Book Title: India Rising: Memoir of a Scientist
Author: R Chidambaram with Suresh Gangotra
Dinesh C Sharma
A remote village called Pokhran in the Thar desert shot to international fame half a century ago when India conducted a peaceful nuclear explosion (PNE) there. It came into limelight once again in 1998 as nuclear devices were tested at the same site, marking India’s entry into the club of N-weapon states.
In recent years, Pokhran — now a small town — has caught people’s imagination via popular culture, the latest being the second part of the web series ‘Rocket Boys’. Some of the scientists featured in dramatised versions of the 1974 and 1998 nuclear tests are surviving to share behind-the-scene stories of the two iconic events in India’s science and technology journey. Experimental physicist R Chidambaram is one such. He has the unique distinction of having played a vital role in both Pokhran-1 and Pokhran-2. So, it is natural for him to focus on nuclear tests in his autobiographical memoir.
The author has devoted two chapters to Pokhran and some details about the tests are sprinkled in the other chapters too. Chidambaram joined the neutron crystallography group at the Atomic Energy Establishment, Trombay (AEET) — later renamed as Bhabha Atomic Centre (BARC) — in 1962. Sometime in 1967, Dr Raja Ramanna called and told him to work on ‘nuclear weapon design’ in addition to his crystallography work. Ramanna decided that nothing regarding the project would be put on paper and no records would be kept. Scientists were drawn from various groups to work on weapons but they worked part-time on the project so as not to arouse suspicion among colleagues.
Ramanna deputed Chidambaram to witness a PNE at Rulison in America in 1969. The experience gave Chidambaram a ‘good idea’ about PNEs that helped him while designing one back home.
The scientist recalls how plutonium for the 1974 test was transported from Bombay to Pokhran in a convoy of military trucks. The plutonium box was camouflaged among several similar-looking boxes. “Nobody except us knew which box contained plutonium. During the entire journey, we had beds brought in the truck and slept inside the truck,” writes Chidambaram. Days leading to the test had several anxious moments. The site was hit by a duststorm when the nuclear device was being lowered into the shaft. It was challenging but turned out to be beneficial since spy satellites could not pick any unusual movement in the Thar. While the chapter on Pokhran 1 has graphic details, the one on Pokhran 2 merely discusses technical points and clarifies doubts raised about the yield of the tests.
Although there was a gap of about 24 years between Pokhran 1 and 2, according to the book, the weapon project continued and all the Prime Ministers since 1974 supported it fully. The two shafts in which the weapons were tested in 1998 were dug in the 1980s with the approval of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
Money was allocated from a ‘secret fund’ maintained by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). In the 1990s, Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao told scientists ‘to be prepared to carry out the tests anytime on 10 days’ notice’. But the tests were put off for fear of the economic fallout. Atal Behari Vajpayee gave the go-ahead soon after he became the PM in 1996. Scientists were in Pokhran and had placed the main nuclear device in the chamber and sealed it. They were ready to place the same in the shaft when the test was called off due to the no-confidence motion against the Vajpayee government. The tests were finally conducted in 1998. “The extra time of two years allowed us to develop more sophisticated devices,” Chidambaram says in the book.
The sections dealing with the nuclear tests are absorbing and leave one wanting to know more. However, other chapters like the importance of basic research, women in science, and the impact of science on society read like public lectures delivered by the author (although no such mention has been made), and then there are eulogies written by colleagues and family members. Still, for those interested in India’s nuclear weapon journey, the book has interesting nuggets.