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Peaceful Nuclear Explosion Of May 1974 Was Triggered By Strategic, Scientific Calculations

India’s decision to go for a peaceful nuclear explosion on May 18, 1974, was driven by a combination of factors including the experience of the political leadership during the 1971 war against Pakistan.

According to Dr Anil Kakodkar, former head of India’s Atomic Energy Commission, who was a guest on The Gist, the US decision to dispatch the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Enterprise into the Bay of Bengal to intimidate India, was a big factor.

But there was also enormous interest and research in the world’s major scientific capitals, in the peaceful uses of atomic energy. So India’s decision to go for a peaceful nuclear explosion, was grounded in that too.

Dr Kakodkar was a young scientist involved in the planning and execution of that test, and recalled the secrecy with which they worked. The team drew in people from different scientific disciplines and everybody worked with a strong sense of purpose.

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The catchword was self-reliance, which would go on to become the basis of India’s nuclear programme, whether civil or military.

The test generated considerable data but it also provoked a backlash from the world especially a superpower like the US. India came under sanctions that broadened to cover technologies of various kinds including military. It led the US to set up an elaborate non-proliferation framework targeted specifically targeted at India, but also to prevent other countries from emulating what India did.

Dr Kakodkar says the leadership both at the political and scientific level anticipated an end to international collaborations, and were not taken by surprise when these were announced. They also knew it would impact the progress of the atomic energy programme, which it did.

There were delays, schedules slipped, there were deficits of every kind but the flip side was India learnt to cope. Today, it is accepted worldwide that India has capability and capacity in that its nuclear programme is largely homegrown, fuels have been fabricated, technologies developed and there is a large body of trained manpower. In a word, India has built capacity and capability.