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Why Pokhran yield does not matter now

Last updated on: August 31, 2009 20:50 IST
L V Krishnan, who retired after 39 years of service at the Atomic Energy Commission as director of the safety research programme at the Kalpakkam nuclear facility, discusses the current controversy over the 1998 nuclear tests.

The controversy over the yield of the thermonuclear device tested in 1998 has resurfaced. The revelations and the reactions to it do not present a pretty picture.

The controversy is not new. It came up now during the course of discussions after a seminar at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis, a government-funded think-tank. Its work covers issues of national security and serves to inform the government of the options for strategic decisions and their implications.

The seminar titled 'India's Nuclear Command and Control' may have been a routine one. But, the presentation and the discussions have relevance in the context of the forthcoming international meeting on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in September end.

One of the methods adopted in such discussions to encourage participants to speak freely is to adopt the so-called 'Chatham House' Rule. The audience is told that the statements made in the meeting may be quoted but without attributing them to the speaker concerned. This is a rule widely prevalent and found to be very useful in making available the relevant information without embarrassment to the speaker or the government.

In this case, an eager beaver journalist appears to have violated the rule, making the controversy bigger than it really is. The organisation employing the journalist could have checked on the circumstances in which the statement was made and exercised restraint. Perhaps, it is too much to expect that in these days of severe competition among the media for breaking news. If so, it is certain to inhibit disclosure of important information in future.

The controversy itself is of a scientific nature. The claim that the yield was below expectation was made by one who was part of the test programme. He had earlier been identified in one of the books published soon after the tests in 1998 as the person responsible for weaponising the nuclear devices. This role obviously would include assessment of the efficiency of the device. His statement has been refuted by the designer group.

Scientific controversies are not uncommon. Recent examples include climate change and the theory of evolution. Another instance that is related to security of a nation is the debate in the US on the need for a Reliable Replacement Warhead. It is difficult for non-scientists or even scientists without the relevant background to take an effective part in such debates.

The present controversy is not surprising since the Indian programme is not large enough like in the US where one of the two weapon laboratories always participated in nuclear tests by the other to assess the results.

Where there is a lone team, there can be a tendency to disregard contrary views. It is desirable to find instead ways of resolving the differences. It may in fact be necessary in case of an issue relating to national security.

More is being read into the statement and its timing than is warranted, by various sections. The media has attempted to use it as one more stick to beat the Bharatiya Janata Party with now, as it was the BJP then in power that ordered the tests.

The present government is discomfited because the controversy paints the nation's nuclear deterrence as inadequate.

Besides, the non-proliferation lobby in the US that had opposed civilian nuclear cooperation between the US and India is using this as an opportunity to raise a scare that India is preparing to conduct a nuclear test again.

In their defence, the supporters of BJP and officials of the present government have chosen the easy way out by dismissing the former government official who made the statement as an uninformed or inconsequential person.

As a responsible nation, India has always stood for abolition of nuclear weapons, though the security compulsions have caused it to develop and weaponise them rather reluctantly. Even if the technical experts advise resumption of testing, the final decision is a political one to be made by the government after careful consideration of the risks and benefits.

Let us assume that further testing is not undertaken, whatever the reason, and confirmation of the redesigned thermonuclear device cannot be done. Fission devices can take their place equally well and cause as much damage. The trend as we see from the current discussions on the RRW in the US is to move away from the high yields made possible by thermonuclear devices. These were regarded as useful in the Cold War environment and not applicable now. It is entirely feasible to achieve yields of a few hundred kilotons with fission weapons, if need be.

Admiral Sureesh Mehta, who retired as the naval chief on Monday, has wisely declared that the country can defend itself effectively with what it has. There is no need to stoke this needless controversy, as the prime minister has described it, any more.

L V Krishnan