. For instance, the nuclear-propelled submarine, recently released for trials, was to cost under Rs.1,000 crore when the Advanced Technology Vessel project was started in 1975. Thirty four years on, the meter has clocked Rs.30,000 crore. There are credible reports that certain vital designs and components of the reactor, some precision equipment, and the technology of miniaturising the reactor came from Russia. No wonder 143 Russian engineers, designers and consultants who participated in the project were present at the launch function where fulsome praise was showered upon Russia’s “cooperation” by Indian Ministers. All military and nuclear projects in India are touted as “major achievements”, no less. More often than not, however, doubts come to be cast on the veracity of the claims. This is true of the Pokhran test of 1974, projected as a “major scientific achievement”, whose explosive yield was officially claimed to be 12 to 14 kilotons (a kiloton is the equivalent of 1,000 tonnes of TNT, or trinitrotoluene). Many independent analysts believe that the actual yield was 2-4 kt. P.K. Iyengar, former Secretary of the DAE, the principal physicist involved in the test, later said that the yield was 8-10 kt. Another important example is the success of the fusion (hydrogen or thermonuclear) bomb, codenamed Shakti-I, that India claimed to have tested on May 11, 1998, whose yield was reported to be 43 kt. This was one of three devices exploded that day, with a combined yield of 50 kt (revised to 60 kt in February 1999). Thermonuclear or fusion weapons usually have yields in the megaton (1,000 kt) range. But DAE Secretary R. Chidambaram said the Shakti-I yield was kept deliberately low to avert seismic damage to villages in the vicinity of the test site. He claimed the tests were “perfect” and “weaponisation is now complete”. He said that India had conducted its full complement of tests and “obtained three robust bomb designs” from the explosions. He ruled out the need to conduct further tests. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, former DRDO chief and President of India, fully backed him. Yet, the nuclear establishment was itself divided over assessing the success of the thermonuclear device. P.K. Iyengar went on record to say the “secondary” (fusion) assembly probably ignited only partially – perhaps “less than 10 per cent”. Later A.N. Prasad, a former Director of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, voiced a similar view. More important, a number of independent scientists and engineers, including seismologists, nuclear physicists and weapons designers, analysed the tests, based on seismic data, and concluded that the total yield of the three May 11 explosions was 10 to 25 kt. According to the Natural Resources Defence Council of the U.S., the midpoint of the range of probable yields was only about 12 kt. In November 1998, Nucleonics Week, the international nuclear industry’s trade journal, reported, quoting analysts at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory using “classified data”, that “the second stage” of India’s two-stage hydrogen bomb device “failed to ignite as planned”. “They strongly believe that the primary stage …detonated, but its heat failed to ignite the secondary stage.” (For details, see my book, co-authored with Achin Vanaik, South Asia on a Short Fuse: Nuclear Politics and the Future of Global Disarmament, Oxford University Press, 2001.) Since then, more Western nuclear weapons analysts have cast doubts on the DAE’s claims. Said one: “The consensus among outside seismic experts is that the yields of most Indian tests are overstated.” LACK OF TRANSPARENCY And now, K. Santhanam, a former senior scientist with the DRDO and a member of the core team responsible for the Pokhran-II blasts, has exploded something of a bombshell by saying that the fusion device tested in 1998 fizzled out, with a yield “much lower than what was claimed”. Santhanam cited unspecified “seismic measurements” and “expert opinion” from the world over and went on to argue that India must conduct more tests and should not sign the CTBT. Santhanam reportedly aired similar views in closed circles soon after the 1998 tests. But August 25 was the first time he expressed them, albeit in a non-attributable conference in Delhi, from where they leaked out. Santhanam’s statement raises uncomfortable questions about the working of the DRDO and the DAE. They clearly lack a culture of transparency and open debate and have very little internal cohesion despite secrecy. Santhanam reportedly supported the official line against further testing all these years because of “functioning pressures”. At any rate, Santhanam’s statement has ruffled many feathers. Chidambaram, now the Principal Scientific Adviser to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, has challenged him to back his claim with evidence. Former National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra has said that he was speaking out of turn, and that the word of his boss, Abdul Kalam, should be treated as final. And National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan has said that the DRDO had nothing to do with the measurements pertaining to the tests’ yields and that Santhanam is “a bit of a maverick” with no locus standi in the matter. If he believed the test failed, “he should have said so [then], not 10 years later”. Santhanam may be a maverick, but his claim deserves to be debated and the truth established – with one proviso. The hydrogen bomb device’s failure should not become an argument for further testing. There is a powerful case for abolishing nuclear weapons, as this column has repeatedly argued, but none against further refining them or going in for weapons that are 100 or 1,000 times more destructive than the Hiroshima or Nagasaki bombs. Nuclear weapons do not give security and it is ludicrous and dangerous to seek it through nuclear deterrence or a balance of terror. Even if we leave aside for a moment the morally and strategically overwhelming argument for nuclear disarmament and only refer to India’s professed doctrine of minimum nuclear deterrence as the criterion, it is impossible to make a case for a hydrogen bomb arsenal. A minimum deterrent is logically understood as a few dozen fission bombs. One must pause and ask how many bombs it would take to destroy five Chinese and five Pakistani cities. The hawks must not be allowed to hijack the issue of security. They have always demanded more and more powerful bombs, more missiles, more nuclear-capable warplanes, submarines, surface ships. They always will. But more is not better in matters nuclear. As the Cold War demonstrated, amassing more and more nuclear weapons is a recipe for a runaway arms race, more military spending, greater insecurity, and an unacceptable, obscene diversion from our real social priorities.

Praful Bidwai, a fellow of the Transnational Institute, is a senior Indian journalist, political activist and widely published commentator. He is a co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament.