A year before India conducted its first nuclear test in 1974, a Bombay-based scientific representative of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission was quite certain it would do so ‘in the not too distant future.’ Concurring with his assessment, a senior U.S. diplomat felt Prime Minister Indira Gandhi would take the step to offset public disenchantment with her government and the country’s growing economic troubles.
The American scientist’s suspicions grew, according to a U.S. diplomatic cable obtained by WikiLeaks, when the Indian nuclear establishment shut its doors on him, afraid that he was being used by the U.S. government to spy on them and would find out too much.
It is generally thought that the world was taken by surprise when the ‘Buddha smiled’ in Pokhran on May 18, 1974. But the cable sent by the U.S. Consul General in Bombay on April 4, 1973, was quite certain that India was on the verge of testing a nuclear device.
“As aura of Indo-Pak victory and 1970/72 electoral successes dim and as public disenchantment with PM and GoI mount reflecting increased economic distress it occurs to us in Bombay that in addition usual scapegoats, ‘demonstration’ of a nuclear device for peaceful purposes in not too distant future,” the U.S. Consul-General in Bombay wrote in the cable (1973NEWDE03743_b, secret).
The main source for the assessment was the AEC representative, John Pinajian, who had shared his ‘personal evaluation’ of India’s nuclear position with the Consul General, based on his own observations at ‘various levels in India, broad extrapolations based on technical papers presented at Indian scientific meetings as well as impression gathered from public and personal comments made by member atomic energy community.’
Dr. Pinajian told the U.S. Consul General that it was “fully within the capabilities” of India to “demonstrate its nuclear capability by exploiting peaceful application of a nuclear device” in the “near future and indications available to this end suggest that GoI may be working to this end.”
Dr. Pinajian was also of the view that the Department of Atomic Energy was laying the groundwork for the export by India of “largely ingenous [sic] atomic reactors (200 MWe).”
His impressions, Dr. Pinajian told the diplomat, were based on several things. Although he had “excellent credentials and contacts dating back to Oak Ridge” (the Tennessee city where some U.S. nuclear research facilities are located), he was being rebuffed by top scientists at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) and the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research (TIFR).
Despite an agreement with AEC India that the USAEC was making Dr. Pinajian “available as an expert,” and a suggestion by Dr. Homi Sethna, then AEC India chairman, that the scientist should ‘immediately’ go to work at BARC, Dr. Raja Ramanna, the head of BARC avoided meeting him until Dr. Sethna personally intervened to get him the appointment.
But the meeting was fruitless for the American scientist, as the BARC chief said it would be ‘impractical’ for him to work in the particular division he wanted to be in, as that would require permission from the Centre.
Dr. Ramanna pushed him off to TIFR instead. There too, Dr. Pinajian tried in vain to meet the institute’s boss, Dr. M.G.K. Menon. A member of Dr. Menon’s staff, Professor B.V. Thosar, had asked for permission to work with Dr. Pinajian, but “months have passed” and neither had heard anything.
The scientist felt this was significant as both BARC and TIFR would be “principal Orgnaisations [sic] involved in any move toward development of a nuclear device.”
Even Dr. Sethna, the USAEC scientist’s initial supporter, seemed to have abandoned him. “Additionally Pinajian has had increasing difficulty in seeing Sethna (has not seen since Feb although has requested appointment on number of occasions),” the cable notes.
The cable says that “key men in India’s atomic energy hierarchy are apparently reluctant to allow Pinajian to become involved in any access to these institutions. In my view their reluctance derives from their concern that Pinajian is knowledgeable and could find out more than they might like that he should. They probably fear we may be using him to observe their activities in the nuclear field”.
Then, despite Dr. Sethna’s statement that Trombay is “wide open and we have no secrets,” Pinajian told the U.S. Consul General, his contacts with personnel working there “(and he has a number of excellent contacts who value his advice) do not bear this out. His contacts suggest that outsiders working at Trombay are not free to roam around. In fact, friendly sources are unable to tell him who is working on a project and what is being done.”
Pinajian, says the cable, was satisfied from all indications available to him that the Indians are doing extensive work in the field of plutonium, recognising in addition that a “strong base for plutonium work is also necessary for utilization of plutonium in the DAE breeder reactor program.”