THE government’s reaction to the revelation by former nuclear weapons programme coordinator K. Santhanam that India’s first thermonuclear or hydrogen bomb may have had a flawed design has been cautious and advisedly so. As the government of the day, it is the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) that must cope with the consequences of the bombshell.
Doubts about India’s nuclear capability could make it difficult for the government to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). They could trigger pressures for another set of tests, which would put paid to the Indo-US nuclear deal as well.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is already suffering an implosion and has chosen not to comment on the issue, although former national security adviser Brajesh Mishra did weigh in with the comment that scientists had then assured the government that all the tests had been successful.
The issue, Santhanam has asserted, is not about “belief” but scientific verification. He has pointed out that no country in the world has ever got its thermonuclear design right on the very first test. It took the UK three tests to get its weapon right and France did 29 fission tests before it got the fusion (hydrogen) bomb. Therefore, in his view, given the doubts raised about the test, there is need for more tests to perfect the design and that India should grab the opportunity should it arise.
The doubts about the tests come primarily from seismic analyses and questions raised by the technique of data estimation that have been provided so far by the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC).
Writing in the Nuclear Weapons Archive, ex-nuclear weapons analyst Cary Sublette noted in 2001, “The consensus among outside seismic experts is that the yields of most Indian tests are overstated.” After analysing the claims and counterclaims on the data on the hydrogen bomb test, he concluded that what India carried out on May 11, 1998, was “a partially successful thermonuclear test”. This is what former Indian nuclear weapons designer P.K. Iyengar reiterates in an accompanying article.
Santhanam’s key point is that the thermonuclear or hydrogen bomb in May 1998 was of low yield and not sufficient to meet the country’s strategic objectives. Since India needs to conduct more tests, it should not rush to sign the CTBT.
Foreign ministry sources are playing cool. They say there is no hurry to ink the CTBT and maintain India’s stand on the treaty has been consistent since 1995. New Delhi was a consistent votary of the CTBT, but did not sign it as it eventually emerged because it was not explicitly linked to the goal of nuclear disarmament.
But they are not reckoning with the changed environment in the US. The last time around in 1999, the treaty was ambushed by the Republican party and voted down in the US Senate. Later, the Bush administration refused to move the treaty for ratification. This time, the Obama administration, which has a super-majority in the Senate, is determined to push it through. Once that happens, India will be confronted with the same dilemma it faced prior to the Pokhran-II tests of 1998.
The consequences of an Indian test will also torpedo the Indo-US nuclear deal. The key to the deal is the waiver to the US Atomic Energy Act, which barred nuclear trade between the US and countries that are not signatories to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT). But this waiver only covers Indian nuclear tests until May 13, 1998. Any new test means the ban on nuclear trade will resume.
It is true that article 14 of the Indo-US 123 Agreement is nuanced. According to section 2 of the article, the parties would consult each other before termination and would “take into account” whether the reasons for seeking termination were related to “a party’s serious concern about a changed security environment or as a response to a similar action by other states, which could impact national security”. In other words, a Chinese, Pakistani or even US nuclear test preceding an Indian one would not necessarily lead to the termination of the agreement.
But this is one clause of the agreement that New Delhi would rather not put to test.
This article and the one below appeared in Mail Today August 28, 2009
By Max Martin in Bangalore
Former Atomic Energy Commission chairman Dr P K Iyengar has re-confirmed the claim of K Santhanam that the hydrogen bomb that was tested in 1998 was a failure.
On Thursday, he advocated fresh tests to ensure a credible deterrence in a worsening regional security context, but criticised the government for forfeiting India’s “sovereignty to test” by signing the civilian nuclear treaty with the US.
Speaking to Mail Today, Iyengar said that there has been no certification of the thermonuclear device blasted in 1998 though the govenrment claimed that it – along with other blasts –was a success. “The signature of the nuclear blasts recorded worldwide did not suggest a thermonuclear explosion,” he said.
Reacting to Tuesday’s statement by Santhanam, who had coordinated the nuclear weapons programme during Pokharan II, Iyengar wondered why such an admission came 11 years later.
“I have always been saying that the test was not successful. But the government claimed otherwise,” Iyegar said. “But why is he doing it now? Maybe he is breaking down under the burden. Old age can change people,” he said in a telephonic interview from Mumbai.
The veteran scientists said three parties have to agree to the efficacy of a weapon – the Atomic Energy Commission, the Prime Minister’s Office and along with that the National Security Agency and the armed forces. “But I have not seen any such statement,” he said.
In the current regional context, with the China having thermonuclear device and threats elesewhere, India’s credibe deterrance should include a similar weapon, Iyengar said. China tested the Hydrogen bomb in 1967 – after the USA (1952) and the USSR (1953) and the UK (1957).
But it is not likely that India has it, Iyengar suggested.
In a recent technical paper, Iyengar has given details of the tests . On May 11, 1998, India conducted simultaneously three nuclear explosions underground. “One was of very low yield, less than a kiloton and did not matter for the estimation of the yield. The two larger explosions, it was claimed one was of an improved fission bomb and the other was a thermonuclear device,” Iyengar wrote in a recent paper.
“The improved fission bomb could have at a minimum yielded 10 Kilotons. The total yield of these two together was estimated by international arrays to be of the order of 30 Kilotons whereas the Indian estimate was about 43 kilotons,” he claimed in briefing paper. “Granting that the Indian estimate is correct the thermonuclear device could have yielded only 43 minus 10 i.e. roughly 33 kilotons.”
Reportedly the thermonuclear device consisted of a boosted fission bomb to trigger a secondary, which was the true thermonuclear device. While it is not known what the yield of the boosted fission could be, experts claim that we can boost the fission trigger upto a factor of 10.
Based on that Iyengar argued that the total yield of 33 kilotons, which includes the boosted fission, can only account for a few kilotons for the secondary, or the real blast. “A thermonuclear device using the secondary is meant to be detonated when you want the yield to be several hundred kilotons going upto several megatons,” Iyengar noted.
While the simultaneous triggering of both the devices make the seismic signals overlap and may not get an independent evaluation of the yield of each. “Thus an uncertainty in the estimation of the yield of the thermonuclear device was introduced and has been debated in the international circles,” Iyengar concluded.
Tests are anyway needed to ensure that the weapon is useable for the armed forces, the senior scientists said. “But we have gone ahead and signed the civilian nuclear deal with the USA. And we have lost our sovereign right to test,” he said. “No Congress government – under Indira Gandhi or Rajiv Gandhi – would have ever done it.”
Iyengar, who was vocal against India entering into a civilain nuclear agreement with the USA and opposes signing of the Nuclear Non-Proliferin Treaty (NPT) says techology is essential for self defence. “Tipu Sultan lost his battle against the British because they had better arms. Any country could be invaded.”