January 18, 2020
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The Darkness Surrounding That Day In The Desert

Why the AEC, as it is constituted today, can’t pronounce on Pokhran-II

The Darkness Surrounding That Day In The Desert
Illustration by Sorit
The Darkness Surrounding That Day In The Desert

A veil of secrecy has its benefits. Under its cover, ‘facts’ can be manufactured easily. Such manufactured facts elevate us to such an extent that we feel we are a match for anyone in the world. This is what has happened with India’s first H-bomb test and, earlier, with India’s attempt to develop a nuclear submarine propulsion plant. Both national projects were headed by nuclear scientists who ascended smoothly to top government posts, adept more in the pursuit of power than of science and technology.

The pretence to knowledge of these top nuclear bosses remains undetected still, given how the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) and the Atomic Energy Act, 1962 are structured.

Santhanam’s Disclosures: Eleven years after Pokhran-II of May 1998, Dr K. Santhanam, a key participant in the nuclear tests, picked up courage to state publicly in August-September 2009 that the first Indian H-bomb test on May 11, 1998, did not succeed. It’s no longer possible to pull wool over the eyes of the Indian people and Parliament, as was done in 1998, because Santhanam has now made some startling disclosures about the tests.

There was no crater and there was no damage to the shaft in which the H-Bomb device was placed. These are the most damning revelations from Santhanam.

The most startling of his revelations is that the shaft in which the H-bomb was placed “remained totally undamaged” after the test, and this constitutes clear and conclusive evidence that the device did not succeed—as  was explained by this writer in several published articles in 1998, 1999 and 2000, based on seismic data from Indian and foreign seismic stations. Had the device worked, it would have damaged the shaft substantially. Besides, there are empirical formulae to calculate the yield of a nuclear explosion from the dimensions of the resulting crater. According to Santhanam, “there was no crater” over the shaft containing the H-bomb device, whereas there was a crater with a diameter of 25 m over the shaft containing the A-bomb or fission device, used to set off the H-bomb. This could be taken as conclusive evidence that the H-bomb did not succeed.

Both the key players in Pokhran-II, principal scientific advisor to the government Dr R. Chidambaram and former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, knew this. But they chose to make the then prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee,  believe and proclaim to the world that Pokhran-II was a “spectacular success”.

It is now evident how criticism of Pokhran-II was pushed under the carpet. According to Santhanam, in late 1998, at a meeting chaired by then national security advisor Brajesh Mishra, scientists from BARC differed with scientists from the Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO), with the former claiming success for Pokhran-II and the latter refuting that claim. Mishra, however, went ahead and declared the H-bomb test a success.

Both Kalam and Santhanam participated in the meeting, Kalam as director general of DRDO and Santhanam, also with DRDO then, as field director of Pokhran-II. Did Kalam back Santhanam, his subordinate? I ask this question because Kalam and Chidambaram jointly addressed the press in New Delhi on May 17, 1998, to declare the H-bomb test a success.

The Government’s Response: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described the controversy that arose from Santhanam’s disclosures as “needless”. Manmohan took the position that Kalam had testified to the success of the H-bomb test and his words were “final”. Advertently or inadvertently, the prime minister has put Kalam’s nuclear expertise on the block. National security advisor (NSA) M.K. Narayanan termed Santhanam’s disclosures on Pokhran-II as “horrific.” Narayanan further said the AEC, which comprises a peer group of scientists, had come out with the “most authoritative” statement on the efficacy of the 1998 nuclear tests and that “no more clarification was required from the government” on the matter. “They (AEC) were satisfied in 1998 and they were satisfied in 2009. Now, what are you going to discuss?” Narayanan said in a TV interview.

Indeed, Narayanan, on his part, has put on the block the AEC’s competence to judge Pokhran-II. What is the composition of AEC? And what is its competency to give a ruling in the Pokhran-II controversy?

It may be recalled that the AEC was first set up in August 1948 in the then department of scientific research, created only a few months earlier, in June 1948. The department of atomic energy (DAE) was established on August 3, 1954, under the direct charge of the prime minister through a presidential order. Subsequently, in accordance with a government resolution dated March 1, 1958, the AEC was established in the department of atomic energy. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the then prime minister, also laid a copy of this resolution on the table of the Lok Sabha on March 24, 1958.

The resolution decrees that the secretary to the Centre in the department of atomic energy is also the ex-officio chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. The other members of the AEC are appointed for each calendar year on the AEC chairman’s recommendation and after the prime minister’s approval. Thus, it is clear the AEC is not independent of the DAE. One single person, as secretary to the government in the DAE, is all-powerful and everything works according to his will, because all prime ministers and all advisors to the prime minister have no choice but to rely on him in nuclear matters.

Moreover, the DAE is a self-accounting department. An audit of the DAE may at best be considered notional. This sort of an arrangement for the DAE became possible given Dr Homi Bhabha’s personal relationship with Nehru. While one may not question the competency and integrity of Bhabha, the arrangement he sought and achieved proved detrimental to the national interests and to the growth of nuclear science and technology.

Not one member of the AEC has the expertise or the experience to be able to calculate the energy yield from fission or fusion reactions or blasts.

Now, a look into the present composition of AEC can demonstrate how ridiculous Narayanan seems when he tells the nation that the peer group in the AEC concluded that the H-bomb test of May 1998 succeeded. For instance, Dr Anil Kakodkar heads the DAE; he’s also ex-officio chairman of AEC. Any ruling on Pokhran-II is also a judgement on Kakodkar’s performance. Why? It’s because Dr Chidambaram had relied entirely on the calculations of Dr Kakodkar and Dr S.K. Sikka of BARC to declare that the yield from the H-bomb was 45 kilotonnes. These calculations were published in a paper—‘Some preliminary results of May 11-13, 1998, nuclear detonations at Pokhran’—that appeared in the BARC newsletter (No. 172, May 1998).

The ten-member AEC comprises five non-technical members and five members qualified in technology or science. The five non-technical members are  Narayanan; T.K.A. Nair, principal secretary to the prime minister; K.M. Chandrasekhar, cabinet secretary; Ashok Chawla, finance secretary & secretary to the government of India, department of economic affairs; S.V. Ranganath, ex-officio secretary to the government of India, member finance; and K. Muralidhar, head of management services group, DAE, to work as secretary to the AEC. Obviously, none has expertise in matters nuclear.

The other five members having qualification in technology or science are Prithviraj Chavan, minister of state in the pmo, who has a degree in engineering but no qualification or experience in nuclear technology; C.N.R. Rao, with qualifications in chemistry, and experience in solid-state and structural chemistry; Dr M.R. Srinivasan, ex-chairman AEC, a mechanical engineer who worked in nuclear power plants; P. Rama Rao, a metallurgist by qualification; and S. Banerjee, the present director of BARC, with experience in physical metallurgy and material science. None of these candidates has any experience or expertise calculating the yield from fission or fusion explosions.

Thus, the AEC—as it is constituted today—does not have a member with the experience or expertise to pronounce on the erroneous calculations made by Kakodkar on the yield from Pokhran-II. This is why I say Narayanan is misleading the nation when he said that a peer group in the AEC confirmed the success of Pokhran-II and there’s nothing else the government can do. Whether further nuclear tests are needed or not, the DAE, AEC and BARC definitely need to be reoriented in the national interest.



(Dr Buddhi Kota Subbarao is a former Indian navy captain with a PhD in nuclear technology from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay. He was consulted on the nuclear submarine project by two successive prime ministers, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.)

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