Recent arguments among India’s nuclear scientists have injected life once again into a dormant dispute. K. Santhanam, a Defence Research and Development Organisation scientist who handled test site preparations at Pokhran for the nuclear tests in 1998, last week claimed that the thermonuclear device tested then had “fizzled”.
Scientists led by R. Chidambaram, the then chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), had claimed that test yields were in line with the expected results. They had claimed that the thermonuclear device, which uses the principle of nuclear fusion and not fission, had yielded a 45 kilotonne (kt) yield. At that time, doubts about this claim had two sources. One, no country until then had miniaturized a thermonuclear weapon to a yield as low as that. A thermonuclear weapon yield less than 100kt was then, as now, sure to raise eyebrows. Second, the analysis of seismic measurements carried out by non-Indian experts put the yield in the 15-20kt range. As in any scientific endeavour, there are bound to be disputes and arguments on an experimental test. But the crucial difference in this case is that it was an experiment to put the country’s nuclear deterrent capability on a sound footing. That is a domain in which no doubts can be brooked, come what may.
The fact is the arguments come at a wrong time for India. On the one hand, there is renewed pressure on India to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). On the other hand, the country has barely managed to secure civilian nuclear cooperation from the international community. Renewed nuclear testing to put the deterrent on a firm footing will blow that cooperation to dust, and with that any chance that India will be able to gain energy security in the near future. The absence of a sound deterrent will put India in jeopardy. It is a cruel choice for any government to make.
What can be said is this: Any trade-off on this count must be evaluated carefully. But one thing is for sure: India must not sign CTBT until its nuclear deterrent ability is beyond any doubt. That may call for renewed testing at some point in the future. That must not be signed away.
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