Determinants of Nuclear Tests: Pokhran I (1974) and Pokhran II (1998)
Pokhran 1 test
The emergence of China as fifth nuclear power in October 1964 constituted a significant threat to India’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. The strained relations between the two countries after the 1962 aggression sparked off an acrimonious debate on defence policy in the parliament. While speaking on the capital outlay of the Department of Atomic Energy in the Lok Sabha on March 23, 1963, Bade, a member of the Jan Sangh Party strongly pleaded that India should manufacture atomic weapons in view of the threats posed by the Chinese on the borders. But the government opposed this.
The clandestine scale of the United States during Indo-Pak war of 1971 to pressurise India by sending career enterprises and subsequently to expand military base at Diego Garcia indeed provoked the Indian policy makers to go for nuclear deterrent. These preludes, however, were abandoned by the Government of India on the ground that the nuclear technology exclusively for non-peaceful purposes would impede the growth of human civilisation and culture. However, it expressed its desire to use nuclear energy for enhancement of economic developments and civil purposes.
By the beginning of 1972 the basic design for India’s first nuclear device was complete, and other parts of the program for developing the necessary expertise to implement the design were coming along. During that year the data from operating Purnima (starting in May) began flowing in allowing confirmation and refinement of the device’s nuclear design; and the work in plutonium metallurgy reached the point where the device could be successfully fabricated.
The ‘smiling Buddha’, formally designated as Pokhran-I, was the codename of an operation of a first nuclear test explosion by India on 18 May 1974 at Pokhran.
It was also the first confirmed nuclear test by a nation outside the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council having been developed and executed with the help of Canadian nuclear reactors and expertise. The explosive yield of the bomb was reported to be 8 kt.
On 7 September 1972 Prime Minister Indira Gandhi gave verbal authorization to the scientists at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) to manufacture the nuclear device.234 In keeping with the great secrecy involved in India’s efforts to develop and test its first nuclear explosive device, the project employed no more than 72 scientists and engineers working on it in the period from 1967 to 1974.
After a remarkable restraint of 24 years, on Buddha Purnima Day 11 May 1998 India exploded three nuclear devices in Pokhran in the desert of Rajasthan. Two days later on 13 May 1998 India tested two more nuclear weapons. India announced that she is in possession of latest technology in developing nuclear weapons including the ability to conduct sub-critical tests by computer simulation. One of the weapons tested was composed of non-weapon grade plutonium – a significant fact that could enhance Indian nuclear arsenals.
Despite the U.S. government’s self-declared “surprise” at India’s multiple tests in May 1998, India’s march towards an openly declared nuclear capability underscored by new tests was clear for a number of years. During the last several years the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has emerged as the dominant power in domestic politics. One of its key platform issues has been its desire to make India an openly declared nuclear power. The BJP created a shortlived government for 13 days in May 1996, and it is now known that Vajpayee actually authorized nuclear tests at that time, and the devices got as far as being placed in the test shafts, before he called them off when it became evident that his government was unlikely to survive long enough to deal with the aftermath.
Two years later however, on 10 March 1998, the BJP achieved a strong electoral victory and finally succeeded in putting together a governing coalition of 13 (later 20) parties. The BJP wasted no time in making clear its intention to deploy nuclear weapons. On 18 March 1998, the day before he was sworn in as Prime Minister, PM-designate Vajpayee declared “There is no compromise on national security. We will exercise all options including nuclear options to protect security and sovereignty,”. An official planning report further stated directly that the new BJP government intended to “re-evaluate the nuclear policy and exercise the option to induct nuclear weapons”.
This is for the first time that any nation had used reactor grade plutonium to develop a nuclear weapon. Prime-minister Atal Bihari Vajapayee later said: “India now is a nuclear weapon state.” On 11 May PM’s Principal Secretary and National Security Advisor, Brijesh Mishra, in a statement had said, “These tests have established that India has a proven capability for a weaponised nuclear programme.” R. Chidambaram, then Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission.
The tests were organized into two groups that were fixed separately, with all devices in a group fixed at the same time. The first group consisted of the thermonuclear device (Shakti-I), the fission device (Shakti-II) and a sub Kiloton device (Shakti-III). The remaining two sub Kiloton devices made up the second group (Shakti-IV & V). It was decided that the first group consisting of three devices would be tested on 11 of May and second group on 13 May.
A two stage thermo-nuclear device with a boosted fission primary its yield was downgraded from 200 kt (theoretical) to 40 kt for test purposes.
A pure fission device using the plutonium implosion design with a yield of 15 kt. The device tested was an actual nuclear warhead that can be delivered by bombers or fighters and also mounted on a missile.
An experimental boosted fission device that used reactor grade plutonium for its primary with a yield of 0.3 kt. This test device was used to test only the primary stage, it did not contain any tritium required to boost the fission.
A 0.5 kt experimental device. The test only purpose was to collect data about the explosion process and to study the performance of various bomb components.
A 0.2 kt experimental device that was U-233, as isotope of uranium not found in nature and produced in India’s fast breeder reactors that consume thorium. This device too was used to collect data.