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Karthik S.P. asked : What was the difference between the two nuclear tests that India conducted vide Operation Shakti and Operation Smiling Buddha?

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  • A. Vinod Kumar replies: On May 18, 1974, India conducted its first nuclear explosive test (of a plutonium implosion device) in Pokhran desert in Rajasthan, which the government described as a ‘peaceful nuclear explosion’ or PNE. The use of PNE technology was in vogue during the 1950s and 1960s with the superpowers using nuclear explosive technology for developmental and industrial applications like civil engineering projects, deep sea mining and so on. However, during the negotiations for a treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons (NPT) at the Eighteen Nation Disarmament Committee (ENDC) in the mid-1960s, the Americans refused to accept PNE as an integral part of the civilian nuclear energy applications or as a peaceful nuclear energy resource, arguing that the dividing line between a PNE device and a nuclear weapon is thin. The Americans, instead, offered to give PNE technology on a commercial basis, which India rejected terming the offer as an ‘atomic apartheid’

    Along with differences over issues like security guarantees and the imbalanced nature of the NPT text, the apparent discrimination over PNE rights was also among the key reasons for India’s decision to reject the NPT in 1968. Four years after the NPT entered into force in 1970, India went on to undertake the nuclear test which was described by the Indian Government as a PNE, though many Western nations saw it as a demonstration of India’s capability to develop nuclear weapons. Another apparent reason for the PNE classification is that the plutonium used in the device was extracted from the spent fuel of CIRUS reactor, which was built with Canadian assistance through an agreement that stipulated that the reactor should be used for only peaceful purposes. The Canadians refused to accept this contention and went on to withdraw support for India’s nuclear energy programme.

    The nuclear tests of May 1998 (three tests on May 11 and two tests on May 13), on the other hand, were undertaken as part of the nuclear weaponisation process. Following the first three tests (of a thermo-nuclear, a fission and a low-yield device), the Indian Government declared itself as a state possessing nuclear weapons. Subsequently, in August 1999, the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) formulated a Draft Indian Nuclear Doctrine that espoused the pursuit of credible minimum deterrence as the primary objective of India’s nuclear weapons. The nuclear doctrine was later operationalised through a Cabinet Note in January 2003.

    The NPT, which is the cornerstone treaty determining the norms for structures of non-proliferation, peaceful uses of nuclear energy and disarmament, formalises five countries that tested nuclear weapons before January 01, 1967 as recognised nuclear weapon states (NWS). All the remaining countries are supposed to be non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS), according to the treaty. Four countries – India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea – are not NPT state-parties (North Korea exited the treaty in 2003) and hence are not considered as NWS despite possessing nuclear weapons (Israel being ambiguous on nuclear weapons), even as the NPT community has customarily exhorted these countries to join the treaty as NNWS.

    Posted on March 22, 2018