Testing Times for India’s Nuclear Policy

A great deal of controversy has been stirred up recently regarding the yield of Pokhran II, after K Santhanam,  the former DRDO scientist and the DRDO co-ordinator for the 1998 nuclear tests went public questioning its success. This is not the first time that the yield from the thermonuclear (or the hydrogen bomb) in the Pokhran II test has been questioned. The international experts had even then raised doubt on this count, a doubt that had been echoed privately by other experts. Most of the current debate is centred on the central premise that India needs hydrogen bombs for a credible deterrence. The question that we have to ask is the minimum credible deterrence based on the size of the bang we can produce or the very fact that India has nuclear weapons? What level of civilian deaths that will take place due to a bigger bomb will satisfy the proponents of the big bomb theory?

A section of the nuclear establishment have always been in favour of the big bomb theory – the bigger the bomb the higher the deterrence. A reality check will show that a nuclear bomb is not possible to use militarily; if you believe in deterrence theory, the deterrence effect comes from possessing nuclear weapons and not their size. To discuss the threshold of damage in any nuclear exchange is to get derailed into how many weapons we should have and what should be their size, what should be India’s second strike capability and so on. This is the path of Mutually Assured Destruction or MAD. It is this mad MAD nuclear and missile race that broke the back of the Soviet economy during the cold war.


While the nuclear race for a bigger bomb is not a goal that we should favour, it is also true that the government of the day including the nuclear establishment believes that the people do not deserve to know the truth and it is fundamentally the preserve of a select few. That is why the results of the nuclear tests – the earlier Pokhran I and now Pokhran II have become controversial.

First the simple facts. India in Pokhran II exploded five devices. While three were miniaturised devices, two are important from the stand-point of size. One of them was a straight forward fission device (Shakti 2) using plutonium of approximately 12 kilotons (equivalent to 12,000 tons of an explosion with TNT). This sets at rest questions about Pokhran I yield, which has also been estimated to be lower than the official claims.

The other device (Shakti 1) was a two-stage boosted fission-fusion device. A boosted fission device has a small amount of tritium (a heavy isotope of hydrogen) in it to boost the fission in the fissile material. In a hydrogen bomb, the trigger is a primary, which is generally a boosted fission device. The boosted fission in the primary creates the condition for the second stage –  an adjoining secondary chamber filled with  fusion material. In this secondary, there is a fusion reaction that increases the yield of the device significantly.

There have been doubts regarding the yield of Shakti 1 right from the beginning. Most outside experts computed the yield of the device to be to be around 30-35 kilotons and not 45 kilotons as claimed by the Indian side. It is true that they do not have full information regarding important data required to come to any definitive conclusions. BARC has far more data and is in a position to estimate the true yield of explosion much more accurately. Neither is it possible for BARC to release all data which would verify the yields independently without giving away information regarding weapons design. For the general public, there was a reluctance in believing foreign experts, particularly as they did not have full data needed to come to a definite conclusion. This is where matters rested before Santhanam went public.

It is now clear – after Santhanam’s public disclosure – DRDO did not agree with the  claims of BARC regarding the yield of Shakti 1. From what Santhanam has now made public and what various scientists have been saying in private, we have to conclude that the hydrogen bomb was a partial success and did not provide its true yield. The first stage – the boosted fission primary worked but the fusion stage produced only 15-20 per cent of the expected yield. Instead of the expected about 45 kilotons, Shakti 1 produced about 25-30 kiloton yield, consistent with what others have been saying from their analysis of the seismic data.

Just to put these figures in perspective, let us look at the yields of the only two bombs ever exploded in war – the Hiroshima and the Nagasaki bombs. The Hiroshima bomb was about 13 kilotons and the Nagasaki one was 25 kilotons. The Hiroshima bomb killed an immediate 70,000 and with conservative estimates  another 130,000 by 1950. The death figures of Nagasaki are comparable. The circle of total destruction in the two cities was about 1.6 to 2 kilometres, with another outer circle of about 3 kilometres where fires and other effects destroyed most buildings and structures. And all this was done by bomb yields lower than the test device of Shakti 1!


Obviously, if we are thinking of the strategic value of nuclear weapons, even with the boosted fission device and a partial fusion of the secondary, India has the capability of producing a bomb with 50-100 kilotons capacity. With a boosted fission design alone, a capacity of 45-50 kilotons can be achieved by just scaling up the fissile material and the tritium in its core. The question we need to ask is whether we are truly talking about the need for a hydrogen bomb or is it vanity strategy – others have it and if we want to play with the big boys we must have it too!

It is not surprising that BARC and the nuclear establishment are caught on the wrong foot. Having claimed full credit for a hydrogen bomb, they cannot now go back and accept its partial success. The BJP and the Congress have both agreed with the US that they will do no more testing, irrespective of what they may claim in public. The BJP has even more to lose – once they accept that Pokhran 2 failed, then its advance over Pokhran 1 is non-existent. Why then did they subject the country to sanctions imposed after Pokhran II? The role of ex-president Kalam and Dr R Chidambaram has been controversial from the beginning. They have used their stature to endorse claims they probably were aware were not correct. Having done that and taken the bow from the nation for a successful hydrogen bomb test, they can now not go back and sing mea culpa.

Santhanam and others are now asking that India should conduct more tests to perfect its hydrogen bomb. This is where we must part company. Yes, quite possibly the tests that were done were not fully successful. However, the belief that only a successful hydrogen bomb test will put us in some elite club is foolish. The issue is not more tests, but can India own up to the disarmament view – all countries possessing nuclear weapons must give them up. It is not a altruistic utopian requirement but crucial to the survival of the globe. It is here that India is caught in a double bind – it wants to be an official nuclear power and also argue that it will not sign the CTBT. The only way it can bargain on CTBT is if it stands up says what it always did earlier – all nuclear weapons states including India, Pakistan and Israel should give a time bound program for getting rid of their nuclear weapons. Under such conditions, India would be willing to sign the CTBT.

Why are we saying that all countries need to give up nuclear weapons? Simply put, the nuclear threshold today is much lower now than earlier. The technology for producing fissile material is not only known but also costs far less than it did at the time of the Manhattan project. The technology – either uranium enrichment through centrifuges or plutonium in reactors – is becoming much more easily accessible. The NPT regime has no bar on either enrichment or running reactors. Therefore, unless the nuclear weapon states agree for disarmament, we are likely to see their monopoly go as more and more states break through the current nuclear firewall.

Almost 40 years after the signing of the NPT, the global “bargain” — that non-nuclear countries would not develop nuclear weapons, and that five nuclear-armed countries would take good-faith disarmament steps for the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons — is in deep crisis. While the non-nuclear weapon countries kept their side of the bargain, nuclear disarmament of the nuclear weapons countries was, at best, meagre. Even this halting disarmament process between the US and Russia has come to a standstill after 1991-92 and is now threatened. The US strategic doctrine (The Nuclear Posture Review), which states that nuclear weapons can be used against non-nuclear weapon countries, and even in a first strike (“preventive” and “pre-emptive” war), is now its accepted doctrine (“National Security Strategy of the United States of America“ document prepared in 2006).  This is a brazen assertion that the United States is not bound by either international law or any canon of civilised behaviour amongst nations: others should give up nuclear weapons but the US reserves the right to use such weapons even against the countries who have given them up.


We had warned at the time of the India US nuclear deal that the price India was paying for this tie-up was giving up its strategic independence while gaining only nuclear fuel. It was clear from the beginning that India was not going to get enrichment and reprocessing (ENR) technology and was being pushed into an expensive and dependent path of nuclear energy development. More than a year has passed since the government survived the confidence motion on the nuclear deal. The balance sheet today is that apart from nuclear fuel, India has not gone any where on the deal. India has not even taken up the issue of  ENR with the US, after US managed the G7 to endorse a ban on ENR technology for India. The French Areva and Westinghouse/GE reactor deals are shrouded in mystery. It appears that these companies want a complete exemption of liability in order to supply equipment, for which India would have to pass a special nuclear liability act. If the only gain from the deal was nuclear fuel, India would have been far better off to argue this case before the NSG.

India has some tough choices. It can either play ball with the US, accept its junior partner status and sign on the dotted line – in this case the CTBT. In that case it will have to revise its strategic understanding. Or it can break with the US. It can do this the way Santhanam and the nuclear hawks want – test again and go into a nuclear doghouse. Or it can put at centre stage the global disarmament agenda. Both these mean breaking with the US, something that this government does not want to do. What we need is that India breaks with the US and also puts global disarmament on the table. This is the only sane course for India and indeed all humanity.