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Nuclear scientist Anil Kakodkar explains: How Pokhran happened (Relevant for GS Prelims, GS Mains Paper II; International Organizations and Bilateral Relations)

20 years ago, on May 11, 1998, India carried out nuclear tests. What were the circumstances that led to the tests? What did India gain from them? Could testing have happened at another time?

Anil Kakodar, nuclear scientist, was director of Bhabha Atomic Research Centre when India conducted nuclear tests in Pokhran in May 1998. He had been actively involved in the nuclear tests of 1974 as well. From 2000, he was Secretary, Department of Atomic Energy, and Chairman of Atomic Energy Commission, posts he held for nine years; it was during his time as AEC chairman that the civil nuclear cooperation agreement was negotiated. Twenty years after Pokhran 1998, he tells The Indian Express why and how India conducted and gained from the tests.

Why were the tests so important for India at that time?
The global nuclear governance set-up after the second world war had the NPT (Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty) as its basis and it had divided the world into the P-5 and others. India, though fully embedded to the peaceful uses of atomic energy, was not very happy with this discriminatory world. I remember (Dr Homi) Bhabha had several times said that India could make a bomb in 18 months. For a variety of reasons, that did not happen, but there was a very deep discomfort with the discriminatory regime. Then in the 1990s, came the (negotiations for) CTBT (Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty). That brought in a tricky situation. If we signed on to CTBT, we would have been closing our nuclear option for ever. If we refused to sign, we would have to explicitly state why we do not want to sign. I do not remember the exact date now, but at that time a deadline had been set for signing the CTBT. It was sometime in 1998, after May.

The other thing, of course, was that post 1974, Pakistan had actively started acquiring nuclear weapons. China was sharing technology and materials with Pakistan, and it was public knowledge. The Indian armed forces knew very well that the Pakistan Army had nuclear weapons. And so, there was this situation in which India was faced with two nuclear capable adversaries. If India had to carry on with its business, including the business of developing itself, it could not possibly be doing under the threat of two nuclear adversaries. We had to have a deterrent.

There were other geopolitical reasons as well, but the point is that the situation had come to a level where we had to take a decision (to test). The process went through several Prime Ministers.

So, the immediate trigger was the looming deadline for CTBT?
The security situation at that time was getting very bad. But CTBT, of course, was a very important factor. The preparations (for nuclear tests) had been going on for quite some time. What was being discussed was the test matrix. The big challenge was how to secure maximum gains for the country in terms of data collection and validating the weapon design capabilities so that we would not have to test again.

So, there was this realization that this was India’s only chance to test?
We did not talk about it. But I was very conscious that we had only one chance. There are people who say that scientifically you must have the option to test again … but that is, you know, if wishes were horses…. I was very clear in my mind that this was our only chance. Because I knew what will happen after the tests are done.

I was also very concerned about India becoming a pariah state. A large country like India cannot remain a pariah in global order. We need to get integrated into the global order. So, that is why I very vehemently argued that we do one fission test and one fusion (thermonuclear) test at the same time. Then, of course, we had these smaller tests where we could try out several ideas and also demonstrate that we could control the yield the way we like.

Was the international reaction to the tests entirely on expected lines or did someone take us by surprise?
A very elaborate analysis had been done about what the international reaction would be. More or less, it happened as predicted. But there were also many of these countries, who were hammering us publicly but passed on congratulatory messages through unofficial channels.

Who were these countries?
I would of course not name any of them. But there were quite a few. Not a very large number but an assortment of countries who told us we did a great thing. It gave us a good feeling.

Were the events that followed in the next few years, including the civil nuclear deal, foreseen in 1998? Was there a realisation that India’s pariah status would not continue for long?

The nuclear deal of course was not foreseen at all. But, a very different global dynamics were at play post 1998, because of a variety of reasons. The Indian economy was doing very well at that time. China has had an unprecedented rise. The excellent Jaswant Singh-Strobe Talbot talks were ironing out a lot of issues. The United States had not yet discovered shale gas and the nuclear energy was still very important for it. An economically growing India meant that India would buy a lot of energy from the market, and the projections were that India would buy so much energy that it would add to the volatility of global energy prices.

So, there were completely new dynamics at play. Energy became very important, counter-balancing China had become very important. And India’s growing economy could not be ignored. So, there was another chance for us to set things right.

We decided to do our bit to make the climate more favourable for us. When all this was happening, we pushed the design for our PFBR (Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor) project and launched the PFBR. We were basically trying to tell the world that if we are setting up PFBR, it means that we are talking about at least a couple of tons of plutonium. It sent the signals we wanted it to send and brought about intended results.

How did the situation change so dramatically within a few years?
A variety of things happened. Some of them, I have mentioned earlier. India was growing and was being looked at as an attractive nuclear market. The Russians were very keen to supply to us, but they said they would have to sort out the NSG (Nuclear Suppliers’ Group rules). We said you sort out the NSG. The French wanted to supply but again there was the NSG hurdle. And it became clear to them that to sort out the NSG rules, they would have to talk to the Americans. In the meanwhile, the Americans themselves were interested in doing nuclear commerce with India.

It was becoming increasingly clear to us that we were in a position to ensure that we can get into this broader international commercial activity on our own terms. In fact, we were at a fairly commanding position. So we drew our red lines. We made it clear that our strategic programme should remain outside safeguards (mechanism). If we set up something with international collaboration then we never had any problem in opening it up for inspections or international scrutiny. We were ready to put some of our existing reactors under safeguards but on the explicit condition that their supplies would never be disrupted. We were running short of uranium and needed international supplies. But we were also sure that our strategic programme would not go under safeguards. And so, a separation plan was worked out. After protracted negotiations, we had civil nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States and similar agreements with France, Russia and other countries. In between, India became full partner in the mega ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) project. Eventually, the NSG waiver also came in.

So, how has India changed as a result of the nuclear tests?
The situation today is like this. India is still not quite in the mainstream, in the sense that we are not yet full NSG members and our weapons status is de facto but not de jure. So, it is not as if everything is done, but I think we are reasonably integrated into the international nuclear mainstream. We can carry on with our business as we like.

The most important fall-out has been with regards to access to international technology. Prior to this happening, even (obtaining) a high-end computer (from abroad) was a no-no. This has all changed. Even with the United States, we now have a high-tech defence cooperation, the NSSP (Next Steps in Strategic Partnership) happened, and there has been a growing engagement on the high-tech sectors of defence, space and atomic energy. Today, I think we are well integrated with the rest of the world as far as technology is concerned. And that is bringing a lot of dividends to the country.

For example, India becoming a partner in ITER would not have happened unless they knew that India was a strong player in nuclear technology. We are now part of a large number of international mega-science projects like LIGO, and Thirty Metre Telescope. The outside world believes it can gain by embracing India.

Then there is that national pride. It is difficult to identify tangible benefits from it but it is a very important factor. India’s stature globally has gone up. The perception about India has changed. And it helps commerce and economy. We talk about our demographic dividend as an advantage. The capacity of this young population has gone up several times because we are technologically integrated. Self-reliance is very good, but we must also not be reinventing the wheel. Technology access is crucial, and we should be able to pick and choose. The nuclear tests might not be solely responsible for this technology integration, but it did play a very big role.

Look at India’s international standing now. Simply count the foreign dignitaries visiting India. Draw a graph of number of heads of government visiting India in a year, and you would see the slope steadily going up, not immediately after 1998 perhaps, but definitely a few years later. And, look at the profile of these people coming to India. These are all big factors.

Then, there are some people who describe the impact of the nuclear tests it in different way. They say that in 1947 we got political freedom, in early 1990s we got economic freedom, and post-1998 we got technology freedom.

Were the nuclear tests also about demonstrating India’s strength?
Nuclear weaponisation has a security connotation. The country becomes stronger, there is a deterrence, and one can stabilise the security situation. But it is also an expression of technological capability of the country. And that, I think, significantly changes the way country is perceived, even economically. (APJ Abdul) Kalam used to say strength brings in respect.

Were the Prime Ministers all convinced about conducting the tests? We know P V Narasimha Rao had also ordered the tests in 1995.

The broad assessment (in the political establishment) was that there will be short term pain and long-term gain. That kind of understanding was there. The issue was whether the government of the day was ready to take the short-term pain. There were issues of handling domestic politics, political dynamics, and power structure. They (the political leadership) were all doing this calculation. Should we do the tests, should we not? I think, Prime Minister (Atal Bihari) Vajpayee was very clear in his head. He did not have any doubts. Even before the BJP came to power, its manifesto mentioned nuclear tests. Of course, Narasimha Rao was convinced as well and had taken some steps. I know Vajpayee gives a lot of credit to Narasimha Rao for the tests, and rightly so. But, I think, Vajpayee probably knew he had to do it. There was absolutely no vacillation from Vajpayee. Twenty years down the line, it seems the 1998 tests were just an evolution waiting to happen.

So, were the tests a certainty? If not in 1998, then sometime later?
No, I don’t think it is that easy. I do not think it could have happened later. Imagine a situation in which the tests had not been done in 1998. And imagine that the CTBT had come into force. At that time, no one knew that the CTBT would eventually not happen. In that case, India’s situation would have been terrible. If you do a scenario building from that time onwards — I know it branches into several directions — several things could have happened with a variety of implications. Today, we can feel satisfied that eventually everything fell into place.

The CTBT did not eventually happen. But would India have signed on to it after its tests? Was signing CTBT and NPT part of the plan of conducting the tests?

There are these issues where the CTBT is very discriminatory. Personally, however, I would imagine that having done the tests, and established ourselves as a nuclear weapons state, signing on the CTBT would not have been too big an issue. We, in any case, have a moratorium (on further testing). This is my view. But there are arguments against this.

Signing NPT, of course, is out of question. India can sign on NPT only if they recognise India as a full nuclear weapon state, and that I think will unravel the NPT itself. My thinking has been that NPT should eventually become irrelevant from India’s perspective. But we must get all the facilities, not just in terms of nuclear supplies and commerce, but also the political status, the seat on the high table. That is what India should work towards, to convert its de facto nuclear power status to de jure.

Immediately after the 1998 tests, and more strongly during the debate on civil nuclear cooperation with the United States, several voices, including some from within the atomic energy establishment, raised question marks over the success of the nuclear tests, especially that of the thermonuclear device. Can those debates be set to rest?

In my mind, that debate does not exist. But I know why it has arisen. It has happened because of the placement of the thermonuclear device. The fission device and the fusion device were placed in different locations, more than a mile away. The thermonuclear device was placed in a much harder environment, in much harder rock. The ground movement that you observe after the test is a very strong function of the placement. What happened is that a crater had developed at the site of the fission device, while at the location of thermonuclear device, there was a mound. Now, a crater is a sign of higher yield. As the yield increases, the ground shape that you get moves from a mound towards a crater. So the argument was that the fusion device had produced a lower yield than the fission device. the way to resolve this is to actually go by instrumental readings. We can also simulate the earth movement back to see whether the calculated ground shape matches with the actual ground shape. And all this exercise has been done.

There were constraints under which the tests were carried out. The two devices had to be tested together, because if one was tested first, it would have damaged the other. Also, the total yield had to be controlled, it could not have exceeded a certain number because there were populated villages nearby and they had to be protected.

Why was the thermonuclear device so important to us?
Well, there were people who did not want the thermonuclear tests. There was this argument that if you carry out two similar tests successfully, you establish the reliability better. But then, it would have also meant that we restrict our deterrence capability to only 15 kilo tons. Nuclear weapons are called the weapons of peace, because of the deterrence they offer. If you want an effective deterrence, you must have a capability higher than your opponent.

Did the successor government own up the nuclear tests?
Well, to some extent it happened during the time of the nuclear deal. India’s nuclear policy has always been part of a national consensus. Unfortunately, post-2000 the discussions around it have become polarised, as have the discussions around most other subjects. The polarisation is not along any ideological or technological reasons. The ground rule is that I will behave differently if I am in government and completely different when in opposition.

Has there been any demonstrated effectiveness of this deterrence in the last few years? We have had stand-offs with Pakistan and China at various times in the last two decades. Could the course of events have been different if we were not nuclear armed?

Let me put this a little differently. Imagine a situation where India was not a nuclear weapons state, and our two neighbors had nuclear weapons. The argument that Pakistan would not have gone nuclear if India had not tested does not hold. Pakistan had nuclear weapons much before 1998 and it was public knowledge. They had not tested because they did not need to. If you already have weapons of proven design, you do not need to test. It is only for people like us, who were developing our weapons through our own R&D, that needed to do the tests.

So, you can imagine this situation of having two nuclear adversaries sharing border with us. And then there are these so-called low-intensity conflicts or skirmishes on the border. Not having a nuclear weapon in this kind of situation is a terrible thing. The other side can keep playing with us. There is what we call in Hindi khurafat karte raho, salami bajate raho. Aaj 5 km le lo, kal 10 km le lo. I think it is very clear that things would have been far far worse for us.

If both the countries do not have nuclear weapons, then conventional superiority remains. If both countries have nuclear capabilities then the skirmishes might take place, but I think, the status quo more or less prevails. But then this is a very strong function of how the deterrence is managed. Because the skirmishes can happen only within the threshold of tolerance. And the important thing is what the other side perceives our threshold of tolerance to be. And there I think the situation is very complex. Management of deterrence is a huge big art.

How do you think we have fared on managing our deterrence?
I would not like to go there. But one thing is clear. It (the nuclear capability) has contributed to stabilising the situation. I think things could have been far worse, if we had not tested.

Would we ever need to test again?
Well, I will not give a scientific answer. A realistic answer to that question is that I don’t think we will get another opportunity to test. Rest is all wishful thinking.

How did the nuclear tests help the atomic energy sector, and India’s atomic energy programme?
My only bit of unhappiness is that the atomic energy sector has not benefitted as much as it should have. Our nuclear programme has, unfortunately, not progressed the way we had expected it to. There have been various reasons for that. We had the problem of the liability act, then (American company) Westinghouse got into financial crisis, even French company Areva had problems. Now, of course, the liability issue is behind us, Westinghouse’s bankruptcy is being sorted out, and Areva is also getting settled. Last year, the government approved ten reactors at one go. So, I think now we are on a rapid upward curve.

How much did the debate around liability hurt the programme?
Financially, it does not make much of a difference. But I think it has contributed to 4-5 years of delay for the nuclear programme to get benefits of the newly opened international commerce. Frankly I had not expected so much political debate on liability. The court case on the Union carbide incident happened around the same time. It changed the very nature and philosophy of liability arrangement. The international framework on nuclear liability works under certain assumptions. Those assumptions changed in India because of these developments.

Where would you have wanted to see India’s nuclear programme in 2018?
There was a time when India was constructing almost nine reactor units simultaneously. My starting point would be to get back to that level. If you are doing that, and you have a construction period of five or even seven years, then you should be constructing one reactor every year. According to me, that is where we should have begun. And then after that the rate of forward movement happens in geometric progression.

Do you think the stress on solar energy has hurt the nuclear sector?
I don’t think there is any conflict in solar and nuclear. They have to co-exist. There are complementarities. One is diffused, the other is concentrated, one is centralised, the other is decentralized. In the long term this country cannot do without nuclear energy. As we seek to replace fossil fuel with non-fossil energy, nuclear is the only option that offers a base-load capacity. Solar or wind cannot be your base load. And you cannot run your grid without a base load fuel.

(Adapted from The Indian Express)

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