‘Fizzle’ as in Bombs

Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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The yield from the Hiroshima atom bomb was 18 KT. The Pokhran ‘fizzle’ yielded around 27 KT.

When K Santhanam, a key scientist involved in the 1998 nuclear tests, said one of them was a fizzle, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, former president APJ Kalam, home minister P Chidambaram, and assorted others who neither are nuclear scientists (not counting Kalam) nor were anywhere near Pokhran at the time, felt they must refute his word. So what is this ‘fizzle’ that can cause an explosion of refutations?

You get a fizzle when the bomb you throw does not make the blast you expect. In other words, the phuski of Diwali firecrackers. Where the stakes are higher, phuski or not is measured in terms of ‘yield’. It’s the amount of energy released from the blast. Of the five tests in Operation Shakti, the fizzle Santhanam is talking about refers to Shakti I, a thermonuclear device or hydrogen bomb, the big daddy of atom bombs. It was so far assumed to have given a 45 kiloton (KT) yield. Santhanam says it wasn’t more than 60 per cent of that number—27 KT max.

Which is not bad. One KT is the energy released when you blow up 1,000 tonnes or 100,000 kg of TNT. The yield of the atom bomb that levelled Hiroshima and killed around 150,000 Japanese was 18 KT.

A fizzle is nothing to be ashamed of. The Americans, Russians, British, French and Chinese have all lived with it. A scientist who supports Santhanam has said no country has not got a fizzle the first time they tested a thermonuclear weapon. Plus, British scientists have been arguing for years that the test yielded just 20 KT. So why does Santhanam think it important to go public now?

The answer is four letters—C.T.B.T (Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty). Once India signs up, it can’t test any more. Prevailing opinion is that India needs no more tests because the data from 1998 is enough for us to build the bomb. Santhanam is using the fizzle to argue against signing up for CTBT because he wants India to have the hydrogen bomb.

This drama even has a guest appearance by Obama. Because if Obama had not won the US presidency, then Santhanam would not believe that the new US government would pressure India to sign the CTBT, in which case the whole issue would just have fizzled out even before it started.