QUEST FOR A HYDROGEN BOMB
Posted on September 11th, 2009

AMJED JAAVED

Indian media is, currently, in throes of a debate about `success’ of India’s Pokhran_II nuclear tests. The controversy was sparked by scientist, K. Santhanam’s disclosure that the tests had questionable success. The whistle-blower, though a bit tardy, particularly denuded the claim that `the tests included a thermo-nuclear device that was 100 per cent successful’.

He claimed that the yield from the thermonuclear device (H-bomb) was a `fizzle’ (50-60%), “ƒ”¹…”short of 100% parameters’. His claim was supported by another scientist, P K Iyengar. Since it was he who had coordinated the Pokhran-II tests, so his statement could not be brushed off as a mere figment of imagination.

The disclosure followed a flurry of statements from Indian prime minister downwards. The Indian prime minister pilloried him for having engendered a needless controversy. Former Indian-army chief General V. P. Malik (retd.) was so piqued that he prompted Dr `Rajgopal Chidambaram and his whole team’ to come forward to rebut the claim (IANS, September 6, 2009). He reminded the community of scientists that it was their responsibility to reassure, not confuse the military, about the country’s nuclear capability.

R Chidambaram later described Santhanam’s claim as `absurd’. Former Indian president A P J Abdul Kalam also refuted the statement of his former colleague. He described the tests as `successful’. He was scientific advisor to the defence ministry when the tests took place.

It stands established now that one of the Pokhran_II-tested bombs was a 60-kiloton H-bomb as confirmed by data released by 125 seismic stations across the world. ‘In [Indian] parliament, the government recently described as “erroneous” the conclusions that the Pokhran tests did not comprise a hydrogen bomb’ (“So, it was an H-bomb after all”, <www. rediff.com/news/1998/jul/27bomb.htm>).

Aside from success or failure of the thermonuclear device, the bitter reality is that India is no longer on peaceful nuclear course. India did make the A- or H-bombs and tested them at Pokhran. India did so despite the fact that the Indian parliament, as desired by the then prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, had turned down Jana-Singh-introduced ‘resolution for India to develop and deploy Atomic weapons’.

To make the bombs, India misused the Canadian CIRUS reactor as also heavy water imported from the USA .Canada could not supply heavy-water to India as its heavy-water industry was, then, in a nascent stage ( Brahma Chellaney, Nuclear Proliferation: The US-Indian Conflict, Orient-Longman, Hyderabad, “Purchase of American Heavy Water”, pp. 5-6).

As of now, India is no longer deficient in its heavy-water needs. In fact, it now exports heavy water to several countries. Consignments of heavy water, contracted by US firm Spectra Gases, New Jersey were shipped from India’s Mumbai port. Acording to media reports, A L N Rao, Chief Executive of India’s Heavy-Water Board confirmed delivery of consignments to the USA.

India boasts of its heavy water of being ‘of excellent quality and the highest purity level’. India is the world’s second largest heavy water producer. It has exported 100 tonnes of heavy water to South Korea and 30 tonnes to China. Be it noted that India joined the heavy-water export club in 1996 two years before nuclear weapons test in May 1998.

India has acquired breakthrough ability to extract tritium from heavy water (detritiation) and use it in making H-bombs. India owes this capability to research carried out at a Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) plant at Kalpakkam (near Madras, Tamil Nadu).

India’s ability came to world’s notice when the book titled Heavy Water: Properties, Production and Analysis was published by two BARC scientists Sharad M Dave and Himangshu K Sadhu Khan with Mexican co-author Octavio A Novaro. India’s technological breakthrough has enabled it to produce tritium isotope through the accelerator process. Details of the detritiation process are given on page 461 of the afore-quoted book.

Janes Intelligence Review, 1998 contains the observation that the pilot plant (under Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Bombay) has developed a wet-proof catalyst for LPCE (liquid-phase catalytic exchange) employed for 90 per-cent tritium-removal from heavy water. Janes’ observes that ‘This facility seems to be the only operating LPCE-based detritiation facility in the world. The recovered tritium is being stockpiled for strategic purposes.

Each thermonuclear warhead is said to contain 4 g of the isotope. However, neutron bombs designed to release more radiation will require 10-30 g of tritium’. India’s planned three-stage use of power reactors involves use of natural uranium, plutonium and thorium (India has the world’s largest reserves of thorium.

Besides exporting heavy water, ‘India has stepped up its diplomacy with the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) countries to become supplier of low-cost nuclear reactors to other countries by joining the NSG’ (“India planning to sell low-cost nuclear reactors”, The Times of India March 4, 2007).

Who knows how many H – or N-bombs India has made. It also remains to be seen whether India’s exports of heavy water and reactors promote peace or war.

The debate in India should be an eye-opener for its slumbering neighbours. India has previously misued the imported reactors and fuel. Will it not misuse the fuel imports facilitated under 123 Agreement (Human Resource Bill 5682 or Henry-Hyde Act)? It is clear that India’s nuclear programme is not oriented towards `peaceful purposes’. The debate appears to be government’s sponsored. Its underlying purpose is to build consensus for more tests and to strengthen India’s opposition to signing the CTBT.

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