How India’s 1974 ‘peaceful’ nuclear test in Pokhran changed the atomic energy debate

A watershed moment, the explosion not only upset global non-proliferation efforts but also set off a social movement around use of nuclear power.

Published : May 30, 2024 13:28 IST - 10 MINS READ

Demonstrators gather outside the Indian Embassy in Washington on May 14, 1998, to protest India’s testing of nuclear weapons.

Demonstrators gather outside the Indian Embassy in Washington on May 14, 1998, to protest India’s testing of nuclear weapons. | Photo Credit: PTI/AP

Nuclear power, The Economist declared in 2001, is “more likely to be remembered as too costly to matter”, very much in contrast to the 1954 prediction by early advocates that atomic electricity would be “too cheap to meter”. But, in recent years, there has been much talk about a revival of nuclear energy as a means of reducing the global production of fossil fuels. As a forthcoming book by one of the authors will show, this is not a credible solution for dealing with the problem of climate change. Within the time frame that is relevant to meeting the emission targets set by climate scientists, expanding nuclear energy sufficiently to make a significant dent in carbon emissions is simply infeasible. Nevertheless, the opening provided by climate change concerns has been exploited by the global nuclear industry to get government support for new reactor construction, much of this in Asia. 

If history is any guide, it is more than likely that this expansion of nuclear capabilities will also lead to an increase in the number of nuclear weapons in the world. Right after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the US Report on the International Control of Atomic Energy from 1946 explicitly pointed out: “the development of atomic energy for peaceful purposes and the development of atomic energy for bombs are in much of their course interchangeable and interdependent.” Nearly 80 years after that report, this fundamental fact has not changed. The best-known example of a civilian nuclear energy programme that transformed into a nuclear weapons project is of course India. 

Also Read | Remembering Hiroshima and Nagasaki

A ‘peaceful’ nuclear explosion

One landmark in that transformation became apparent 50 years ago. On the morning of May, 18, 1974, All India Radio announced: “At 8:05 a.m. this morning, India successfully conducted an underground nuclear explosion for peaceful purposes at a carefully chosen site in western India”. There was much riding on that claim about “peaceful purposes”, which was very different from how the 1998 tests were announced. In the latter instance, the official statement from the government explicitly talked about the role of the tests in “a weaponised nuclear programme”.

One reason for invoking the idea of a peaceful purpose was history. Since Independence, India had established a reputation as a leader among the non-aligned countries, especially under the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru was very vocal about the dangers associated with nuclear weapons and had made several proposals for nuclear disarmament and restraint. This included, most prominently, what eventually became the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. In a statement to the Lok Sabha in April 1954, he called on the nuclear weapon states to negotiate: “Some sort of what may be called ‘Standstill Agreement’, in respect at least, of these explosions...” In 1957, while inaugurating the Apsara reactor in Trombay, he assured the world that India would never use atomic energy for evil purposes “whatever might happen and whatever might be the circumstances.” There is little doubt that Nehru would have considered exploding a nuclear device as the use of atomic energy for an immoral purpose.

Things started changing soon after his death. On October 4, 1964, nearly two weeks before the first Chinese nuclear weapon test, Homi Bhabha, the architect of India’s nuclear programme, declared that India could make an atom bomb within 18 months of a decision to do so. His advocacy, among other political pressures, led Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, to essentially sanction work towards what was called a peaceful nuclear explosion (PNE). During his speech at the Lok Sabha on November 27, 1964, Shastri credited Homi Bhabha with convincing him about developing “nuclear devices” to build “big tunnels” and “wipe out mountains for development parks.” 

The momentum set off by that announcement was what finally led to the 1974 explosion.

Coined during the Cold War, the term “peaceful nuclear explosion” was a way for nuclear weapons laboratories in the United States and the Soviet Union to recast developing weapons of mass destruction that could kill millions of people as something that had constructive purposes. That mischaracterisation was borrowed by leaders of India’s Atomic Energy Commission to dress up their shift from an agency set up to generate cheap electricity—a goal it has failed at from its inception all the way until today—into one designing nuclear weapons.

The other reason for terming the test ‘peaceful’ was the source of the plutonium that exploded. This plutonium was produced in CIRUS, a nuclear reactor supplied by Canada as part of the Colombo plan; the agreement between the countries required that the government of India “ensure that the reactor and any products resulting from its use will be employed for peaceful purposes only.” CIRUS also used heavy water supplied by the US, again under the condition that the products of the reactor would be put to peaceful use only.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi examines a piece of rock at the nuclear test site in Pokhran on Dec. 22, 1974.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi examines a piece of rock at the nuclear test site in Pokhran on Dec. 22, 1974. | Photo Credit: AP

Technically, there is no inherent difference between what one does to set off a “peaceful” nuclear explosive and what one does to explode a nuclear weapon. By terming the explosion as serving a peaceful purpose, Indian leaders were trying to square that circle.

The US did not buy this interpretation. As a cable from the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research pointed out, as early as 1970, the US embassy in New Delhi had told the Indian government that the US maintained that “the technology for the construction of any nuclear explosive device is indistinguishable from the technology involved in a nuclear explosive weapon” and that “the use of the plutonium for any nuclear explosive device, whatever the device was intended for, would be incompatible with the guarantee of peaceful uses.”

Decades later, Canadian leaders avoid acknowledging their role in facilitating what happened in Pokhran: in October 2022, for example, Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources claimed “Canada began a legacy of nuclear excellence as the second country ever to produce nuclear power. Since that time, we have been actively involved in promoting the peaceful use of nuclear energy around the world.”

Endemic secrecy

The 1974 nuclear test epitomised the secrecy that has been endemic to the nuclear establishment. In Anand Patwardhan’s prize winning documentary, Jang Aur Aman, Raja Ramanna, the key scientist responsible for the design of the 1974 nuclear test who went on to becoming the Atomic Energy Commission’s chairman, can be seen explaining how the test’s planners took care not to put down any decisions on paper so as to avoid leaks. Knowledge of the plan to detonate the 1974 PNE was restricted to a very small group of top-level civil servants and nuclear scientists. The same procedure was followed in the case of the 1998 nuclear weapons tests. Then Defense Minister, George Fernandes, was reportedly told only “two days before the event” while the three military chiefs were informed on the day before. 

Secrecy has been a historical feature of the nuclear programme, even about aspects that have little to do with nuclear weapon tests. As early as 1948, when the bill enabling the creation of the Atomic Energy Commission was tabled at the Constituent Assembly, Nehru was challenged on the imposition of secrecy. In response to one member of the Assembly pointing out how in Britain’s Atomic Energy Act 1946, secrecy is restricted only to defense purposes and demanding to know if in the Indian case secrecy was insisted upon even for research for peaceful purposes, Nehru publicly admitted: “I do not know how to distinguish between the two [peaceful and military uses of atomic energy].”

Secrecy has more than one benefit. It was quickly realised by the nuclear babus that a veil of official secrecy has institutional advantages as well, in particular the containing of adverse information, whether about nuclear explosives or setbacks in the “civilian” nuclear energy system. And this is true elsewhere as well. Analyst and disarmament activist Andrew Lichterman has argued that in states with nuclear technology, the “powerful tools of nationalism and ‘national security’ secrecy can be used to facilitate the extraction of wealth from the rest of society and prevent scrutiny of national nuclear enterprises that whether in first generation nuclear powers or post-colonial states have been rife with technical problems, corruption, and widespread, intractable environmental impacts”. For citizens, then, the state’s acquisition of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy results in diminished democracy.

Also Read | Pokhran row

Social movements

Like any techno-political event, the 1974 PNE had a number of consequences. Many have written about the international sanctions against India. But what might be even more significant are the social movements against the government’s nuclear policies and projects that became far more common after the test. Since then, there has been significant opposition, including some successful ones, to every new nuclear reactor and uranium mining project that has been planned or constructed.

Among the more sustained of these movements was the one against the Kaiga reactors in Karnataka, which became the first to mount a legal challenge in the country against a nuclear power project when the Samaj Parivartana Samudaya, a grassroots group from Dharwad, filed a public interest litigation case that went up to the Supreme Court. In May 1993, the Supreme Court issued a lukewarm directive requesting the nuclear establishment to “take cognizance of.... the petitions submitted on the question of re-siting the Kaiga plant.”

Following the test, also, a number of critical scholars and journalists started closely examining the nuclear programme. Praful Bidwai and Dhirendra Sharma, to name the two most prominent of those, were instrumental in publicly highlighting the gap between official claims and the actual performance of the nuclear programme. Of particular importance are Bidwai’s 1978 article in Business India titled ‘Nuclear Power in India—A white elephant?’ and Sharma’s 1983 book India’s Nuclear Estate. Those and other writings painted a damning picture of a secretive and largely unaccountable government programme with a massive budget that claimed indigeneity and self-reliance but was heavily dependent on external technology transfers. 

Other activists have focused their attention on the numerous local communities that suffer injury due to the everyday workings of the nuclear programme. Injuries include toxic radiation exposure and forced displacement for the purpose of building new reactor complexes. These “atomic publics” have only grown in number and scale since that time. The victims of nuclear power, in other words, are not only those who suffer the direct impact of a bomb or explosion. Numerous communities that have been made marginal and silenced by the “slow violence” that is endemic to the everyday functioning of an unwelcome nuclear programme.

Such social movements are our chief hope for a future free from the nuclear danger. At the dawn of the atomic age, Albert Einstein explained the basic predicament thus: “Through the release of atomic energy, our generation has brought into the world the most revolutionary force since prehistoric man’s discovery of fire. This basic power of the universe cannot be fitted into the outmoded concept of narrow nationalisms” and went on to explain “there is no possibility of control except through the aroused understanding and insistence of the peoples of the world.” That is as true today as it was in 1947.

Itty Abraham is a professor in Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society, and the author of The Making of the Indian Atomic Bomb: Science, Secrecy and the Postcolonial State.

M.V. Ramana is professor and Simons Chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, University of British Columbia, Canada, and the author of The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India and the forthcoming Nuclear is Not the Solution: The Folly of Atomic Power in the Age of Climate Change.

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