19. Memorandum From the Deputy Director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (Denney) to Secretary of State Rusk 1

SUBJECT

  • Possible Indian Nuclear Weapons Development

New information has recently come to hand on the Indian reactor and plutonium separation facilities which suggests that within four to six months India will be able and may intend to produce weapons-grade plutonium free of any safeguards. While we have no other evidence that they are starting a nuclear weapons program, they are now in a position to put together a crude device within one to three years of the start up of their plutonium facility, scheduled for May of this year.2

While the psychological and political barriers to a weapons program remain strong in India, the Chinese threat makes somewhat less easy any confident assumptions on this score. We think it unlikely that the Indians would test a weapon barring further changes in its internal political or international position—for example a Chinese communist nuclear test or good evidence of ChiCom intent to test. On the other hand, there might be some attractiveness to the Indians in a vigorous weapons research program stopping short of an actual test. Mounting a test, if it seemed politic to do so, could be quickly arranged if a device were at hand, and if preparation of a test site had gone forward during the weapon development period. It should be noted that the high capital cost of the fissionable materials component of a nuclear weapon has now been met.

Discussion. India has established a fairly advanced nuclear energy program which has been publicly described as being confined to nuclear research, the exploitation of basic nuclear raw materials, and the development of nuclear power. In addition to two small research reactors, India has a 40 MW(thermal) research reactor—the so-called Canada India Reactor (CIR)—which is capable of producing sufficient quantities of plutonium for one or two weapons a year. This reactor, which went critical in mid-1960, is no longer under safeguards, since Canadian fuel has been replaced with domestic uranium and U.S.-[Page 44]supplied heavy water was sold outright without controls. The Director of the Indian plutonium separation facility has stated that the CIR fuel load is changed approximately every six months. This is an exceptionally short period for normal research reactor operation. At the design power level of 40 MW(thermal), which has only been reached in the last few months of operation, this recharging cycle would result in plutonium of weapons grade, rather than the usual research reactor products.

The plutonium separation plant at Trombay is scheduled to start test operations this month, and will begin separation of its first active load from the CIR reactor in mid-May. Its capacity is such that an entire CIR fuel loading could be processed in about one month.

India has more than adequate fuel supplies to operate the CIR for the production of weapon-grade plutonium. In addition, the domestic production of uranium is being increased and the uranium metal plant and fuel element fabrication facility are being expanded.3

The first nuclear power station, Tarapur, being constructed with U.S. assistance, will not contribute to an Indian nuclear weapon capability. Its large plutonium production will be entirely under US safeguards. Two more power reactors are presently planned. The extent to which they will add to Indian weapons potential will depend entirely on safeguard arrangements.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, India, Vol. I, Memos & Miscellaneous, 12/63–3/64. Secret; Noforn. No drafting information appears on the memorandum. A stamp indicates it was received at the NSC on February 25.
  2. McGeorge Bundy highlighted the final sentence of the first paragraph for Komer’s attention and noted in the margin: “RWK Interesting?”
  3. On May 14, INR Director Thomas Hughes sent a memorandum to Rusk offering a further assessment of the prospects for Indian nuclear weapons development. The Canadian-Indian reactor at Trombay had begun operations and the INR report noted that the core of the reactor was being changed every 6 months. “This six months cycle is unusually short for a research reactor of the CIR type. While training or some other technical reason may explain this short cycle, it is appropriate for production of weapons-grade plutonium.” Hughes noted that there was no evidence of a weapons research and development program, but concluded that the political environment in India for such a program was more favorable than it had been a year before. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1964–66, FSE 13 (INDIA)