Thursday, 1 October 2009

"Figures will not lie": A personal profile of nuclear whistleblower, K Santhanam

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 26th Sept 09

His denunciation of India’s thermonuclear test on May 11, 1998 (Shakti-I), has generated a furious debate over whether India’s nuclear deterrent is actually credible. But now, his salvoes fired, K Santhanam sits alone in his South Delhi home, sipping Tajik vodka and watching Cartoon Network playing on the TV. He calls this refuge, “the calm in the eye of the storm”.

Santhanam is a slight, grey-haired figure with a puckish sense of humour. His conversation is peppered with repartee and jokes that range from off-colour ‘Santa Singh, Banta Singh’ cracks to sophisticated plays on the English language.

But for now, Santhanam has taken a three-week vow of public silence, to allow the government to appoint a panel of experts to examine the data from Shakti-I. Not a kangaroo court consisting of bureaucrats, he insists, but a blue-ribbon panel of genuine scientists, studying factual data from the tests.

“Liars will figure”, Santhanam twinkles, “but figures will not lie.”

This rumpus is uncharacteristic rebellion from a man who describes himself as “the ultimate insider”.

“I didn’t intend to trigger such a controversy,” Santhanam explains. “But once it began, I decided not to back down. I stuck to the ethics of my profession.”

His career story is the stuff of Kollywood. Born in Madras, and schooled in Tamil, Santhanam got a scholarship to Loyola College, Madras, moving on to a physics honours degree from that city’s prestigious Presidency College. In 1958, he joined the Atomic Energy Establishment, which meant another year at their in-house training school in Trombay.

Scientists traditionally dismiss revolts from renegades of their own community by blackening their credentials. It is difficult to do that to Santhanam after his 15 years at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Trombay, where he specialised in radiation hazard control and evaluating nuclear accidents.

Between 1961 and 1963, Santhanam went to the US, under the Atoms for Peace programme, studying nuclear physics at the Arbonne National Laboratory in Lamont, Illinois. A conventional nuclear scientist would have stuck to fission and fusion formulae. Santhanam claims he also mastered cocktails, working part-time as a bartender “to understand the American people”.

He certainly imbibed a healthy respect for the US, which he describes as the 900-pound gorilla in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Last year, an unambiguously pro-establishment Santhanam supported the Indo-US nuclear deal.

In 1973, Santhanam’s unconventional streak took him in a dramatically new direction: He became a nuclear spook!

He describes being called in by R N Kao, the legendary founder of the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW), to examine an Indian strategic nightmare: The suspected nuclear nexus between China and Pakistan. Over the next 11 years, says Santhanam, “I unmasked the cooperation between China and Pakistan, providing a comprehensive analysis of A Q Khan’s enrichment programme and his clandestine procurement.”

In 1986, Santhanam joined the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), where his assignments were apparently related to simulation, war-gaming, and software engineering. But, because of his old relationship with the BARC’s bomb-makers, Santhanam was covertly back-ending India’s nuclear programme. From his DRDO perch, he interacted with the PMO and liaised with the armed forces to prepare the Pokhran test sites for the 1998 tests. His BARC background and his experience with RAW made him perfect for the job.

But that same background, combined with his individualism, led him to question the thermonuclear test when measurements appeared to show it as less earthshaking than predicted. The weight of the establishment has come down on him, but Santhanam is at the battlements.

“(National Security Advisor) Mike Narayanan, who is trying to judge me, has been a cop and a spook all his life. He is totally ignorant about science and technology,” says Santhanam dismissively.

Santhanam’s deepest apprehension is that the global non-proliferation lobby will succeed in “freezing India on the nuclear curve”, preventing fission bomb know-how from being developed into fusion weapon capability.

“An arsenal based on fission weapons is not enough to deter China”, says Santhanam, all humour gone from his face. “A couple of 20-kiloton bombs over Beijing are never, never, never going to bring China to its knees.”


Anonymous said...

“A couple of 20-kiloton bombs over Beijing are never, never, never going to bring China to its knees.”

I have a question for Dr.Santhanam with regards to his above statement. "Doc you are saying a 20 Kn nuke is not enough?!! Which country in the world can shrug off even a 1Kn nuke falling on any of it's neighbourhoods? Talk sense old man! I think we have enough deterrent already."

Anonymous said...

W.r.t to the previous comment about the 20Kn nuke, China has shown repeatedly that it will ignore anything and everything to achieve its purpose. I believe that even in the event of severe losses, the Chinese leadership will shrug them off to try and counter or even sieze the initiative. Also, there is the question of being able to deliver the 20Kn (or even 1Kn) bombs over Beiging.

Anonymous said...

Dr.Santhanam is just decoy who has been expertly planted in the media by the establishment. Notice how Dr.S's remarks first caused a overwhelming public concern, then prominent discussions and finally ending in the Govt's remark to the U.S. that we shouldn't be pushed into signing the CTBT. Anyone seeing the links? Dr.S literally set-off a 'chain reaction' which finally achieved the desired effect.

Anonymous said...


Japan surrendered after 13KT + 21KT killed 200K[?]. Past Chinese leadership are known to sacrifice people (Mao killed 30 million people?) for what they perceive to be the greater good. The leadership in China has changed but i guess they will take a few KT bomb if it means destroying the opponent. It doesn't matter if

India is not looking for China to surrender, but a way to avoid a full scale war. China will not start a full scale war if there is any doubt the opponent could "bring China to its knees".

If India is forced to drop a 20KT or a MT bomb on China, the Chinese response will be the same. The Chinese response will be over whelming (in the mega ton range)!

Anonymous said...

China is country which can kill (In their opinion "sacrifice") millions of its own people, e.g. Great Leap Forward.

That is why 20-kiloton bomb isn't enough.

Anonymous said...

Ajai, The institute you mentioned is not Arbonne National Laboratory. It is Argonne National Laboratory.

Anonymous said...

All those comments talking about 20 kiloton being good enough need to realize that there is a reason why all major powers have >1 megaton nukes.
And for your info, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are still live cities, not evacuated locked up heritage sites. Small damage is not enough damage. Especially when countering an un-democratic country which does not succumb to mild pressures from people. Only a HUGE pressure from its own people will cause the dragon to desist. Only Fusion can guarantee that dragon will not ignore us.

Anonymous said...

One ought to remember what MAO said once in regards to taking a few nukes to achieve a greater goal.
I agree with Dr.Santhanam as to his saying that one 20kt nuke over bejing would not help.

ABHINABA said...

Actually, blocking of all sea trade routs around the Indian Ocean will bring china to its knees.
So,if our goi takes direct actions to strong our Indian Navy ,take advantages of our geological position(impossible for dragon to stop our trade throughout the west coast),set up a huge network of air-defence system throughout our major cities,economic sectors & raise our mountain division in urgent bassis, we will be abled to save our motherland from the fireball of chinese dragon.

Vivek said...

Mr. Santhanam may be knowledgeable with regard to nuclear research, but fortunately he doesn't have to be consulted when India's nuclear policy is being designed. That sort of important stuff is best left to people who know their jobs as well as know when to keep their traps shut.

I hope someone enlightens Mr. Santhanam, that nuclear weapons are never meant to be used. They are there for deterrence. And when one scientist shoots his mouth off to the media, he's not doing his country any favours.(BTW does anyone know why he isn't bound by the Official Secrets Act?)

With regard to China, shrugging off a 20 kt nuke over Beijing and Shanghai... today's China isn't Mao's China fortunately. Over the last two decades they've shown more foresight than any other major developing country. If you believe they will just throw away decades of progress over Tawang and Aksai Chin, congratulations you are now a jingoist fanatic.

karupaswamy said...

Irrespective what other countries have, we need to have a deterrent capability of at least 20MT. How about India testing one on the surface of the moon or mars.

Anonymous said...

By Mr. Anonymous

I think Mr. Santhanam and current goverment officials are all telling the truth. I can't think of a good reason why anyone of them would lie about such serious matter. However, I think one set of people are misinformed and/or uninformed. Since Gov. officials are the ones with all of the true data of Pokhran II, I think Mr. Santhanam is the misinformed and/or uninformed.

Anonymous said...

to anon 16:28.
" Which country in the world can shrug off even a 1Kn nuke falling on any of it's neighbourhoods? Talk sense old man! I think we have enough deterrent already." No we don't. Why do you think all the nuclear powers have a larger stockpile of fusion bombs ?

fighterclass said...

vivek, k santhanam is not just a scientist who is ignorant about the real world.

he was an official in R&AW and was responsible for building from scratch India's database on paki nukes.

he knows what he is saying, more than most of us here at any rate.

the terminator said...

With all due respect to Mr. Santhanam, why has he only brought up this serious matter to light now and not immediately after the nuclear tests?

Was he in deep slumber or wasn't he aware of the seriousness of the fizzle?

As a scientist and patriot he should have taken it up with the powers of the day, albeit in a more scrupulous way instead of declaring it openly to the whole world.

Did he think of the consequences? What if the Pakis, having some nuclear bombs and also having access to the Chinese arsenal of thermonuclear bombs decide to up the ante?

When India's sworn enemies are in possession of thermonuclear bombs in megatons, it is imperative that India should not be satisfied with 20kt or even 40kt fission bombs.

What the GOI and the other scientists are doing is just damage control. Hope it does not stay at that.

Instead of just being satisfied with simulated explosions and data based on that, they should think of stratejies to circumvent the ban on testing.

The Pakis are at a advantage because they can always get any number of proven bomb designs from China if they can assure the Chinese that the bombs are only to annihilate the dreaded yindoos.

China would readily oblige because they do not have to dirty their hands when they have a dumb proxy.

India had survived 30 years of American sponsored sanctions when it was a poor country. Now that it is rich and a fast developing country, America and their sleeping partners would have to think twice before they rashly come up with sanctions and technology denials.

However, are simulated thermonuclear explosions accurate?
Since they are projections and predictions based on scientific calculations, can't our scientists devise a foolproof way of simulated detonations and arrive at tangible and correct data?

Hope GOI and our scientists do not let us down.

Anonymous said...

Well, do we want a small 20kT deterrent, or a MAD level nuclear deterrent? :-)

Vivek said...


Well Mr. Santhanam seems ignorant of the fact that nuclear weapons serve as a deterrent. Even if you don't possess them and your adversary thinks you do, purpose is solved.

Question isn't whether India has a functioning thermonuclear weapon or not, question is why the hell did he feel obliged to speak to the media. Any questions, doubts or declarations to be made should have been made to the government through secure channels.

And when he says 'couple of 20kt nuke wouldn't bring China to its knees' the assumption is that India needs or wants to bring China down to its knees. Why? We need to have a deterrent big enough to make any nuclear exchange a lose-lose situation for both parties, and that's it.

No country with a rational stable leadership will ever order the launch of a nuclear weapon and fortunately both India and China have reasonable and sensible governments.

Ranajeet said...

This just shows how poorly our nuke tests were designed:
1) why did they just blow 1 fusion bomb, when they knew that no other country has succeeded in getting it right the first time?!
2) Why did they just design a 50kt bomb- when its very near the capacity of a fission bomb - so it wont be easy to distinguish, why not a 200kt bomb?
3) they should have known the next day, if the bomb gave a 50kt bomb yield (just look at the shaft!!) so if the shaft was still there, why didnt they have a back-up fusion bomb with a different design and yield.

just the testing skills leave at lot to be desired!!

in any case, i hope people at barc are still working on fusion research, not sitting on the failed explosion!

Broadsword said...

Terminator, you can terminate your angst.

Santhanam submitted a 50-page report to the Government of India, just days after the test, giving his opinion that the fusion test had not achieved its aims.

Don't you read the newspapers? Even the GoI has accepted that.

Ranajeet, you clearly don't how a fusion reaction is initiated. Just to enlighten you, a fission reaction is first initiated to create the conditions of temperature and pressure that are needed for initiating a fusion reaction. That means about 20 KT. If the fusion reaction is successfully initiated, it can be scaled to 50KT or 200 KT with equal ease.

Anonymous said...


As per other media outlet, the DRDO report in question was released after 6 months. Can you confirm whether it is within days after test as you stated or 6 months down the line?

Broadsword said...

We're not talking about when the report was "released". When the hell was this report "released" anyway, and to whom?

The report was submitted (not released) and it was done days, not months, after the tests.

Parth said...


I'm no nuclear expert but know to some degree the complexities of nuclear science, research and testing.

Anyway, what was the counter argument to Santhanam by Chidambram? From what I understand, he claims that the more credible data and evaluations still indicate that it was a success and Santhanam was using tectionic data alone to support his argument.

As far as I know, radiochemical methods are taken as most accurate by western nations which I'm inclined to agree with more.

Could you also shed more light on the counter points raised by GoI? That way, we can have a more objective analysis.

Vivek said...

I'm not familiar with it and being a retired army officer, I'm sure you would have studied it at some point. Could you tell us why Mr. Santhanam isn't liable for prosecution under the Officials Secrets Act?

Anonymous said...

blunder mistake by these scientists why cant they ask for retesting in 1998 itself by revealing it now they are making fun of country and security

or is this a politically involved stunt to help either congress or bjp

whether it is right or wrong these fellows became decoits

fighterclass said...

vivek, if deterrence philosophy was that simple nations would not have spent millions funding game theorists and security experts to determine the outlines of a country's nuclear deterrence.

what santhanam is saying in the "knees" statement is that 2 20kt bombs does not constitute a minimum credible deterrence vis-a-vis china.

what I find amazing is that people who have absolutely no experience of dealing with these matters which are among the most closely guarded in the world have the arrogance to call someone like K Santhanam ignorant.

sorry, if you weren't a part of an establishment you simply don't know enough to pass an opinion either way.

there is no "credible" freelance expert as far as the field of nuclear deterrence is concerned. people should stop deluding themselves that they understand it. they don't, they can't without being privy to all the information.

Vivek said...


The first and only times nuclear weapons were used was almost 65 years ago. And they've never been employed ever since. For all their military might and buildup the superpowers never engaged in direct conflict. There is more than conclusive evidence about the deterrence capacity of nuclear weapons.

Yes a grand total of two 20kt weapons is an extremely limited arsenal. Fortunately, India's stockpile reads in triple figures.

Two 20kt nukes just over Beijing on the other hand isn't something China would take casually vis-a-vis a thermonuclear weapon employed against its capital.

As things stand India's nuclear stockpile is sufficient or atleast will be sufficient for minimum deterrence against China and Pakistan. Thermonuclear weapons while desirable are not absolutely essential to having a credible deterrent.

With regard to Mr. Santhanam's esteemed credentials, he's been rebuffed by people with better ones. He's speaking over a decade after the event. He wants more nuclear tests yet is a supporter of the Indo-US nuclear accord.

And it doesn't require a doctorate and access to privileged information to deduce that in a the event of a nuclear exchange between India and China, there will be no winners.

Anonymous said...

Between 20kT and 3000kT you can only have Mutually Assured Asymmetric Destruction (MAAD).

Forget the deterrence, such asymmetry in capability shows that only we will be deterred from using it because if we do then dragon has a several times bigger hammer to use on us.

It will FORCE a No First Use policy on India even if it is conventionally overwhelmed and territorial integrity is at stake.

Spirit of Exuberance said...

To Anon 01 Oct 2009 16:28

Mr. Santhanam worked day night with people and institution that knows much more that average guys like us about the nuclear strategy and our requirements. Stop alleging anyone who deserve honour not you childish questions.

Orso Raggiante said...

The first use scenario as I understand it, in the Himalayan theatre, is a sub-kiloton blast in the mountains on the Indian side. This would not constitute a nuclear strike but would severely hamper any movement by land. A 20kT strike on Beijing or Shanghai means that it is all over and the balloons have gone up.