Srinivas Laxman, TNN 18 September 2009, 01:44am IST
MUMBAI: Eleven years after India tested nuclear bombs in the deserts of Pokhran, embarrassing details about the test fizzling out have exploded into a full blown controversy with top nuclear scientists on Thursday demanding that the government institute an inquiry to determine whether the test failed. Former nuclear czars said they were ashamed that information had been hidden.
Three former nuclear leaders — M R Srinivasan, P K Iyengar and A N Prasad — said in the wake of revelations by K Santhanam, project leader for Pokhran II, the government must order a peer review into the yield of the thermonuclear test of May 1998.
Santhanam went public first on August 26, saying that the yield from the test was far lower than what prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government claimed. On Thursday, in a newspaper article he disclosed embarrassing details saying the test was a failure because the yield was only 25 kilotons, nearly half of what the scientists had then claimed. He said that a meeting of scientists discussed the failure soon after the test and decided to hide it. He also pointed out that the failure meant that India now did not possess a credible nuclear deterrent, indicating that warheads on India’s long-range missile could have far less punch than expected.
R Chidambaram, former chairman of Atomic Energy Commission and the architect of the nuke tests; Anil Kakodkar, then director of Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, and APJ Abdul Kalam who led the team from Defence Research and Development Organisation, have insisted the device operated according to its design specifications and the yield was 45 kilotons.
At a meeting on September 5, the AEC dismissed the first statements made by Santhanam, saying through different types of analysis it was established that the yield of the thermonuclear test was 45 KT. Now, even scientists in Barc, the nation’s top nuclear weapon establishment, doubt the claim.
While saying he was surprised by Santhanam’s article, M R Srinivasan, former AEC chairman, told TOI it was time for both Chidambaram and Kakodkar to clarify the situation. “In such circumstances I think a peer review is certainly warranted,” he said.
At the same time he said he still stood by the official position and would support Chidambaram and Kakodkar regarding the yield of the thermonuclear test. “A lot of information has been published and is on record. So I have really no reason to disbelieve at this stage either Chidambaram or Kakodkar on this issue. However, because of the current controversy, I think the best recourse would be for both of them to clarify the position through a peer review,” he added.
Former Barc director, A N Prasad, who has all along maintained that the thermonuclear test was anything but a success, said, “The painful fallout of this episode is that the credibility of the nuclear scientific community and the respectable name of Barc is being damaged by a few at the top.”
In a direct attack on Kalam and Chidambaram, Prasad said: “If all that Santhanam has written is true, then people occupying high places have misled the country. If all the data about the thermonuclear test has been held by one man (Chidambaram), then how can it be scientifically contested or debated? He has kept it under wraps.”
Stressing that there should be a probe by a committee constituted by the government, Prasad said that the team should comprise those having serious doubts about the yield of the test as well as experts who can include former nuclear scientists who have been raising their voices. “It should not consist of only yes men. It should consist of those who are knowledgeable, who have the capacity to investigate such a serious matter,” he said.
“If this committee concludes that the thermonuclear test had completely failed then the government has played a major fraud on the people of this country,” he said. Asked if the AEC itself can investigate, he replied: “It has credibility, but no expertise.”
Another former AEC chief, P K Iyengar said, “The government should undertake an active investigation immediately following the statements made by Santhanam in the article. I am feeling really ashamed.”
Regarding a revelation in Santhanam’s article that the thermonuclear device had not yet been weaponised like the fission devices, he said: “How will they do it if they are doubtful about the yield? This itself is a clear indication that the test was not a complete success.”
Both Iyengar and Prasad said the disclosures by Santhanam, that there was no disturbance to the shafts at ground zero, was also proof that the test was unsuccessful.