UPSC Exam Preparation: This Day in History – May 18

18 May 1974

“Smiling Buddha”


What happened?

India conducted its first successful test of a nuclear bomb on 18 May 1974 at Pokhran. The secret operation was called “Smiling Buddha” and the current MEA nomenclature for the exercise is Pokhran-I.

Background

  • India’s nuclear programme had its nascent origins in 1944 when eminent physicist Homi Bhabha established the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai.
  • After the go-ahead from Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Bhabha coordinated the nuclear weapons design and development programme in the country.
  • The establishment of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) ensured that the programme was steered towards the right direction and that adequate funds were made available from the budget for the same.
  • During the years up to 1962, research reactors were acquired and installed for the development of atomic energy largely for peaceful purposes.
  • The Sino-Indian war slowed down the progress. In 1967, the ascent of Indira Gandhi as the Prime Minister saw a renewed interest in the nuclear programme.
  • Scientists P.K. Iyengar and Homi Sethna played important roles in the development of a plutonium plant called Purnima in 1969. The plant was headed by Iyengar, Sethna, R Ramanna and Vikram Sarabhai.
  • In September 1972, after the war with Pakistan, Indira Gandhi sanctioned the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) to produce a nuclear device and then test it.
  • Only selected leaders from the top brass of the Indian Army were informed of the test.
  • The whole operation was done in clandestine fearing that the US would come to know about it through their satellites.
  • The formal name of the device was “Peaceful Nuclear Explosive”, although the codename was “Smiling Buddha”. The date of the test May 18, 1974 was Buddha Jayanti in India.
  • Only Gandhi’s closest aides were aware of the operation. Some experts claim that even the then defence minister was not a party to the operation. The external affairs minister was intimated only 48 hours prior.
  • The total number of civilian scientists involved in the operation was just 75.
  • Ramanna, BARC’s director, was the head of the nuclear bomb project.
  • The project’s second-in-command, P.K. Iyengar was the one who designed and created the bomb.
  • The chief metallurgist was R Chidambaram and the implosion system was developed by N.S. Venkatesan. W.D. Patwardhan developed the detonation system and the explosive materials.
  • Homi Sethna, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission of India, supervised the project.
  • APJ Abdul Kalam, who would be the country’s president later, also witnessed the test as a representative of the DRDO.
  • The design of the device was ‘implosion type’. DRDO’s laboratory at Chandigarh assembled the implosion system. Another one of its labs in Pune developed the detonation system.
  • 6 kg of plutonium was used. The neutron initiator, nicknamed ‘Flower’ was of the type polonium-beryllium.
  • The entire bomb was assembled at Trombay before being transported to the test site at Pokhran in Rajasthan.
  • The device weighed 1400 kg and had a diameter of 1.25 m.
  • The device was detonated at 8.05 am.
  • The public in India celebrated the first successful nuclear test of the country and Gandhi’s popularity soared. Scientists Sethna, Ramanna and DRDO’s Basanti Nagchaudhuri were awarded the Padma Vibhushan. Some other scientists involved received the Padma Shri.
  • India told the international community that the nuclear test bomb was peaceful and there were no plans of militarising the nuclear programme.
  • The subsequent nuclear test in the country would come only in 1998, which was called Operation Shakti.
Also on this day
1933: Birth of H.D. Deve Gowda, former Prime Minister of India.

 

See previous ‘This Day in History’ here.

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