Seeds of doubt

The public spat over the efficacy of India’s thermonuclear test at Pokhran in May, 1998, has not done anything good to the faith in the country’s nuclear deterrence posture. Ever since former DRDO scientist K Santhanam, who was involved in the test, blew the whistle on it in August with a statement that the device underperformed, there has been an intense debate over the matter. Many leading lights of the country’s nuclear establishment, including Anil Kakodkar, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, and R Chidambaram, Principal Scientific Adviser to the government, have denied Santhanam’s contention. National Security Advisor M K Narayanan has called him a maverick. But there are a sizeable sections of scientific and defence experts’ communities that support Santhanam too. The result is that there is much more heat generated over the matter than enough light to clarify the issues raised by the scientist.

Santhanam’s contention rests on his claim that the shaft in which the device was placed was not damaged and the dimensions of the crater that was formed after the explosion did not support the supposed yield of 45 kilo tonnes. He says the yield could have been only about 25 kt, which would make the test a failure. The seismic data recorded independently in other parts of the world also did not support the establishment claim. Santhanam says he had reported his findings to the government immediately after the test but it is not known why he has brought up the issue now. Clarity on the matter is necessary, especially because India has declared that it will not undertake further nuclear tests, and there is likely to be pressure on the country to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. There is even a view that the controversy has been stage-managed to give the country leeway in likely future nuclear testing.

The public cannot draw any firm conclusions from the purported facts, observations and interpretations in the arcane world of nuclear technology. The scope of a public debate will also be limited by the national security implications of the revelations that have been made. But the since the issue has come out into the open there is the need for clarity on the issue. An independent evaluation of the positions of both sides might help in that. The debate should not fizzle out, leaving doubts and apprehensions.

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