A Lecture by Dr. P K Iyengar

(Formerly Director Bhabha Atomic Research Centre)


The names of Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi both brilliant scientists, supported by engineer General Groves are etched openly in USA's professional literature, along with their research and experiments as pioneers who made the US$ 2 billion American Manhattan Project a success. They exploded the first plutonium atomic bomb on 16 July 1945, in the New Mexico desert at the Almogordo firing range. Oppenheimer philosophically recited from the Gita when he saw the flash:

“If the radiance of a thousand suns , were to burst at once into the sky,

That would be like the splendour of the mighty one,

I am become death and shatterer of worlds….”

The Russian scientists Kurchatov and Vannikov supported by Maj Gen Mikhail Maltsev also an engineer, in secrecy followed suit on 3 Sep 1949; many say assisted by Danish physicist Neils Bohr who leaked US secrets. In France the name of Joliot stands out whose original experiments stirred Britain into near panic, but the French defeat put paid to his nuclear experimental work. The nuclear race thereafter all over the world is recorded history.

In India the names of late Homi Bhabha , Raja Ramanna, P R K Iyengar, M R Srinivasan, Rajagopala Chidambaram and their teams at Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (which they headed before becoming Chairmen of the Atomic Energy Commission) are India's unsung heroes. BARC assisted by other laboratories and supported by Army Engineers and the DRDO duo of Dr Abdul Kalam and Santhanam executed India's Pokhran nuclear bombs and will go down as architects of India's nuclear quest. Therefore, it was a professional treat at the USI on 23 June 2000 to listen to Dr. P K Iyengar who was Director BARC when Pokhran -I took place in May 1974.


In the business of Atomic Energy since 1962 when real work on the bomb began, Dr Iyengar emphasised that knowledge about nuclear science and connected issues was very thinly spread. He felt this was the state today. He first, therefore covered the growth of the Atom Bomb from the time of the US explosion of 1945 and the Russian one in 1949. The greatest dichotomy in nuclear science that has occurred according to Iyengar is that scientists all over the world try to make no secret of their achievements and limitations, while politicians make a secret of all nuclear issues and postures and use it as a political tool. This happened in US-Russia relations and now it is happening nearer home between India and Pakistan. He said it would be impossible, despite all the treaties, to stop nuclear work because that would amount to making man stop thinking and that is impossible. From there he logically deduced that there are more nuclear nations than the five recognised by the NPT. India and Pakistan have announced it, Israel is on the threshold, North Korea is one and Japan can be nuclear capable within weeks. He named Brazil and South Africa which had gone nuclear and stepped back under Waldo Stumpf, and did not rule out the aspirations of Iraq and Iran and may be some others.

Retracing the history of India's Nuclear quest, he said that Mrs Indira Gandhi was ready for testing but feared cut-off from Canada which had supplied a Reactor at Tarapur. She finally assuaged Canada and called the 1974 Nuclear Explosion Pokharan-I, a peaceful Nuclear Explosion (PNE) though in fact there is no such thing. In the 1980s the booster was perfected and as early as 1991 India was ready for further testing especially since Pakistan had leaked that it was nuclear capable since 1987. However, external pressures did not permit India to test and it was only around 24 March 1999 that the Prime Minister Vajpayee gave orders to Dr. Abdul Kalam and Dr. Chidhabaram to report when they could confidentially test. They both went through anxious times and reported back on 7 April 1999 that they could go ahead confidentially. Once the green signal was given, the 11 May 1999 Pokhran-II blasts were successful and on 28 May 1999 Pakistan followed suit, with nuclear devices being exploded in the Chaggai mountains. Dr. Iyengar felt that either the Government knew that Pakistan was going to test and pre-empted them; because to follow in 17 days would not normally have been possible without previous preparations.

Touching on Pakistan he explained that thinking cannot be stopped. Pakistani scientists though having received help from China in recent years, co-operated in the nuclear arena. Today, they have announced a command and control and weapon readiness regime, while about India very little is known. To become weaponised India needs to define the number of weapons and machines, decide what is the minimum deterrent, speed up delivery systems and support think-tanks. On a question about the recent NBC report that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal was ahead of India, he could not comment but did say that Pakistan should be taken seriously.

Dr Iyengar exlained the composition of the basic fusion and fission bombs that were exploded in the Pokhran-I and II and the shape and mechanism of these devices in great detail with slides. He explained that the ingredients like critical chemical explosives came from the DRDO's Ballistic and Explosives Laboratories, while Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) produced the plutonium and neutron sources. He complemented the DRDO's explosive and ballistics laboratories. Aided by slides even the not so knowledgeable were able to grasp and understand approximately how large the bombs were and the implosion and trigger systems in both the fusion and fission devices which were placed in the shafts at Pokhran. He gave exact dates in March 1999 when the Scientists were tasked by the Prime Minister Vajpayee to report when they were ready to test. It was in total secrecy and stealth that Pokhran-II explosions proved succeessful.

Pokhran-I was a single device of 12 kilotons. In the case of Pokhran-II, three improved devices were made. One was of low yield probably 1 to 2 kilotons, the second was Pokhran-I type with 10 kiloton yield. The third used isotopes of hydrogen, deuterium and tritium so that there was a simultaneous fusion reaction in the device and the energy got boosted 50 to 100 times. Iyengar also showed slides of the advances other countries have made, alluding to their status in bomb making and commented that China could have succeeded in making the neutron bomb. In the case of the neutron bomb the blast would kill humans leaving the buildings intact. He noted that at the Los Alamos laboratory in USA, there is a kilometer long tunnel where experiments on particles could be carried out successfully even if testing is prohibited.

He then went on to explain that to make the basic bomb of 620 kg is a cheap product. He made the whole nuclear theology seem simple. He often made the statement that going nuclear for India is a cheap affair. Later, when questioned that the paraphernalia that goes with the bomb ie command and control, delivery, training and testing has been termed as very expensive by an earlier speaker at USI, Mr. Michael Quailan the retired permanent Under Secretary of British Ministry of Defence, he said labour in India is cheap and referred to the Information Technology sector being cheaper in India than in the west. He advocated further testing to ensure surety in offering to the user - the military. He was questioned why the Government in contrast had said no further testing. He explained that USA needed 1000 tests before they could have a credible arsenal in place. He gave further explanations and seemed convincing.

In the audience were big names who have commented on the subject of nuclear strategy, like Arundhati Ghosh, Mr.J N Dixit, Mr.Bharat Karnad, Prof. Zuberi of the NSAB and Rear Adm Raja Menon who has written a book on India's Nuclear Strategy. Two former Chiefs Admiral R H Tahiliani and O P Mehra were present and fielded questions in the question and answer session.

Having explained the base position as it prevails in the nuclear status of science in India, Dr Iyengar claimed that theoretically Indian scientists were keeping up with the more advanced trends in nuclear science, but the industry and infrastructure had not kept pace, and once again reiterated that testing would be essential. All the data of tests may not be fully available from Pokhran-II.

Dr Iyengar then explained the future bombs like the Tritium and high temperature–high pressure devices being perfected in the west, with tests on new particles and sub-systems. He repeatedly emphasised that no computer can do this job of testing and ascertaining yields to satisfy the user and there has to be some transparency so that the so-called enemy knows the deterrent is effective. In this vein, he said the Chinese seem to be confident of the neutron bomb. He touched on the draft nuclear doctrine and honed on to National Security Adviser Mr Brijesh Misra's statement that India will maintain a survivable deterrent. and interpreted it to mean the Submarine launched nuclear missile. In the question session Ms Arundhati Ghosh disagreed and said it could mean separately stowed bombs, trigger and delivery systems.

On CTBT Dr Iyengar was very clear that India must not sign till the user - the military, is happy with the deterrent. By this he implied further testing so that India is recognised as a nuclear power. He discussed a few clauses of the proposed treaty in this context. This line of thinking is in some contrast to the Prime Minister Vajpayee's statement that he would seek consensus to accept signing the CTBT by year end. The PM in his wisdom possibly feels the CTBT in its present form may not come into force due to USA's political stance and the NPT debate will continue. If the establishment scientists are confident of the so called minimum deterrent then the economic benefits of acceding to the CTBT, can out-weigh the non signing, as India is in a take off posture economically.

Though the lecture was short, Dr Iyengar was able to cover the partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963 which Pandit Nehru had readily signed, the NPT of 1968 which India refused to sign because it was discriminatory and the CTBT of 1996 which many want India to sign. Dr Iyengar felt that we should only sign it when we have brought about confident weaponisation and that probably means some more testing or at least satisfying the user, which of course means the military.

Before ending the lecture, the learned scientist said there would be new weapons like Transplutonic, Super Heavy Element Bombs, High Energy Devices for superior explosives and neutronics of better cores, which certainly went above many heads. Admiral Tahiliani enquired of Dr. Iyengar, if Indian nuclear science is so advanced in knowledge can India not straight away go for fourth generation nuclear devices. The speaker replied that all facilities have to be available and it was not that easy but scientists need to be encouraged towards that goal.

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