India’s indigenous efforts in nuclear science and technology were established remarkably early. The first step was taken by Dr. Homi Jehangir Bhabha in March 1944 when he submitted a proposal to the Sir Dorab Tata Trust to found a nuclear research institute, over three years before independence and a year before the first nuclear weapon test.
This led to the creation of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) on 19 December 1945 with Bhabha as its first Director. The new government of India passed the Atomic Energy Act, on 15 April 1948, leading to the establishment of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC) not quite one year after independence.
At that time Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru declared: “We must develop this atomic energy quite apart from war – indeed I think we must develop it for the purpose of using it for peaceful purposes. … Of course, if we are compelled as a nation to use it for other purposes, possibly no pious sentiments of any of us will stop the nation from using it that way.”
This note of ambivalence in Nehru’s speech foreshadowed his policies on nuclear research for the next decade. Nehru took a prominent role in international politics, founding the Non-Aligned Movement, and advocating nuclear disarmament. However, he refused to foreclose India’s nuclear option while other nations maintained nuclear arsenals and supported programs designed to bolster India’s weapons potential.
In 1954 the Indian nuclear program began to move in a direction that would eventually lead to establishment of nuclear weapons capability. On 3 January 1954 the IAEC decided to set up a new facility – the Atomic Energy Establishment, Trombay (AEET), later to become the “Indian Los Alamos”. On 3 August 1954 the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) was created with Dr. Bhabha as Secretary. This department answered directly to the Prime Minister and has continued to do so down to the present day.
The program grew swiftly. The atomic energy budget increased 12-fold from 1954 to 1956. By 1958 the DAE consumed one third of India’s research budget. By 1959 AEET employed over one thousand scientists and engineers.
In 1955 construction began on India’s first reactor, the 1 MW Apsara research reactor, with British assistance. And in September 1955, after more than a year of negotiation, Canada agreed to supply India with a powerful research reactor – the 40 MW Canada-India Reactor (CIR). Under the Eisenhower Administration’s “Atoms for Peace” program the US agreed to supply 21 tons of heavy water for this reactor in Februrary 1956, and the reactor was dubbed the Canada-India Reactor, U.S. or CIRUS (now commonly written as Cirus).
The acquisition of Cirus was a watershed event in nuclear proliferation. Although the sale was made with the understanding that the reactor would only be used for peaceful purposes (the heavy water contract at least made this explicit), it occurred before any international policies were in place to regulate such technology transfers and no provision for inspections were made.
And in fact India was careful to ensure that no effective regulation would accompany the reactor. India refusing to accept fuel from Canada for the reactor and set up a program to manufacture the natural uranium fuel for Cirus indigeneously so as to keep complete control of the plutonium produced there. This program, led by metallurgist Brahm Prakash, succeeded in developing the techniques for producing the precisely manufactured, high purity material demanded by the reactor.
The reactor was a design ideal for producing weapons-grade plutonium, and was also extraordinarily large for research purposes, being capable of manufacturing enough plutonium for one to two bombs a year. The acquisition of Cirus was specifically intended by India to provide herself with a weapons option and this reactor produced the plutonium used in India’s first nuclear test in 1974; provided the design prototype for India’s more powerful Dhruva plutonium production “research” reactor; and is directly responsible for producing nearly half of the weapons grade plutonium currently believed to be in India’s stockpile. The sale further set a precedent for similar technology transfers which greatly assisted Israel in obtaining its own plutonium production reactor from France shortly thereafter.
The Atomic Energy Establishment, Trombay was formally inaugurated by PM Nehru on 20 January 1957. It acquired its present name — Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) — on 12 January 1967 when PM Indira Gandhi renamed it in memory of Dr. Bhabha who died in an airplane crash on 24 January 1966.
Apsara, fueled by enriched uranium from the UK, went critical on 4 August 1957, becoming the first operating reactor in Asia outside of the Soviet Union (though only days ahead of Japan’s first reactor). Cirus achieved criticality at BARC on 10 July 1960.
In July 1958 PM Nehru authorized project Phoenix to build a plant with a capacity of 20 tonnes of fuel a year – sized to match the production capacity of Cirus. The plant was based on the U.S. developed Purex process and an American firm, Vitro International prepared the plans for it. Construction of the plutonium plant began at Trombay on 27 March 1961 and was commissioned in mid-1964.
India’s civilian nuclear program was also established during this period. Discussions with American firms to construct India’s first nuclear power plants at Tarapur were held in 1960-61. An interesting incident sheds light on Nehru’s amd Bhabha’s thinking at that time.
With the two projects to necessary to provide the materials for nuclear weapons underway, the Cirus production reactor and the Trombay plutonium plant, Dr. Bhabha then turned his attention to acquiring information about nuclear weapons and initiating preliminary studies of weapon physics.
During the early sixties India’s anxieties regarding China greatly increased. Tensions over the border disputes with China rose from 1959 onward, leading to large scale troop deployments by both sides in early 1962. By 1961 India had become aware of China’s nuclear program which gave greater impetus to India’s efforts. In January 1962 Bhabha set up a formal study group in high pressure physics at TIFR, headed by Prof. A.K. Asundi, to explore equations of state in the megabar range, a necessary step for designing implosion weapons. This group did its work in secret, submitting its papers to Bhabha for review.
Following India’s humiliating defeat by China in the Indo-Chinese border war of October-November 1962, the first formal demand for the development of nuclear weapons was made in Parliament, by the Jana Singh party, in December 1962. Bhabha, well aware that a Chinese nuclear test was not far off (his estimate was then 12 to 18 months), also began secretly agitating for a vigorous effort to match China’s, going so far as to ask Nehru to authorize a nuclear test in Ladakh on the Chinese border.
India’s prime nuclear facilities were having growing pains though. Cirus operated erratically after going critical, and India had problems supplying fuel rods of the required purity. Cirus did not reach full power until 16 October 1963. Likewise the Phoenix plant at Trombay operated unreliably with only a fraction of its rated capacity when it began receiving spent fuel from Cirus in mid-1964 (for example experiencing an explosion during its first several months of operation). It was officially inaugurated 22 January 1965, but produced very little plutonium for years, taking India until circa 1969 to acquire sufficient plutonium for a single device.
With Bhabha continuing to campaign both publicly and behind the scenes, Shastri eventually found himself in an untenable position. The enormous public stature of Bhabha, and the tight control over nuclear information, left no effective scientific voice to act as a counterweight.
At that time India was very vulnerable to the sanctions that an acknowledged weapon program would produce, and a “peaceful nuclear explosive” or PNE program was the only feasible way that weapons could be openly pursued. This fiction of a “PNE” would be maintained through India’s first nuclear test in 1974 and up until 11 May 1998, after its second round of nuclear testing, when India finally acknowledged the objective of obtaining nuclear arms.
Despite the nationalistic rhetoric emphasizing Indian self-reliance that had characterized the nuclear debate, the first actions of both Shastri and Bhabha after their reconciliation was to seek outside assistance. In December Shastri publicly appealed vaguely to the existing nuclear powers for some sort of nuclear security umbrella for non-nuclear nation, a proposal that India never clearly defined or marshalled support for, and which slowly faded away over the next several months.
Curiously a number of U.S. officials and agencies also became interested after the Chinese test in providing Plowshare devices, technology, and even (under some conditions) nuclear weapons to India. The U.S. AEC discussed undertaking a cooperative Plowshare program with India in November 1964. And Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs John McNaughton prepared a proposal to initiate a program to train and equip Indian forces to use nuclear weapons, and create a stockpile to disperse to India in times of crisis.
Shastri gave Bhabha formal approval to move ahead with nuclear explosive development. On 5 April 1965 Bhabha initiated the effort by setting up the nuclear explosive design group Study of Nuclear Explosions for Peaceful Purposes (SNEPP). Bhabha selected Raja Ramanna – Director of Physics at AEET – to lead the effort.
Evidence suggests that India’s new interest in the nuclear option was of great concern to Pakistan. Reports from from the fall of 1964 into mid 1965 indicate considerable concern by President Ayub Khan, and his Foreign Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (later President). In March both men met with Chou En-lai in Beijing, a meeting both felt had very positive results and developed Chinese support for Pakistan. It was in mid-1965 that Bhutto made his famous remark that is India acquired nuclear weapons: “then we should have to eat grass and get one, or buy one, of our own.” Under Bhutto’s later presidency the foundations of Pakistan’s nuclear program would be laid. Thus in 1965, the seeds of the Indo-Pakistani nuclear confrontation of three decades later had been sown.
The outcome of the 1965 war did a great deal to strengthen India’s long-term resolve to acquire nuclear weapons. The alliance between U.S. armed Pakistan and nuclear-armed China presented India with a security threat that they could not ignore. Although India did find some support from the Superpowers with repect to Chinese pressure, India found that when faced with unprovoked attack – foreign “even handedness” cut off supplies and aid to both, indicating that India could not expect outside aid if threatened in the future.
This initial effort to develop a “peaceful nuclear explosive” (PNE) existed almost entirely as an unwritten personal understanding between Dr. Bhabha and PM Shastri.
On 11 January 1966, just hours after he had signed the Tashkent Declaration formalizing the end of hostilities in the war with Pakistan, PM Shastri died of a heart attack. Just two weeks later on January 24, and the very day Shastri’s successor Indira Gandhi was sworn in as Prime Minister, Dr. Homi Bhabha was killed while on a trip to Europe when the plane in which he was flying collided with Mount Blanc. India’s impressively large nuclear establishment was suddenly left without any official plan or policy, to give it direction.
But Bhabha had by now shaped India’s nuclear establishment and policy making environment to such an extent that the patterns he established would persist for decades after this death. Under Bhabha, the drive toward building the infrastructure for nuclear explosives, and the advocacy for developing such explosives had come from the nuclear scientists themselves – not the civilian government, and certainly not from the Indian military which virtually no role in the planning or decision making. The advance of the nuclear explosives program would also be conducted without any serious public debate over the decisions taken, and without consultation of parliament.
The desire of weapons developers to continual advance the program would be offset though by the fact that the support for the program was not based on a broad consensus among key decision makers. Thus the program’s fortunes were hostage to the personal preferences of the Chairman of the IAEC, and the mood and attention of the Prime Minister.
In 1966 India’s diplomatic policy towards nuclear weapons made a fateful shift. While international interest in non-proliferation, focusing on restricting the spread of nuclear weapons to any additional states, India’s Nehruvian policy of broadly opposing nuclear arms developed a pointed new emphasis. As long as existing nuclear powers resisted disarmament, they left other nations no choice but to pursue the same option as they saw necessary. The quid pro quo was clear – India would not eschew nuclear arms unless the existing nuclear states did also. This fundamental logic led to India refusing to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and voting against it on 12 June 1968, and has informed Indian nuclear diplomacy ever since.
Indira Gandhi’s views on the nuclear option were unfocused and tentative, but she tended to follow along with Sarabhai’s view that nuclear weapons were useless unless part of a comprehensive and hugely expensive defense system, far beyond India’s means. Over the next few years, as she grew more savvy and confident, her views on the PNE program shifted. Whether or not it was due to an explicit change in government policy, late in 1967 the new effort to develop nuclear explosives got underway at BARC, an effort that would continue uninterrupted until it culminated in a successful nuclear test less than seven years later.
It was the BJP which, upon taking office in 1998 with Vajpayee as Prime Minister, would conduct the 1998 Shakti test series and bring India into the open as a nuclear armed state.