Nuclear Weapons Testing and Development

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated


NUCLEAR WEAPONS TESTING AND DEVELOPMENT In 1945, when the first atomic bomb destroyed Hiroshima, Mahatma Gandhi predicted that "unless now the world adopts nonviolence, it will spell certain suicide for mankind." Following India's independence in 1947, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) and Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) were founded by Homi Bhabha with encouragement from Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who also served as science minister. TIFR's function was solely to conduct pure research; BARC's explicit role was to harness nuclear energy to help provide for the electric power needs of a post-independence industrial India. India in the early days managed to acquire nuclear reactor technology from a number of Western countries, primarily Canada (CANDU reactors) and the United States (Tarapur). Gandhi's warnings against the use of nuclear energy for military ends may have helped to prevent the development of the Indian bomb well into the 1960s. It was only after the Bangladesh War of 1971 that India, under Indira Gandhi, was sufficiently emboldened by its military victory against Pakistan to test a nuclear device of its own. In 1971 Prime Minister Gandhi gave the order to go ahead with the test. It took two years to prepare for the test, which was reportedly beset with problems with electronic detonators. In 1974 India conducted its first test of a "peaceful nuclear device," the underground "Smiling Buddha" detonation (on the Buddha's birthday in May) in the Rajasthan desert at Pokharan. Estimates of the yield vary, but it is thought to have been around 12 kilotons of trinitrotoluene (TNT), somewhat smaller than the Nagasaki bomb of 20 kilotons.

China, on the other hand, had already made progress in the development of nuclear weapons. In a thirty-two-month period, China successfully exploded its first atomic bomb (16 October 1964), launched its first nuclear missile (25 October 1966), and detonated its first hydrogen bomb (14 June 1967).

On 11 May 1998 (again on the Buddha's birthday), India conducted three underground nuclear tests of a 12 kiloton conventional fission bomb (an improved version of its 1974 device), a 43 kiloton thermonuclear device, and a device smaller than a kiloton. Enriched plutonium is the suspected fuel, although for the small devices, enriched uranium may have been used. These tests were followed days later by two small devices at a different site. In both cases, the devices concerned were exploded simultaneously. P. K. Iyengar, former chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC) and a key player in the development of the 1974 device, said in an interview that the tests show that India has three categories of nuclear weapon design: a low-yield tactical weapon, a full-size fission weapon, and a thermonuclear weapon. He added that these three options should satisfy the military's interests.

Seismic test analysts have disputed India's claim of the strength of the devices, but a report in the journal New Scientist (Mackenzie, p. 2138) supports the Indian claim, citing a University of Leeds seismic expert, Roger Clark, whose calculations tend to buttress the Indian claims of the yield. Debate continued over the strengths of the Indian tests and the ability of seismic monitoring to verify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). India continues to maintain that it exploded a hydrogen bomb. R. Chidambaram, then IAEC chairman, has said that India can explode a 200 kiloton device if it chooses to do so. Some Western scientists have cast doubt on this claim, speculating that what was exploded was a fusion-boosted fission device, which is technologically less challenging.

India has developed missiles—the Prithvi, with a range of 155 miles (250 kilometers), and the Agni, with a range of 932 miles (1,500 kilometers)—that are capable of delivering nuclear weapons. These could already be mass-produced and are capable of reaching the Chinese cities of Beijing and Shanghai. India is thus capable of conducting retaliatory strikes against nations that threaten it with nuclear power, although the Indian government has foresworn any first use of nuclear weapons.

According to the publication Jane's Defence Weekly (May 1999), Indian scientists are reportedly developing a longer version of their intermediate range ballistic missile Agni III, which will have a range of 2,175 miles (3,500 kilometers). Together with its 1,243 miles (2,000-kilometer) range Agni II (designed to carry a nuclear warhead) and its Agni I (already test-fired three times), and its short range surface-to-surface missiles Prithvi I and II and surface-to-air Akash and Trishul missiles, the Agni III will give India its minimum nuclear deterrent (MND). India is also on the threshold of deploying a submarine-launched ballistic missile, Dhanush, which could later be deployed on surface warships.

One factor that impelled the Indian government toward nuclearization was the preferential treatment that successive U.S. governments gave to the Communist government of Beijing. Since U.S. president Richard M. Nixon's visit to China in 1972, U.S. governments largely ignored abuses of human rights in China, awarding the nation most favored nation status and a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council. It is no coincidence that the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council are also the nations that constitute the "nuclear club," namely Great Britain, France, Russia, China, and the United States. U.S. overtures to China even include cooperative scientific ventures. The U.S position was that the only way to "wean" China away from its Communist political system was to teach it capitalist economics and to engage it constructively. The Indian defense minister at the time of the 1998 nuclear tests, George Fernandes, announced that it was China, not Pakistan, that was India's "main threat," perhaps thus signaling the imminent nuclear tests by seeking to clarify India's defense concerns.

The harsh U.S. reactions to the tests (sanctions, suspension of scientific collaborations, repatriation of Indian scientists visiting the United States, denial of visas to scientists wishing to visit the United States, and preventing U.S. scientists from attending conferences held in India) contrasted sharply with Washington's lack of reaction when China and France last conducted nuclear tests (1995), in violation of the CTBT, which neither have as yet signed.

An unfortunate and perhaps unforeseen effect of the tests by India and Pakistan is that the Kashmir issue, which was languishing on a bilateral backburner, suddenly found "legs" and was elevated to a high profile in the international list of "problems to be solved." This clearly was not beneficial to the Indian position and may be seen as an unfortunate outcome of India's nuclear tests.

On 13 May 1998 the U.S. government imposed sanctions on India, "in accordance with Section 102 of the Arms Export Control Act, also known as the Glenn amendment," involving "termination of assistance under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, except for humanitarian assistance for food or other agricultural commodities; termination of sales of defense articles, defense services, or design and construction services under the Arms Export Control Act . . . termination of all foreign military financing under the Arms Export Control Act" and "denial of any credit, credit guarantees, or other financial assistance by any department, agency or instrumentality of the United States Government."

On 28 May Pakistan conducted tests, and equal U.S. sanctions were applied to Pakistan. In July 1998, seven Indian scientists were expelled from the United States, and a "blacklist" of sixty-three Indian and five Pakistani institutions was announced. TIFR and BARC were on that list.

It was only with the visit of U.S. president Bill Clinton to India in 2000 that the U.S. government relented. India has joined the United States as a "strategic partner," though neither India nor the United States has signed the CTBT, though India has announced a voluntary moratorium on further testing.

Nuclear tensions in the subcontinent have eased somewhat since the peace overtures made between India and Pakistan at the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation meeting in Islamabad in January 2004. Further easing of tensions may result with improved economic ties between the two nations and with India's reaffirmation of the Gandhian principle of nonviolence.

Rajendran Raja

See alsoBallistic and Cruise Missile Development ; Ballistic Missile Defenses ; Nuclear Programs and Policies


Mackenzie, Debora. "Making Waves." New Scientist (13 June 1998): 2138.

Perkovich, George. India's Nuclear Bomb: The Impact on Global Proliferation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

SarDesai, D. R. and Raju G. C. Thomas, eds. Nuclear India in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2002.