Of Science and Nuclear Weapons:
A Scientist's Perspective


by
T. Jayaraman
The Institute of Mathematical Sciences
C.I.T. Campus, Chennai-600 113. INDIA

The current euphoria about Indian science and technology generated by the recent nuclear tests conducted by the Indian Government has little parallel in the history of independent India. All official pronouncements, statements by leading political figures or non-left political parties and media commentaries have invariably begun by hailing the event as a triumph of Indian scientific expertise.

But even as it becomes clear that the new policy has no deep vision underlying it and is no more than a leap in the dark initiated by an act of nuclear adventurism that was Pokhran-II, the political stock of Indian science and technology remains high. Despite the sharp internal political divide that has emerged on the nuclear issue, with the Opposition parties directly questioning the motivations, timing and wisdom of the BJP Govt. in conducting the tests, the atomic energy and the defense research establishments have not yet been subjected to any searching public or parliamentary criticism.

In fact, it has been an integral part of the BJP-led Government's strategy to use the "scientific" argument, and the general public appreciation of Indian science and its successes, to justify its reactionary departure from India's established nuclear policy. Initiating the Parliamentary debate on the nuclear issue, Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee claimed that India's newly acquired "nuclear weapons state" status was "an endowment given to her by scientists and engineers." In another instance, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Madan Lal Khurana, claimed that the tests were a scientific necessity.

These appeals to science as justification for an essentially reactionary political decision have wide currency. The chorus of support for these arguments has served to confuse and blunt criticism from sections of public opinion that would otherwise have reacted more sharply to the overturning of the established policy. At least temporarily, the impression of a broad national consensus for the new line, especially among the middle-class and the intelligentsia, has been created.

Science and its political role are very much part of the issue here. The actual content and significance of the claims of high scientific and technological achievement need to be examined with care and placed in the proper perspective. We also need to examine the political role of sections of the scientific establishment, in particular the atomic energy and the defense research sectors, in the run-up to the tests and later.

These questions need to be discussed publicly and not confined to purely professional circles. They cannot be brushed aside by citing the excuse of the inviolability or "neutrality" of expert scientific opinion, nor can questions of scientific credibility be dismissed by mere statements of patriotic faith in Indian scientists.

In this note we will attempt a preliminary discussion of some aspects of these issues.

The technically noteworthy features of the tests that tested a range of nuclear devices for weapon designs, as claimed by the Dept. of Atomic Energy, appear to be two in number. The first, of course, is the explosion of a thermo-nuclear device, also popularly known as the "hydrogen bomb". One of the significant features within this development is that India has reportedly developed a significantly cheaper, quicker and more efficient method of producing the hydrogen isotope, tritium, involved in the device. The second is the explosion of fission devices that are of low-yield; three such explosions were conducted. These tests, it is contended, will permit the gathering of data which will allow the further testing of fission devices purely by computer simulations etc. without recourse to actual explosions. Such low-yield devices are also the elements of tactical or battlefield nuclear weapons though this aspect has not been particularly emphasised publicly.

The second feature in particular, relating as it does to methodologies that are known to be in use only in fairly recent times even in countries like the United States and France, appears in particular to have been significant. The suggestion is that India can seek to join the select band of nations that can undertake what is known as sub-critical testing. Apart from these features, reliable reports from various sources indicate that there were other significant technical inputs involved, including high-quality computer programmes and expertise from the fields of high-pressure physics, reactor physics and experimental ballistics.

While the second achievement of undertaking sub-kiloton explosions has not been seriously challenged (the little data independently available to observers do not contradict this) the first claim, i.e. of the explosion of a thermo-nuclear device, has been more controversial. The claim has been challenged primarily on two counts. One is that there is a discrepancy between the seismographic data of the Indian sensors and foreign sites, with the seismographic evidence of the foreign sites suggesting that the explosions were significantly less powerful than claimed by the Department of Atomic Energy. The second is that according to some expert opinion even the claimed power of the explosions seem not to fall in the class of true thermo-nuclear devices.

The criticism of the DAE on the question of seismic data has come primarily from a nuclear scientist, and former Indian Navy captain, Dr. K. Subbarao, who has clearly made out a case that the discrepancy between the data recorded by the Indian sensors and the foreign ones is clearly untenable. Why should the interference effect, which the DAE claims caused the data discrepancy in the foreign sensors, not affect the Indian sensors?

It is not unknown in science, that under political pressure, experiments can produce results that reflect what is desired, rather than what actually happened or data is produced that does not correspond to what was measured. This may well have happened in the case of the Indian seismic data.

Apart from this discrepancy, there was also a discrepancy between yield estimates from foreign seismic data and Indian official figures. Though the DAE's original interference explanation is rather weak and has rightly been challenged, some foreign experts have now changed their original estimates to those that are reasonably consistent with official Indian ones.

One must add here that it is a well-known practice in nuclear weapons technology to set off multiple explosions in order to confuse foreign sensors. From the seismic data, it is also quite difficult to estimate yields exactly. Several factors such as site preparation, the nature of the soil in the region of the explosions and subsurface formations can actually affect the final calculation, leading to considerable uncertainities in the final yield figures.

The major suspicions in the foreign media about whether India really has a thermo-nuclear weapon centre essentially around the low explosive power of the devices. In general, the data appear consistent, according to foreign experts( cited in a New York Times article by William J. Broad) with a "boosted" fission device. However, the DAE has chosen aggressively to counter the doubts with an explicit claim that it was indeed a genuine hydrogen bomb, with two explosive stages, a "secondary fusion device" with a "fission trigger".

It is true that advanced design thermo-nuclear devices of explosive power ranging from a few tens of kilotons upwards are known to be present in various nuclear arsenals and have been tested. In general however, they have been the result of several years of testing and research, involving both a boosted fission stage and a megaton thermo-nuclear stage. In the absence of such stages in the Indian development of a thermo-nuclear device, the DAE claim, which suggests that India went directly to a third-generation themo-nuclear device, appears exaggerated. There have however been some specialist opinions which suggest that such a low-yield thermo-nuclear device could well be the correct technological route.

It is obviously important that the question of exactly how far the Indian nuclear establishment is on the road to thermo-nuclear capability be answered. From the view-point of scientific credibility and informing the nation of what exactly happenned, it is important that this issue be clarified. Conflicting signals have emerged from the scientific and political establishments after the first few days. Peculiarly enough, while the DAE has been forceful in claiming a thermo-nuclear explosion, it has not really pressed a claim that it has, in fact, tested an advanced third-generation device. The sole exception to this has been a press interview given by Dr. P. Rodriguez, the Director of IGCAR, Kalpakkam, where the explicit claim was made. Dr. Raja Ramanna, an acknowledged spokesman for the nuclear establishment, in a lengthy television interview to Doordarshan on May 27, 1998, did little to clarify this question and simply dismissed criticism. Strangest of all, the Prime Minister's suo moto statement of May 27, to Parliament is completely silent on the subject of a thermo-nuclear device having been developed, while acknowledging other scientific advances like the development of the capability of sub-critical testing.

But the celebration of Indian science and technology that has followed the tests necessitates the placing of these achievements in the limited domain of weapons technology in a broader perspective. Perhaps the first question to consider is, how advanced is this advanced technology that Indian nuclear scientists are supposed to have mastered? In this regard it is worth noting that the time-lag between the development of these testing methodologies in the U.S. and its adoption by other weapon states has itself been quite short. This suggests that the degree of complexity and sophistication required may not be quite so large as has been made out. To obtain a better idea of the scale of advanced technology involved, we can compare the reported achievements in nuclear testing to the degree of advance Indian nuclear scientists have made with regard to the development of fast breeder reactors on a scale suitable for power generation. The Fast Breeder Test Reactor (FBTR) at Kalpakkam was generating power and was connected to the grid only last year, twelve years after it attained criticality in 1985. Even that stage was several years behind schedule with a good part of the delay being due to the loss of the international collaboration with France. A full-scale power-producing fast breeder reactor is still on the drawing boards. The point really is that weapons technologies in the nuclear field are in several respects simpler than those relating to peaceful uses like power generation, where India's performance though noteworthy in several respects, still leaves tremendous room for improvement.

It is also useful to note that much of nuclear weapons technology is secret in nature, and this contributes something extra to the feeling of triumph that accompanies the acquisition and mastery of such technology. This secrecy also contributes to the ease with which the bogey of the competitor having stolen a march on us can be raised, a feature well-known throughout the period of the Cold War.

In India, major achievements and milestones in the development of indigenous capabilities in science and technology have always been greeted with justifiable enthusiasm. But in the case at hand, the abandoning of any sense of proportion in the celebration of India's mastery of advanced scientific knowledge points to an entirely different motivation - driven more by ultra-nationalism and jingoism than any nationalist spirit. Indian science is seen as having established India as a nuclear weapon power, making it a "global player" who cannot be "ignored" by the other nuclear weapon states.

A second question with regard to these claimed advances in the arena of nuclear weapons testing is what gains have really accrued, or will accrue, in terms of strategic and tactical advantages in relation to the powers and forces that are perceived to threaten India. In this regard, two simple points are clear from the long history of the Cold War. The first is that leads in weapons technologies will always be shortlived. The other side will catch up at some point, taking desperate measures if necesssary. The second is that it is not exactly necessary that the sophistication of the armaments needs to be perfectly matched on both sides. Even with one sophisticated player, the other player needs only a few weapons of just the Hiroshima category with rudimentary delivery systems, in order to significantly raise the dangers of nuclear confrontation. Thus, in hailing the "achievements" of Indian scientists in these tests and claiming that they have delivered "security" to the people, as scientists like Raja Ramanna are doing, is to take a somewhat short-sighted view.

This point has been brought home sharply in the aftermath of the Pakistani tests that followed close on the heels of Pokhran-II. There is little doubt that Indian science and technology go deeper and are more sophisticated and broader in scope than anything that Pakistan can boast of. Nevertheless, Pakistan has clearly demonstrated a nuclear weapons capability. Irrespective of the fact that the level of technical sophistication may not match the Indian tests, irrespective of the fact that Chagai-I does not demonstrate an indigenous scientific capability to the same extent as Pokhran-II, we now have an incipient open nuclear arms race in the sub-continent. The over-blown estimation of the superiority of Indian science and technology appears to have blinded important sections of the ruling establishment to the extent that post-Pokhran II little thought was given to the possibility and consequences of tests by Pakistan.

The contribution by the atomic energy and defense research establishments to Pokhran-II was by no means purely scientific or technical in character. It is becoming increasingly clear now that they have played a pro-active role in the build-up of pressure to conduct the tests and have provided important support to the BJP project of nuclear hawkishness.

The evidence for this was originally indirect, based mainly on the strong political support that was provided by top scientific spokesmen for the nuclear energy establishment for the government's decision to conduct the tests in language that went well beyond any demands of scientific clarification. But more direct evidence is provided by the May 15, 1998, letter of former Prime Minister, H. D. Deve Gowda, in his letter to Prime Minister Vajapayee. Deve Gowda states clearly that the "scientists had approached two previous governments to continue the tests, once in 1995 and then in 1997." He adds that like Narasimha Rao before him, "I was requested to make a decision to conduct fresh nuclear tests. I convinced the scientists that the time was not ripe ..."

Some DAE scientists, in public comments and in off the record statements to journalists, have expressed happiness that this government has given them the chance to demonstrate their capabilities and their competence.

This attitude is an unacceptably naive standpoint on the question of the political role of science and scientists, especially in nuclear weapons technology. Undoubtedly, DAE and DRDO scientists have, in their research programmes, to fulfill the mandate that is given to them by the overall policy orientation. But they cannot claim a right to extend the scientific part of the mandate to the point where it goes against the basic political tenets on which the policy is based.

It is even more serious when a critical section of the scientific leadership goes over to an active advocacy of testing and weaponisation, furthering the creation of a mood that has helped the present government to overturn a peace-oriented nuclear policy.

A striking example of this is provided by the PTI report of an interview given to them by the Chairman of the Atomic Enrgy Commission, Dr. R. Chidambaram, on March 3, 1998 ( and published in The Deccan Herald, March 4,1998), when the possibility of a BJP-led Government had become clear. While nominally asserting that the final decision was political, Chidambaram argued that tests were a necessity. According to the report, in reply to the question whether the country could go nuclear as outlined in the manifesto of the BJP, Chidambaram "said that the country was technologically ready and the capability was proved long back". He added that "this preparedness itself was a testimony to the deterrent capability possessed by the country." Further, when asked whether the country could go ahead only with the help of simulations and by avoiding actual ground experiments he retorted "then what was the use of some countries going for 2000 explosions." The PTI report adds: "Speaking in favour of nuclear explosions to increase the database for the country he said, computer simulations alone could not stand and huge actual database was required for simulations." The report continues: "There was huge difference between theoretical studies and practical experiments, he said, adding, ''if you are weak, people will try to take advantage of it``."

Clearly the DAE leadership was all set to bury the earlier Indian policy line of conditional self-restraint on the nuclear option. It found in the ascent to power of a Government led by the BJP, with its long-standing dream of nuclear weaponsation, a congenial political climate.

It is important to tackle directly here the argument of "scientific necessity" for Pokhran-II. The basic rationale for testing, with respect to any technology, is, of course, that one must be certain that the projected designs will work. But this argument cannot be extended indefinitely to situations where the consequences of testing will have an immense political or social fall-out. The political, social and other aspects must have over-riding priority here. This argument is by no means new or unique to the nuclear field. In the field of genetic engineering, for example, certain classes of cloning experiments involving human DNA, have been simply disallowed in several countries irrespective of any potential scientific value.

Undoubtedly, non-testing may require scientists to take more innovative routes, of a much more theoretical or controlled laboratory nature, to validating their designs. If such a discipline is imposed by political requirement or desirability, then science must necessarily accept this, even if this retards further "scientific" advance. In any case, as the experience of Pokhran-II has made clear, the necessary steps to testing could have been undertaken in short order if there was indeed a genuine need for it. And Chidambaram, while invoking the argument of necessity, was clearly aware that the existing technological level and preparedness itself kept India's nuclear option alive and active.

This pro-active stance of a small group of scientists in positions of adminstrative importance and political influence, on nuclear weapons testing and their increasingly open advocacy of the weaponisation option, is a significant departure from the public style of the Indian scientific establishment that has prevailed so far. The boastfulness of scientific spokesmen, post-Pokhran-II has been notable. Prof. A. P. J. Kalam claimed that the nuclear threat to India had been "vacated", while Dr. Raja Ramanna claimed that the tests had provided security to India. These claims, as we noted earlier, have proved to be baseless. Chidambaram himself returned to his vision of a strong India in an interview to Frontline magazine (June 5,1998). His reply to the question "Should we have nuclear weapons or keep the option open?", is worth quoting in full: "No comment.... The most important thing is that India must become strong. The greatest advantage of recognised strength is that you don't have to use it....everybody knows you are strong. Only when people see you as a weak country, they pressure you. We are a big country. We must learn to behave like a big country of one billion people. We should constantly remind ourselves of our strength." This is a remarkable statement marked both by hawkishness as well as a dangerously simplistic understanding of politics.

It is probably overstating the case to speak of the militarisation of parts of the scientific establishment. But clearly a section of top scientists, in the process of helping to overturn established nuclear policy and subsequently defending the new line, have not merely provided support to the pursuit of the jingoistic agenda of a particular political formation. They have contributed to dangerous illusions of strength and invincibility on the subject of national defense and security.

The current euphoria over nuclear science and defense research has obviously made most senior scientists wary of speaking out critically. Several others labour under the illusion that there is a purely "scientific" question of nuclear tests that justifies Pokhran-II, and that this should be considered independent of the political background which led to the tests. Fortunately, some voices of dissent have emerged from within the scientific community on the nuclear weapons issue. Though still a minority, these voices, we hope, will eventually help turn science in India more firmly in the direction of peace and development.

One of the most disturbing outcomes for the public perception of science in the current situation is its delivery as a tool into the hands of ultra-nationalistic jingoism. We have come a long way from the original vision of Homi J. Bhabha and others of his era like Vikram Sarabhai, who saw science as an integral tool in the task of development. We have travelled very far from the vision of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, who saw in S&T projects "the modern temples of independent India" to an insecure nationalism that sees nuclear explosions as the only means to secure "respect" for India in the community of nations.

Even if the earlier Nehruvian vision of science had its share of naivete in its underplaying the role of socio-political change as an important aspect of development (thus land reforms were never as important as the Green Revolution), it nevertheless had the not inconsiderable merit of a humane and peaceful world-view as its fundamental premise. The current scene seems to have room only for an unrelieved hawkishness, cloaked occassionally in the language of strategic analysis, that sees scientific achievement purely in terms of the power advantages that it claims to bring. Characteristic of the current jingoistic euphoria is the impatience with all subtleties in nuclear policy, foreign affairs, or related questions.

But perhaps the most disgusting and distressing aspect of the nature of current public discourse on the nuclear question is the complete absence of any sense of horror at the induction of such weapons of mass destruction, or even a sense of sober reluctance at the thought of their possible use. Television discussion panel participants, talk show hosts, members of studio audiences, scientists in talk shows of various kinds, (with some honourable exceptions) sustain the discussion in the bland language of strategic analysis. "Nuclear weapons are not weapons of war" intones an analyst on a BBC discussion panel, "they are political weapons".

The Prime Minister, speaking to a cheering crowd in front of his residence, assures them that "we will not hesitate to use nuclear weapons if we need to, in self-defence." Where exactly will he explode them? Will it be in the Punjab, or in Kashmir? If it is exploded on foreign soil, will we remain uncontaminated by the fall-out? Such questions are not asked in the din of celebration and euphoria that follows such triumphalist statements.

If the politics of nuclear weapons is an inexact science, as the history of the last fifty years makes painfully obvious, there is nothing inexact, scientifically speaking, of the horrendous effects of a potential nuclear war. It is the subject of detailed scientific analysis and several years of study whose results are widely available. The analysis has been corroborated by "experiment", if one may abuse the term to describe the effects of the bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bottom line is that there is no scenario in which a nuclear confrontation in the sub-continent will not become one of humankind's worst disasters.

If there is one lesson from the years of tension that was the U. S.-imposed Cold War, it is this. Nuclear weapons do not add to security. Nuclear weapons breed tensions, their induction and further development breed only endless cycles of destructive competition that developing countries in particular can ill afford. And once countries begin to travel down that slippery slope it is not easy to stop.

All through the years of the Cold War, the consistent Indian position on nuclear disarmament remained a beacon of hope to democratic and progressive forces, in the Third World and in developed countries as well. India was often joined in its efforts by the best scientific minds throughout the world, many of whom spent a serious fraction of their time fighting for peace and against nuclear war. From the great Albert Einstein onward, through the years, in movements like Pugwash and others, scientists consistently fought the idea that nuclear weapons provided security or that nuclear conflicts could be won.

While standing firmly against nationalist chauvinism and jingoism, progressive intellectuals and scientists in India and in South Asia in general need to go back to the lessons and inspiration of that experience.



T. Jayaraman
e-mail:jayaram@imsc.ernet.in
http://www.imsc.ernet.in/~jayaram

Back to Nuclear Politics Page