First Nuclear Test in India
The greatest source of energy in modern times is the atom, the fission of which generates colossal amounts of power. This power can be harnessed to either peaceful purposes or to destroy an enemy during war-time. For many years Indian scientists had been working on the methods of utilizing nuclear power. The Atomic Energy Commission, comprising some of the country’s most prominent and talented scientists, has made rapid headway in nuclear research.
Indian nuclear technology achieved its hallmark on May 18, 1974, when a clean nuclear test was first held at Pokhran in the Rajasthan desert. It was an epoch-making event. It enabled India to gate-crash into the world’s most exclusive Nuclear Club. For the past two decades or so, the nuclear “haves” had successfully kept out other countries. India was the sixth nation to join the club.
The explosion was of 10 to 15 kiloton magnitude. It signified a technological breakthrough in the country’s atomic development programme. There was a tremendous upheaval of earth, sand and stones at the site of the explosion. The crater had a radius of 200 meters and there was no cracking or fissuring of the earth. The explosion somewhat changed the landscape of the site and produced an artificial hill—a new beautiful site which appeared in the skyline from nowhere. According to the first official report on the findings of the test (released on March 25, 1975), the hill shot up from the earth like a piston with a speed of 108-km. per hour eventually reaching a dome shape 170-metre in diameter and 34 meters in height.
The official announcement made by the Indian Atomic Energy Commission merely stated that it had conducted a nuclear explosion using an implosion device at a depth of over 100 meters. It was stated to be of the same force as the atomic bomb dropped by the U.S.A. in 1945 on two cities of Japan, Nagasaki and Hiroshima, during World War II. India has apparently developed a technology which is more sophisticated than was used for that bomb—the first ever to be used in a war. Some Western Powers were skeptical at first and believed India’s announcement of a nuclear explosion only when the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission stated that it had detected it.
Dr. H.J. Bhabha’s dream has thus been fulfilled. India has taken only four years for this technical job, against seven to 10 years taken by the leading nuclear powers. The cost has also been a fraction of what the Big Powers had spent for the same achievement. India’s total expenditure on its nuclear programme to date is estimated at Rs. 162 crores. The cost of the test itself was only Rs. 30 lakhs or so, indicating the development of cheap nuclear technology. A U.S. State Department spokesman conceded on October 19, 1974, that the total cost of India’s nuclear explosion including the amount for prior research and development was “less than one-tenth of one per cent of India’s annual budget.” Scientists explained that in the implosion method used by India several pieces of the bomb material were kept apart within a spherical container. A chemical charge brought them together to form the critical mass required for an explosion.
The explosion establishes India’s technological capability to make nuclear weapons if it wishes to do so. But this country has repeatedly declared that it has no intention to manufacture nuclear weapons of a destructive nature and that it intends to use such devices purely for peaceful purposes. Reaffirming this policy, the Prime Minister stated at a Press Conference on May 18 (the day of the explosion) that the test formed part of the study of peaceful uses of atomic energy. She hailed the experiment “as a good and clean job” and a “significant achievement” by India’s scientists.
Dr. H.N. Sethna, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission disclosed that there was no significant radio-activity even at a height of 30 meters when the first aerial survey was made by scientists from a helicopter. India was the first country to explode an atomic device underground. “We did so because we did not want to disturb the ecology and we did not want to add to radioactivity in the atmosphere.” The absence of a fall-out, however, puzzled many scientists. According to Atomic Energy Commission experts, it indicated that Indian technology had been developed to an extent that the scientists could hold a test even at a fairly shallow depth without contaminating the atmosphere.