A senior scientist and DRDO representative at Pokhran II has admitted for the first time that the May 1998 nuclear tests may not have been as successful as has been projected and also emphasized the need for India to conduct more tests to improve its nuclear weapon programme. The Indian security establishment on Thursday reacted with dismay to suggestions by top nuclear scientist K Santhanam.
India conducted five nuclear tests at the Pokhran test range. Three of them were conducted on May 11 and two on May 13, 1998. The team which conducted tests was headed by Rajagopala Chidambaram and the Device was developed at the Defence Research and Development Organization or DRDO’s Terminal Ballistics Research Laboratory.
Santhanam has disclosed that the thermonuclear explosions conducted at that time were ‘actually of much below expectations and the tests were perhaps more a fizzle rather than a big bang.’
In nuclear parlance, a test is described fizzle when it fails to meet the desired yield. India had claimed at time that test yielded 45 kilotons (KT) but this claim was challenged by western experts who said it was not more than 20 KT. In fact, some scientists, notably top nuclear seismology expert Terry Wallace, then with the University of Arizona and now attached to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, put the combined yield of the three May 11 tests at as low as 10 to 15 kilotons. Two other tests on May 13 involved sub-kiloton devices for tactical weapons, which US scientists doubted even took place.
Santhanam’s view was shared by nuclear scientist Subramaniam who said “there was something wrong with the seismic signals which seemed pretty weak to me then. So I would tend to agree with Santhanam”.
The security expert Bharat Karnad said Santhanam’s admission is remarkable because this is the first time a nuclear scientist and one closely associated with the 1998 tests has disavowed the government line. “This means the government has to do something. Either you don’t have a thermonuclear deterrent or prove that you have it, if you claim to have it,” said Karnad.
The exact yield of the thermonuclear explosion is important as during the heated debate on the India-US nuclear deal Indian government is under pressure from the international non proliferation lobby, to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). It was said the disincentive the nuclear deal imposed on testing would not really matter as further tests were not required.
Brajesh Mishra, the Former National Security Advisor in the NDA regime under Atal Behari Vajpayee rejected top nuclear scientist K Santhanam’s charges.
He said, “Dr APJ Abdul Kalam who was scientific advisor to the Defence Minister in 1998 had openly said that the nuclear test in Pokharan in 1998 was enough and we could sign the Indo-US Nuclear deal. Dr Santhanam was working directly under Dr Kalam and both were present when Pokharan took place. That should answer any questions about the test.”