The situation at the time of India’s independence needs to be understood the genesis and the evolution of nuclear power program in India. India at independence inherited an economy which was deficit in food grains, pulses, oil, sugar and protective foods. Even the industrial growth was abysmally low. Moreover, illiteracy, poverty, droughts and floods were endemic.

Thus, in those conditions, it was imperative for the government to provide its citizens with basic necessities like food, shelter and clothes. To fulfill this premises, industrial growth was a precondition. However, Indian industrial growth was affected due to the lack of a steady supply of electric power.

Electric power, a key to rapid industrialization and vital for irrigation and agricultural operations, was in short supply. In the initial years, both the installed capacity and the actual generation of electricity, were abysmally low. Around this time, Homi Bhabha observed that the standard of living of the people was closely related to the per capita consumption of energy.

A quantum jump in the installed electricity generating capacity was necessitated and suggested. And this required careful examination of the various sources of energy and of the alternatives available for tapping them on a commercial scale , for generating electricity.

Evaluation of different alternatives

  • Hydro: Nuclear physicists, like Homi Bhabha were pessimistic over the feasibility of hydel power and claimed that the capital cost of hydro-electric power in India, was higher.
  • Solar: At that time, solar energy faced technological and financial hurdles and also the Energy Density of solar energy and temperature, at which it was available, ruled out its commercial potential.
  • Wind: Naturally India was at a dis-advantageous position, as the wind speeds were not enough to contribute significantly to electricity generation.
  • Other source: Energy sources like Geo-thermal, Tidal, Ocean Thermal, etc were constrained by their locations and limited potential. Tidal and wave energy were restricted to a few pockets of the coastline and were, perhaps, uneconomical to exploit. The capital costs for Ocean Thermal Energy conversion (OTEC) was too high. Oil and gas were so scarce that they were totally ruled out for electricity generation
  • Coal: Though coal was the premier energy source in India, it had certain disadvantages. According to Homi Bhabha, coal had to be transported many hundred miles to thermal power stations incurring considerable capital expenditure on the expansion of transportation facilities.
  • In case of power station being situated at the pithead, the transmission of electricity to centers of consumption was necessary which required investment in transmission lines, other electrical equipments and in the development of the technology of extra high voltage power transmission. Apart from these constraints, there were environmental impacts like ash generation and Sulphur Dioxide emission.

Emergence of Nuclear Power Program

Against this backdrop, evolved the commercially viable nuclear energy programme. The most important factor in favour of nuclear energy program was the abundant availability of raw materials, economics of nuclear power, safety and ecological aspects.

It was globally known that India possessed the largest amount of Thorium deposits in Monazite sands along the beaches of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. On the energy potential of Uranium and Thorium, Bhabha claimed that the reserves of Uranium and Thorium were equivalent to 600 thousand million tonnes of coal, which was more than 15 times the known reserves of coal at that time.

Energy Potential from Coal and Nuclear Fuels

Fuel TypeEnergy (in kWh)
Coal 160 x 1012
Uranium7.2 x 1012
Uranium in fast reactors200 x 1012
Thorium in fast reactors1280 x 1012

The above table shows the huge energy potential from the Uranium and Thorium deposits in India.

Bhabha also argued that nuclear power was cheaper than coal-fired power . Here, it must be observed that the Energy Density or flux of Uranium fission is far higher than any other known source of power generation. These arguments finally convinced the Indian policymakers and paved the way for the Indian three stage nuclear program.

Three Stage Nuclear Power Program

In view of the limited fossil fuel availability within the country, a long term strategic nuclear power program, formulated by Dr. Homi Bhabha, embarked on the three stage program. It linked the fuel cycle of Pressurized Heavy Water Reactor (PHWR) and Fast Breeder Reactor (FBR) for judicious utilization of our limited reserves of Uranium and vast Thorium reserves. The emphasis of the program was self reliance and Thorium utilization was a long term objective.

india's nuclear programme upsc

Stage-1: Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor: It envisages construction of Natural Uranium Heavy Water moderated and Cooled Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs). Spent fuel from these reactors is reprocessed to obtain Plutonium.

Stage-2: Fast Breeder Reactor: It envisaged construction of Fast Breeder Reactors (FBRs) fueled by Plutonium produced in stage 1. These reactors would also breed U-233 from Thorium.

Stage-3: Breeder Reactor: It would comprise power reactors using U-233/Thorium as fuel produced in stage 2.

India’s Three-Stage Nuclear Power Programme

Views of famous leaders in the initial phase

Jawaharlal Nehru

  • Nehru once opined that the use of atomic energy for peaceful purposes was far more important for a power-starved country like India than the industrially advanced countries.
  • According to Nehru, “On one hand the nuclear bomb and the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki illustrates the horrendous revolution that was taking place in military technology and on the other, the application of nuclear energy to peaceful and constructive purposes has opened up limitless possibilities for human development, prosperity and overabundance.”

Lai Bahadur Shastri

  • Lai Bahadur Shastri also favoured the use of nuclear technology to promote socio-economic growth of the country. He once said that India believes that atomic energy should only be used for peaceful purposes.

Present Scenario

After decades of operating pressurised heavy-water reactors (PHWR), India also became successful in the second stage when a 500 MW Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) at Kalpakkam attained criticality in September 2015. However, experts estimate that it would take India many more FBRs and at least another four decades before India could build up a sufficient fissile material inventory to launch the third stage.

India’s Nuclear Weapons Program (1944-1974)

World war II changed the power dynamics in the international scenario. After this the following events brought the nuclear threat to the Asian region:

  • The nuclear catastrophe of August 1945.
  • The calamitous partition of British India into India and Pakistan in August 1947.

Reasons for origin of Nuclear Weapons Program

  • The legacy of partition and continuous skirmishing across the border and outbreaks of war (in 1947, 1965, and 1971) gave India and Pakistan ample motivation to develop potent weapons to gain advantage over or restore balance with each other.
  • Another motivation for India’s acquisition of nuclear weapons was the potential threat and regional challenge presented by the nuclear-armed state of China:
    • Disputes covering 80,000 square kilometers existed with China
    • These territorial disputes erupted into the SinoIndian War on 20th October 1962, when China launched a massive attack on India.
    • The events that followed like the withdrawal of support by the Soviet Union in crisis time, and last minute appeals to USA for help, added strength to the voices in political circles demanding for development of nuclear weapons.
  • Finally, it was a matter of prestige that Indians took onto themselves for developing a nuclear weapon at the time when India, a country with a great and renowned civilization, was not included into the UNSC and looked down upon by the West.

Hence, development of nuclear weapons started program in India. An interesting feature unique to Indian program was that the program, from its outset, has remained answerable only to the Prime Minister’s office, and only the Prime Minister and a select few this nominees had any say in its development and acquisition.

Evolution of the program

  • The new government of India passed the Atomic Energy Act in 1948, leading to the establishment of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC).
  • After a decade of infrastructure development and R&D, the turning point came in the early 1960s when India was growing wary of the Chinese nuclear program. At this juncture, India secretly started work on the possibility of developing a nuclear weapon at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai.
  • The first formal demand for the development of nuclear weapons was made in parliament in December 1962, after the humiliating defeat of the Indo-Sino war ,in 1962.
  • After Nehru’s death in 1964, Lai Bahadur Shastri became the PM. PM Shastri, a Gandhian, was strongly opposed to pursuing the nuclear option.
  • After the Chinese nuclear test on 16th October 1964, Shastri maintained his opposition to Indian Nuclear Program. While Bhabha argued that “atomic weapons give a state possessing them in adequate numbers a deterrent power against attack from a much stronger state”.
  • After due deliberation and as the political pressure mounted, Shastri finally authorized the development of nuclear explosives.
  • The point of convergence for contradictory opinions was a “peaceful nuclear explosive” or PNE program, which was the only feasible way. This situation arose because India was very vulnerable to the sanctions that an acknowledged weapon program would produce.
  • In April 1965, Shastri gave Bhabha, the needed formal approval to move ahead with nuclear explosive development. On 5th 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 Atomic Energy Establishment, Trombay (AEET) – to lead the effort .
  • India’s nuclear program was of great concern to Pakistan. Pakistan, soon, approached China and was able to win its support for Pakistan’s nuclear program.
  • George Perkovich an American Political Scientist, suggested that it was fear of the changes in the balance of power that India’s nuclear weapon program would bring, which motivated Pakistan to initiate the Second Indo-Pakistani War in 1965.
  • The outcome of the war strengthened India’s long-term resolve to acquire nuclear weapons. Moreover, the alliance between U.S. armed Pakistan and nucleararmed China presented India with a security threat which India could not ignore.
  • At this juncture, the program received a huge jolt with the sudden demise of two stalwarts, Shastri and Bhabha.
  • The other interesting factor to note is that, largely, the nuclear scientists pursued this program, with no involvement of the military in planning or decision making.
  • The program, later, revivedin 1967under the leadership of PM Indira Gandhi and continued uninterrupted until it culminated in a successful nuclear test less than seven years later.

Reasons for revival

  • Indira Gandhi directly approved the new effort at the urging of her new principal secretary Parmeshwar Narain Haksar.
  • Growing aggression of China, which exploded a thermonuclear device in 1967, and moved its troops into disputed areas.
  • India’s supply of separated Plutonium was slowly accumulating.
  • Some historians argue that the new effort was begun at the initiative of the scientists involved.

By 1972, favourable conditions existed for PM Indira Gandhi when she gave a nod for construction of the nuclear device but to hold onto its testing.

Operation Smiling Buddha (1974)

On May 18th, 1974 India conducted its first nuclear test in the deserts of Pokhran, Rajasthan. With it, India became the world’s sixth nuclear power after the United States, Soviet Union, Britain, France and China to successfully test out a nuclear bomb. Throughout the development of this device, more formally dubbed as the ‘Peaceful Nuclear Explosive’, or PNE program, but, commonly, called ‘Smiling Buddha 1, very few records of any kind were kept either on the development process or the decision making involved in its development and testing.

The rationale of a PNE continued till the nuclear explosion in 1998, when India formally designated itself a nuclear weapons state.

International response
  • While the initial International reaction was negative, the test escalated international attention to proliferation, and support for India’s nuclear program from abroad, disappeared.
  • The US took offense to India barging into the nuclear society, without any warning and then, blocked aid to India and imposed numerous sanctions. Canada cut off nuclear assistance after the test, which brought two nuclear power projects – Rajasthan II reactor and the Kota heavy water plant – to a halt. The nuclear non-proliferation regime that exists today came about as a direct result of this test.
Analysis of test

The impact of the test on India’s civilian nuclear program was severe, as below:

  • The progress of civilian nuclear power program was crippled by the lack of indigenous resources and the then cut-off of imported technology and technical assistance.
  • It can be said that no effort was put into analyzing the likely international reaction to the PNE, or in preparing the nuclear power program for the after-effects, in case of imposition of bans.
  • The test produced little information of scientific value for peaceful uses or otherwise, beyond the demonstration that the device actually worked.

Nuclear Weapons Program (1974-98)

The driving force behind the development of the Peaceful Nuclear Explosive (or PNE) was the initiative of the scientists at BARC. This mission and unity fostered, was lost after the test in 1974 due to a set of events.

The initial popularity that PM Gandhi gained after the test, started waning thereupon. Gandhi came to feel that her decision to break with Nehru’s policies was for no gain, and she gradually lost interest in the program.

Developments till 1990

State of Dormancy

  • The Indian nuclear program was left with a vacuum of leadership and even basic management. During the emergency (1975-77), the nuclear programs languished. PM Gandhi was defeated in the general elections in 1977.
  • The new PM Morarji Desai opposed nuclear tests, peaceful or otherwise, and the nuclear option, throughout his term in office. Hence, continued the political opposition and, also, the organizational chaos in BARC.
  • In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and the position of Pakistan, both militarily and economically, was strengthened by the U.S. which was wary of the Soviet Union.
  • Indira Gandhi returned to power, with a revitalized leadership and the program moved only to be halted by the PM under the US pressure.

In 1980s

  • India’s civil nuclear program crippled under the international sanctions after the 1974 test; during the 1980s also, the situation was similar, as attempts to import nuclear reactors met with the condition that India operates them under the IAEA safeguards, to which the weapons establishment was seriously opposed to.
  • In the early 1980s, it was, also, clear that none of India’s principal problems – economic development and internal stability – could be aided with nuclear weapons, a fact that diverted interest from testing or further development.

During Rajiv Gandhi Era

  • Rajiv Gandhi, who became PM after the assassination of his mother in 1984, had a strong antipathy to nuclear weapons and did not support testing or the refinement of weapon designs, and laboratory research required to support further advances in nuclear arms. Rajiv Gandhi felt that India needed access to the advanced technology of United States and the nuclear program was a hindrance in that direction.
  • However, both BARC and DRDO continued to develop and refine weapon designs and related technologies in the laboratory and on the testing ground. An authoritative study group was set up in November 1985 to formulate India’s nuclear policy and determine the means needed to implement it. The outcome of the group’s deliberations was to recommend building a minimum deterrent force with a strict no first use policy.
  • In December 1985, Zia ul Hag of Pakistan and PM Rajiv Gandhi met in New Delhi and agreed to a pact not to attack each other’s nuclear facilities. The year 1989 marked a turning point in the strategic situation in South Asia because it was in this year that both Pakistan and India began creating real nuclear arsenals by stockpiling complete and ready-to-assemble weapons.

In 1990s

  • From late 1990 to mid-1991, India went through considerable political instability. During this period, no
    effort was made to formulate an actual nuclear doctrine – policies and strategies defining how India would manage this new nuclear capability.
  • Narsimha Rao, the Prime Minister from 1991 to 1996, placed a strong emphasis on economic development, closer ties to the West, and instituted an effective economic program based on liberalization of the economy. He was strongly against overt declarations of nuclear capability that would incur crippling sanctions against India.

India and Non-Proliferation

In 1995, The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) came up for review and extension. India endorsed the NPT in principle, but refrained from signing it because India objected to the establishment of ‘legitimate’ nuclear weapon states limited to the 5 nuclear armed nations then in existence.

India refused to sign the NPT unless the nuclear states committed themselves to a specific timetable to accomplish nuclear disarmament.

The nuclear powers pushed two treaties that provided for restrictions on specific proliferation activities – the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) to prohibit all nuclear tests, and a treaty to cut-off the production of fissile materials for weapons.

Both of these treaties were believed to have serious effects on states with less well developed arsenals – like India and not on states with pre-existing arsenal.

Operation Shakti: 1998

Finally, after the 1998 elections, PM Vajpayee ordered the famous 1998 nuclear tests at Pokhran. India carried out three tests on 11th and 13th May 1998. After the first test, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee famously said: “India is now a nuclear weapons state. We have the capacity for a big bomb now. Ours will never be weapons of aggression”.

International responses

The test did not go down well with the international community.

  • Pakistan immediately claimed that it was ready for a nuclear test and ready to counter India’s aggression, if any
  • China warned that India’s nuclear tests would harm peace and stability in South Asia and expressed serious concern about the tests.
  • The United States claimed that it was deeply disappointed by the decision of the government of India to conduct three nuclear tests. It also said that these tests run counter to the effort the international community was making to promulgate a comprehensive ban on such testing.
  • The US imposed economic sanctions on India as punishment. Most other nations refrained from joining the US, in imposing economic embargoes. Since most nations were not imposing similar sanctions, and India’s exports and imports together constituted only 4% of its GDP, with US trade being only 10% of this total, the overall effect on India’s economy from a direct trade embargo was small. Far more significant were the restrictions on lending imposed by the United States and its representatives on international finance bodies, in India
  • Finally, in the same month on 28th May 1998, Pakistan also detonated nuclear weapons, hurriedly, responding to India’s tests.

India as a Nuclear Power: 1998 and beyond

After this series of nuclear tests in the south Asian region, tensions escalated near borders owing to cross border firing and also testing of tactical delivery weapons by both the nations i.e., Agni by India and Ghauri by Pakistan. The US and international communities feared a nuclear war between the two South-Asian nations.

The two nations did get involved in a conflict along the line of control in the Kargil sector in Kashmir, but, thankfully, it did not blow out into a nuclear war. After the Kargil conflict in summer of 1999, India declared its nuclear policy.

Salient features of Indian Nuclear Policy
  • One of the cornerstones of India’s official nuclear policy is No First Use (NFU) of nuclear weapons. But nuclear weapons could be used first if Indian forces are attacked with biological or chemical weapons.
  • India asserted a right to possess nuclear weapons, and would pursue a policy of credible ‘minimum’ nuclear deterrence and shall use nuclear weapons only to retaliate against a first strike.
  • India’s peacetime posture was aimed at convincing any potential aggressor that any threat of use of nuclear weapons against India would invoke measures to counter the threat.
  • It further stated that India would not use nuclear weapons against a state that does not have them or is not aligned with a nuclear-armed power, and that nuclear weapons would be tightly controlled and launched only with the authorization of the Prime Minister, or a designated successor.

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