After weeks of doubt, it is time to ask the question: how credible is India's thermonuclear deterrent? That is the key issue Karan Thapar discussed in this week's Devil's Advocate with the former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, Dr Anil Kakodkar.
Karan Thapar: Dr Kakodkar, four leading scientists--Dr K Santhanam, Dr P K Iyengar, Dr H Sethna and Dr A N Prasad--have raised serious doubts about India's thermonuclear tests of 1998.
Dr Santhanam says we have hard evidence on a purely factual basis that not only was the yield of the thermonuclear device far below the design production, but that it actually failed. Do you have a problem on your hands?
Anil Kakodkar: No, I think this is a totally erroneous conclusion. The yield of thermonuclear tests was verified, not by one method but several redundant methods based on different principles, done by different groups. These have been reviewed in detail and in fact I had described the tests in 1998 as perfect and I stand by that.
Karan Thapar: I am glad that you began talking by the yield because both Dr Santhanam and Dr Iyenger have questioned the yield of the thermonuclear tests.
Dr Santhanam says that the DRDO seismic instruments measured the yield as something between 20-25 kilotonnes which is hugely different from the claim put out by the Atomic Energy Commission that it was 45 kilotonnes. How confident are you of the 45-kilotonne yield?
Anil Kakodkar: Well, let me first of all say that that DAE and DRDO we both work together as a team. DRDO did deploy some instruments for measurements but the fact is that the seismic instruments did not work. I myself had reviewed all the results immediately after the tests and we concluded that the instruments did not work.
Karan Thapar: Dr Santhanam says that the Bhabha Atomic Energy Center accepted the DRDO's instruments and their estimation for the yield of their fission bomb but not for the fusion or the thermonuclear. He says how can it be that the instruments worked in one case and not the others?
Anil Kakodkar: Well that's not true because the instrument measure and the ground motion at the place where the instrument is located - we had to separate out the information which was coming out from the thermonuclear and which was coming from the fission test. So the point that I am making is that the seismic instruments did not work.
So there is no question of the yield of the fission test being right and the thermonuclear test being wrong because no conclusion can be drawn from those instruments either ways.
Karan Thapar: But do you have proof that the yield of the thermonuclear test was 45 kilotonnes?
Anil Kakodkar: Yes. In fact we have within limits of what can be said and I must make it clear here that no country has given so much scientific details on their tests as we have given and this we have published with the maximum possible clarity.
Karan Thapar: The problem is that even in 1998, foreign monitors questioned the yield of the thermonuclear tests. At that time, Indian doubts were only expressed in private. Now, Indian doubts have burst out into the open and they are being heard in public.
Does it not worry you that these doubts continue--now both abroad and at home--and that they have continued for 11 years?
Anil Kakodkar: Well, it's unfortunate but it doesn't worry me because facts are facts and there is no question of getting worried about this. The point is that the measurements which have been done, they have been done--as I mentioned earlier--by different groups.
People who carry out the measurements on seismic instruments is a different group. People who carry out the measurements on radiochemical instruments are a different group. There are other methods that you can use, for example the simulation of ground motion. That's another group and all these groups have come to their own conclusions which match with each other.
Karan Thapar: And all these five or six different ways of measuring the yield have come to the conclusion that the yield was 45 kilotonnes for the thermonuclear device?
Anil Kakodkar: That's right.
Karan Thapar: So in your mind there is no doubt about it whatsoever?
Anil Kakodkar: Absolutely not.
Karan Thapar: Now, Dr Santhanam, in addition to disputing the yield, has other reasons to believe that the thermonuclear device failed. He said that given that the fission device, which produced a yield of around 25 kilotonnes, created a crater of 25 metres in diameter then the fusion bomb which produced a yield of 45 kilotonnes should have created a crater of around 70 metres in diameter. He says that that didn't happen and there was in fact no crater at all.
Anil Kakodkar: That's a layman’s way of looking at it. The fact of the matter is the fission device yield was 15 kilotonnes, not 25 kilotonnes.
Karan Thapar: So he's wrong in saying that it was 25 kilotonnes?
Anil Kakodkar: That's right and secondly although the two devices were about 1.5 kilometers apart, the geology within that distance has changed quite a bit partly because of the layers that exist and their slopes but more importantly because their depths have been different.
So the placement of the device of the fission kind is in one kind of medium and the placement of the device of the thermonuclear kind is in another medium.
Karan Thapar: So in fact what you are saying is that Dr Santhanam is making two mistakes and possibly making them deliberately.
First of all he's exaggerating the yield of the fission device and secondly he is completely ignoring the fact that the geology of the placement of the fusion was very different.
Anil Kakodkar: That's right
Karan Thapar: And both of those have led him to an erroneous conclusion?
Anil Kakodkar: And in fact we have gone through detailed simulation. For example in simulation you can locate the thermonuclear device where the fission device was placed and you can locate the fission device where the thermonuclear device was placed. And you get a much bigger crater now because the yield is higher.
Karan Thapar: This is a very important point that you are making.
Anil Kakodkar: Yes. And the fission device which is now placed in the thermo-heat pit now produces much less ground displacement.
Karan Thapar: So if in simulation you place the thermonuclear device where the fission device was placed, you would get a much bigger crater--much closer to the 70 meters in diameter that Dr Santhanam would like to see.
Anil Kakodkar: Well, I don't remember how much it was but this is actually true. This has been verified by calculations
Karan Thapar: Dr Santhanam has yet one more reason for believing that the thermonuclear device failed. He says if it had succeeded, both the shaft and the a-frame would have been totally destroyed. Instead, writing in ‘The Hindu’, he says the shaft remained totally undamaged and as for the a-frame, he says, it remained completely intact.
Anil Kakodkar: Well, I think you must understand the phenomena of ground motion when a nuclear test takes place. Depending on the depth of burial and of course the medium in which it is buried, you could get several manifestations on the surface.
You could get a crater and there are different kinds of craters that one could see. You can just get a mound - the ground rises and remains there and on the other extreme it can vent out. So in case of the thermonuclear device, the placement was in hard rock—granite--and with the depth and the yield for 45 kilotonnes, one expects only a mound to rise, which is what happened.
Karan Thapar: And not a crater?
Anil Kakodkar: And not a crater.
Karan Thapar: What about the shaft and the a-frame?
Anil Kakodkar: Well, if the ground simply rises - and in fact you can see a lot of fracture on the ground around that for a fairly large distance so it's clear that there was a cracking of the ground for a fairly large distance, but the phenomena was that it rises as a mound, then comes down slightly but it still remains a mound. So there is no question of damage to the a-frame.
Karan Thapar: So in fact the fact that the shaft and the a-frame survived intact can be quite easily explained. It's not proof that the thermonuclear device failed?
Anil Kakodkar: Yes, yes, it has been seen in detailed simulations and by the way I must tell you that this simulation, which I am telling you about, is done on codes which have been actually verified in 3-D situations on the test data available from abroad and validated and these have been published in international journals.
Karan Thapar: So you have had multiple validations of these.
Anil Kakodkar: That's right.
Karan Thapar: Clearly you are dismissive of Dr Santhanam's doubts. Now let me quote to you what one of your predecessors, former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission Dr P K Iyenger, said in a statement he issued on September 24, 2009. He says: "The recent revelations by Dr Santhanam are the clincher. He was one of the four leaders associated with Pokhran II, the team leader from the DRDO side, and he must certainly have known many of the details, particularly with regard to the seismic measurements. If he says that the yield was much lower than projected, that there was virtually no crater formed, then there is considerable justification for reasonable doubt regarding the credibility of the thermonuclear test."
Does it worry you that your predecessors seem to disagree with you but agree with Dr Santhanam?
Anil Kakodkar: Well, first of all I respect everybody. I respect Dr Iyenger, I respect Dr Santhanam, but the fact is that Dr Iyenger was nowhere involved in the 1998 tests. He was of course a key figure in the 1974 tests. Also, the fact is that before the 1990 and 1998 tests, all work was done under cover - we were not in the open - and we required a lot of logistical support and all and that all was being provided by DRDO.
But things were still being done on a need to know basis. So to assume that Dr Santhanam knew everything is not true.
Karan Thapar: You are making two important points. One you are saying that the DRDO and Dr Santhanam did not know everything - the fact that he was DRDO team leader does not mean that he knew everything that was happening.
Anil Kakodkar: He knew everything within his realm of responsibility.
Karan Thapar: Everything that he needed to know but not more?
Anil Kakodkar: That's right.
Karan Thapar: You are also saying that Dr Iyenger isn't fully in the picture and therefore his opinion is not necessarily valid.
Anil Kakodkar: He is not in the picture as far as the 1998 tests are concerned.
Karan Thapar: So he doesn't really know about the 1998 tests.
Anil Kakodkar: Well, he knows only as much as has been published and nothing more.
Karan Thapar: His comment therefore is not backed by knowledge and insight.
Anil Kakodkar: Well, that's for you to judge.
Karan Thapar: Let's purse the credibility and the doubts surrounding India's thermonuclear deterrent in a somewhat different way.
Dr Santhanam says that these doubts were formally raised by the DRDO with the Government as far back as in 1998 itself. And in a meeting arranged by the then National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra, they were brushed aside in a manner which Dr Santhanam compares to a sort of frivolous voice vote.
Anil Kakodkar: Immediately after the tests, we carried out a review with both teams present: BARC team as well as the DRDO team.
We looked at the measurements done by the BARC team and we looked at the measurements done by the DRDO team and I told you the conclusions and on the basis of that review, it was clear that what basis we could go by and what conclusions we could draw.
Now, the question is that if the instruments didn't work, where is the question of going by any assertions which are based on ... what is the basis of any assertions?
Karan Thapar: So when Dr Santhanam says that the DRDO's doubts were brushed aside lightly, then that is wrong. They were considered and they were evaluated?
Anil Kakodkar: I think yes. I think they were evaluated, that's right.
Karan Thapar: And they were dismissed because they were found to be faulty. They were not just brushed aside.
Anil Kakodkar: No, they were not brushed aside.
Karan Thapar: In an article that Dr Santhanam has written recently on November 15, 2009 for ‘The Tribune’, he says: The Department of Atomic Energy--the department to which you were ex-officio secretary--is in fact hiding facts from successive Indian governments, from Parliament and from Indian people. How do you respond to that accusation?
Anil Kakodkar: Well, as I said earlier, we are perhaps unique in giving out the maximum information and that too very promptly - immediately after the tests.
Karan Thapar: There is no hiding?
Anil Kakodkar: There is no hiding. There are limits to what can be revealed. These have been discussed in the Atomic Energy Commission in not one but four meetings after the 1998 tests. And there are people who are knowledgeable. Dr Ramanna was a member of the commission at that time. So where is the hiding?
Karan Thapar: Let me put it like this: you may not be hiding facts as Dr Santhanam alleges but a controversy has arisen and it grows and it won't disappear. Many people believe that the only way to resolve this issue is to now organise a peer group of scientists to review the results of the 1998 thermonuclear tests. Would you agree?
Anil Kakodkar: Well, let me first repeat what I said earlier. There are methods through which one has assessed the test results. Each one of them is a specialisation in itself and there are different groups, not just individuals but groups, which have looked at these. The fact is that this is also on a need-to-know basis. Now, if all of them come to conclusions which are by and large similar, what other things can you do in terms of forming a peer group of scientists?
Karan Thapar: So there is no need for a peer group review yet again?
Anil Kakodkar: That's what I would say.
Karan Thapar: The matter is conclusively sorted out?
Anil Kakodkar: That's right. And this has been after this controversy has been raised and it was again reviewed by the Atomic Energy Commission, we had gone through the records and the commission has come out with an authoritative statement.
Karan Thapar: Let me put to you two or three critical issues. Given the fact that you have concluded several reviews, including one recently after the doubts were raised, the doubts continue. And given that there are doubts about India's one and only thermonuclear test do we need more tests?
Anil Kakodkar: Well, I would say no because the important point to note is that the thermo nuclear test, the fission test and the sub-kilotonne test all worked as designed. They are diverse.
In terms of detailed design, their content is quite different. And so we think that the design which has been done is validated and within this configuration which has been tested one can build devices ranging from low kilotonne all the way to 200 kilotonnes. And that kind of fully assures the deterrence.
Karan Thapar: You are saying that India doesn't need more thermonuclear tests but the truth is that all the established thermonuclear powers needed more than one test. Can India be the exception?
Anil Kakodkar: Well if you go by Dil Maange More, that's another story. But we are talking about a time where the knowledge base has expanded, the capability has expanded and you carry out a design and prove you are confident that on the basis of that design and that test, one can build a range of systems right up to 200 kilotonnes.
Karan Thapar: I want to pick up on that last point that you have just made. Given that doubts continue and given that there are going to be no further tests and you are not saying that there is any need for further tests - can you say India has a credible thermonuclear bomb?
Anil Kakodkar: Of course.
Karan Thapar: We have a credible thermonuclear bomb?
Anil Kakodkar: Why are you using singular? Make that plural.
Karan Thapar: The reason I ask is because Dr Santhanam writing in ‘The Hindu’ says that the thermonuclear device has not been weaponsied even 11 years after the tests.
Anil Kakodkar: How does he know? He is not involved.
Karan Thapar: So you are saying to me that we have thermonuclear bombs--in the plural?
Anil Kakodkar: Yes.
Karan Thapar: With a yield of at least 45 kilotonnes each.
Anil Kakodkar: Much more than that.
Karan Thapar: Much more than that?
Anil Kakodkar: Yes. I told you we have the possibility of a deterrence of low kilotonne to 200 kilotonnes.
Karan Thapar: So when people like former Army chief, General Malik say, that because of the doubts in the public arena, the Army wants assurance of the yield and the efficacy of India's thermonuclear bomb, what is your answer to them?
Anil Kakodkar: I think that is guaranteed. The Army should be fully confident and defend the country. There is no issue about the arsenal at their command.
Karan Thapar: Dr Kakodkar, a pleasure talking to you.
Anil Kakodkar: Thank you.