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Special to The Tribune
1974 nuclear test
‘Keeping preparations under wraps was a feat’
Shyam Bhatia in London

Successfully concealing preparations for the 1974 nuclear test was a significant achievement of India’s scientific establishment. So said Dr Robert Anderson, visiting Fellow at Cambridge and Professor of the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University in Canada.

He is the author of several works about India’s nuclear research, including ‘Building scientific institutions: Meghnad Saha and Homi Bhabha’, the more recently published ‘Nucleus and Nation’ and the soon-to-be completed ‘Negotiating Nuclear Power’.

Asked what is new and surprising about a subject that he has researched for so many years, he said, “That a significant number of physicists, technicians and engineers with respect to the bomb could over three or four years work together very quietly without producing paper, without leaking this knowledge very widely.

“So outside the Prime Minister’s office…very few persons knew there was going to be a test and when it would occur. They did create the conditions and they tested it successfully without anyone’s realisation.

“In India, this is always described as impossible. It is not me who is saying it, but an Indian self-definition that they are not a nation very good at keeping secrets.”

Based on his research at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) archives in Vienna, Anderson added, “I think we now know a great deal about the planning and the pressures on the people who eventually built the tunnels and designed the devices and the triggers and so on and who tested the weapon.

“But I’m also working…on how the so-called peaceful nuclear explosion was defined as early as 1968 - although some definitions had been around much earlier than ’68. This was a definition into which Indian voices could step into.

“Ramanna was there at the meetings around the peaceful nuclear explosion from 1970. So well before the test in ’74, Indians were present and engaged in conversations about peaceful nuclear explosions.”

The men behind it

As an anthropologist, Anderson’s unique contribution to a better understanding of India’s nuclear programme are the insights he brings to assessing the work and personalities of key scientists.

Homi Bhabha is the scientist who most often comes to mind when discussing India’s nuclear research, but Anderson points out that there were many others who were just as important.

They include giants of their time like Meghnad Saha, who predicted way back in 1939 that it would be possible one day to use a nuclear bomb to blow up a battleship, KS Krishnan and Sir Shanti Swaroop Bhatnagar, Secretary of the Atomic Energy Committee back in 1946 and the first head of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, who died in 1955.

Saha, Krishnan and Nazir Ahmed, later the first chair of the Pakistani Atomic Energy Commission, were members of the Indian delegation of scientists that toured Western research facilities in Britain, Canada and the US in 1944-45 - part of the Manhattan Project - where preparations were under way for the world’s first nuclear test in New Mexico in 1945.

They were in many ways the intellectual precursors of men like Bhabha, who was killed in an air crash in 1966, as well as Raja Ramanna and PK Iyengar who each played a key role in preparations for the 1974 test, described at the time as a peaceful nuclear explosion or PNE.

Peaceful blast?

Addressing the issue of whether 1974 was a weapons test or a genuine bid to explore PNEs, Anderson said, “The Russians were committed to it. They did underground testing. We have a paper now on Russian underground tests of 1955. They blew up mountains, whole mountains. They were testing very large weapons, but they were always interested in seismic effects. I don’t know in the beginning to what end, but by the 60s, they had engineers who said they could create large cavities for oil, shale oil in particular.

“So these caverns or cavities were interesting to them. Then, they and the Americans started talking in the 60s about removing geological obstacles - it is called explosive engineering and that’s quite an old business.

“In 1958, the largest non-nuclear explosion in history occurred in April 1958 near my village in British Columbia. It was the destruction of the famous navigation obstacle called Ripple Rock, using 1,300 tons of Nitramex 2H to blow up 370,000 tonnes of rock underneath 300,000 tons of water, all at 100m below the surface.

“This is precisely what the blast engineering community was doing. I think there is a transfer of the blasting idea to the nuclear testing community, obsessed as it then was with seismic detection and eventually to ‘advanced warning’ of testing between Russians and Americans.”





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