Pokhran-I: India's First Nuclear Bomb

Mark Donohue
March 11, 2014

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2014

Fig. 1: Location of the test site for India's first nuclear explosive (Adapted from Wikimedia Commons)


The Canada Deuterium Uranium (CANDU) reactor is a nuclear reactor that allows for the use of unenriched uranium as a fuel by using heavy water as a moderator. This lowers the barrier for entry for developing countries that don't have access to enrichment facilities or a supply of enriched uranium fuel. The CANDU reactor and heavy water reactors in general have become a subject of a great deal of controversy, though. Lowering the barrier for entry into nuclear electricity production inherently lowers the barrier for entry into the production of nuclear weapons. Once a reactor goes critical, it can be used to produce plutonium, and in turn, nuclear weapons. In the case of the Canadian-Indian Reactor, U.S. (CIRUS) reactor, a collaborative effort between Canada and the United States to supply nuclear reactor technology to India in the hopes of alleviating the stresses of India's growing energy demand, the worry of nuclear proliferation through this technology was proven justified.

In 1974, almost 15 years after the CIRUS reactor went critical, India detonated a nuclear weapon at their Pokhran test site using plutonium that was believed to have been produced by the CIRUS reactor. This demonstration appeared in direct conflict with the agreement made prior to the sharing of the technology that prohibited the use of the technology for non-peaceful purposes. While India maintained that it did not violate the agreement, calling the demonstration a "peaceful nuclear explosion," Canada responded by withdrawing support for India's nuclear energy program while they reassessed their nuclear technology sharing policies.

Looking into the events leading up to the 1974 weapon test and the events that followed, one will find a complex political web motivating the actions of all parties involved. This paper focuses primarily on shedding some light onto possible reasons behind the nuclear weapon demonstration as well as the subsequent political stance taken by India in the events that followed.

Events Prior to the 1974 Bomb

In 1954, India established the Atomic Energy Establishment, Trombay (AEET) under the leadership of Homi Jehangir Bhabha, an Indian nuclear physicist trained in Great Britain who returned to India just prior to the start of World War II. The AEET, later renamed the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) after its founding director, was primarily established as a research center, with no research intentions outside of nuclear power generation. In a speech to India's lower house of Parliament in 1957, India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru is quoted as saying, "[W]e have declared quite clearly that we are not interested in and we will not make these bombs, even if we have the capacity to do so." [1]

Within the year, Bhabha presented his plan for India's nuclear future at the Conference on the Development of Atomic Energy for Peaceful Purposes in which, among other things, he outlined his interest in the use of plutonium as an alternative to uranium fuel moving forward. India lacked a large supply of natural uranium, and would therefore need an alternative fuel to ensure its independence in the long term. The first step towards realizing Bhabha's plan was the construction of the Apsara research reactor with assistance from the United Kingdom in the sharing of schematics and the supply of the required enriched uranium fuel. [2] The Apsara reactor went critical in 1956.

Before the completion of the Apsara reactor, plans were put in motion to construct the CIRUS reactor. As part of the Colombo Plan, an initiative through which more developed countries could support the development of countries in Asia and the Pacific, Canada offered to assist in the construction of the CIRUS reactor in 1955. The U.S.'s involvement came in the supply of the heavy water for the reactor. As part of the agreement, Canada and the U.S. stipulated that the fissile materials resulting from reactor operation were only to be used for peaceful purposes. They did not, however, outline any specific plan for inspection to determine how the plutonium was being used. [1]

Even though there was cooperation between the U.S. and India in the beginning stages of their nuclear program, tensions began to rise when India faced war with Pakistan in the midst of the Cold War. The U.S. was unwilling to provide military aid against Pakistan, likely because of Pakistan's alliance with China, a potential powerhouse that could have shifted the balance of the power in the Cold War if they were to have aligned with the Soviet Union. This was not the first time that India's best interests were not shared with those of the major powers at the time. India had already had disputes against the attempted safeguards against their freedom to use their plutonium how they saw fit. [1]

India's growing unrest did not go unnoticed by others. An internal report in the U.S. government from February 1972, just after the resolution of the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, outlines the possibility of an Indian nuclear test. [3] The document acknowledges that the wording of the original agreement does not specifically prohibit "peaceful nuclear explosives," and also acknowledges that India does not accept the U.S. and Canada's interpretation that it does. In addition, the document states that because of the lack of provisions for inspection in the original document, the U.S. would be unable to intervene provided the Indian government did not publicly announce their intention to test an explosive.

The Indian government gave no opportunities for interference, though. The events and decisions leading up to the choice to test the explosive were largely undocumented. In fact, it was not announced that India had conducted the test until the day after it had done so, likely so it didn't have to deal with the pressures against its going through with the test. The test was labeled Pokhran-I after the site where the test was conducted. [1]

Based on the timing of the test, it appears as though the dealings with the U.S. during the Indo-Pakistani War may have played a large role in India's decision. Although the Soviet Union had attempted to form an alliance with India during the conflict with Pakistan, the interplay between the U.S., China, and the Soviet Union may have conveyed a message to India that they were not thought of as equals. If the nuclear test was intended to get their attention, it succeeded.

Nuclear Fallout

Prior to the nuclear demonstration at Pokhran, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had notified India that if they tested a device, Canada would suspend their nuclear cooperation. It should have come as no surprise, then, when Canada did just that. Following the test, Canadian personnel working on another reactor in India were brought home while Canada reassessed their foreign policy for sharing nuclear technology. Aside from the fact that Canada had always held a firm belief that nuclear technology should be used for peaceful purposes, the fact that the plutonium used in the test was produced using Canada's heavy water reactor technology could have made them feel somewhat culpable. The U.S.'s reaction was much more subdued. In the midst of the Watergate scandal and uncertain of India's future intentions, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger felt that since the events couldn't be undone, reacting strongly would only make future relations with India more difficult. [4]

In December of 1974, Canada released a new proliferation policy that required assurance that their nuclear technology and material were not to be used for in explosive devices of any kind, including "peaceful nuclear explosions." When Canada attempted to renegotiate its contract with India under the new policy, it was met with a great deal of opposition from Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. It was her contention that it was unfair to retroactively impose restrictions on a contract that was entered into with both parties' interests represented equally. The new restrictions were only to serve Canada's interests, and the two parties could not reach an agreement. The loss of Canada's support pushed India further down the path of self-reliance for their nuclear future. [5]

In 1996, India would have to defend its nuclear interests again, this time in the negotiations for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The CTBT aimed to eliminate the use of nuclear explosives in both the military and civilian sectors. Criticisms from the Indian officials included the lack of a time limit by which those countries holding nuclear stockpiles would have to disarm, and the allowance for subcritical tests that would not be technically explosive in nature. From their viewpoint, the CTBT would not impose enough restrictions on the countries with established nuclear stockpiles to make it any more than another non-proliferation agreement, but would inhibit the developing countries from achieving equal footing. Additionally, in order for the CTBT to have been implemented, it was required that certain countries sign the treaty. India was among the countries list, and thus felt targeted by the treaty. [1]

Breaking the restraint it had held since the first test in 1974, India conducted a number of nuclear tests in 1998. Pakistan, who had been in a pseudo-Cold War with India throughout their nuclear development, followed suit. [1,5]


Although this paper only scratches the surface of the circumstances leading up to and following India's first nuclear test, it gives a fair amount of insight into the reasoning behind India's actions. If India is viewed simply as a developing country looking out for its own best interests, it can't really be faulted for the way it handled the situations in which it found itself. When countries like the U.S. and the Soviet Union had their own agendas, India was able to successfully maintain its own course of action. From a global perspective, one can understand what the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the CTBT sought to accomplish. The world would certainly be a safer place without the threat of nuclear strikes. In regard to India, though, they would have been required to give up their protection against outside threats without a strict guarantee that they wouldn't need that protection.

As more countries develop, the energy demand for the planet will continue to rise. Acknowledging that our current energy infrastructure centered around fossil fuels already needs to make great strides to mitigate its negative effects on the environment, widespread adoption of nuclear electricity generation may become a necessity in order to meet the world's future energy demand. If Indian Prime Minister Nehru is to be believed, India's interest in nuclear technology was only focused on peaceful uses in the beginning. Because nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons are so closely tied to one another, though, it seems that you can't just deal with one without dealing with the other.

© Mark Donohue. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] G. Perkovich, India's Nuclear Bomb: The Impact on Global Proliferation, (U. of California Press, 1999), pp. 13, 21-22, 170, 379.

[2] I. Abraham, Making of the Indian Atomic Bomb: Science, Secrecy and the Postcolonial State, (Zed Books, 1998), pp. 85-86.

[3] D. S. Kline, "Prospects of an Indian Nuclear Test", U.S. Department of State, 23 Feb 72.

[4] D. Kux, India and the United States: Estranged Democracies, 1941-1991, (National Defense University Press, 1992), p. 315.

[5] P.M. Kamath, "Indian Nuclear Tests, Then and Now: An Analysis of US and Canadian Responses," Strategic Analysis 23, 749 (1999).