CIA’s lost plutonium in the Himalayas: Radioactive for centuries

This story should serve to remind us, that when it comes to things nuclear, we can not leave it to our policy makers who can not even think of consequences over their own lifetimes. The relationship between China and US, and the very existence of such political maps could change in a matter of decades, but radioactive contamination stays for centuries. Nuclear safety, whether in case of nuclear energy, nuclear weapons, space missions carrying nuclear devices or Depleted Uranium, has to be thought keeping in view the irreparable, large-scale and long-term consequences of radiation.

In 1965, a CIA team lost a four pound plutonium-powered device at Nanda Devi peak which it was trying to install to spy on China’s nuclear tests. That expedition retreated in the face of bad weather, leaving the device in Himalayas. They returned in the next spring to find the device, but failed. The Nanda Devi Sanctuary supplies water to the Ganges River, and there were fears that the four pounds of plutonium in the device could escape into the watershed. Those fears were been confirmed in 2005 when traces of Plutonium-235 was found.



Legacy of CIA Himalayan Operation Could Imperil Millions

Courtesy: The Progressive

Talk about harebrained schemes.

The CIA has had its share of dimwitted operations (the plot to make Castro’s beard fall off comes to mind), but an expedition to plant a nuclear-powered sensor on a 25,000-foot-plus mountain in the Himalayas is in a league of its own. The aim of putting the plutonium-run device on Nanda Devi (which feeds the Ganges river) in 1965 was to track nuclear and missile tests in China. The operation was a collaboration between the U.S. and Indian intelligence agencies, thus putting a wrinkle into the notion that the United States and India were consistently on opposing sides during the Cold War.

None other than General Curtis LeMay ( a character so over the top that he was the inspiration for Jack. D. Ripper and/or Buck Turgidson in “Dr. Strangelove”) approved the mission on the U.S. end, and the U.S. team did a practice run on Mt. McKinley. Notwithstanding the training and background of the climbers (who were expert mountaineers, not run-of-the-mill intelligence operatives), the Nanda Devi expedition encountered a lot of trouble. Due to adverse weather conditions, the group had to be airlifted after abandoning the device at a campsite, with the hope that people could come back and plant the sensor in the right place.

This was not to be. A follow-up trek discovered, much to the team members’ dismay, that the device was missing. Subsequent U.S.-India expeditions mounted to locate and secure the apparatus ended in utter disappointment. (The joint leader of the expedition, M.S. Kohli, has co-authored a book, “Spies in the Himalayas,” on the whole affair. The Tribune, an Indian newspaper, carried an interview with him in 2003.)

Mountaineer and journalist Pete Takeda has a recent book out on the subject. He was surprised by “the audacity of the CIA and the Indian government in trying to execute this thing,” he told The Denver Post earlier this month. “What amazed me most was that people I knew and respected —a generation of the best climbers—were involved in this and that the CIA really thought they could pull this off. I don’t think they fully knew what they were asking these climbers to do.”

Takeda quotes one of the climbers, Jim McCarthy, who asserts that the team members were fatally harmed by the radioactivity in the apparatus. “It’s McCarthy’s claim he got testicular cancer from the device,” Takeda says. “He’s convinced all the Sherpas died from their exposure to the device.”

The story was first made public decades ago, in 1978 by Howard Kohn in Outside magazine. The then-Indian Prime Minister, Morarji Desai, had to make a statement to the Indian parliament revealing the details of the mission and denying that the lost equipment posed any health hazards. An official Indian scientific committee supported his claim.

But the device—and its potential for killing legions due to the contamination of an entire river system and ecosphere—has been back in the news recently due to two reasons.

Takeda’s book, “An Eye At the Top of the World,” came out some months ago. To write the book, Takeda and his team ascended an adjacent peak (the Indian government denied permission to climb Nanda Devi), nearly killing themselves in the process. They came back to the United States with river sediment samples from the area. In March this year, the Boston-based Chemical Data Corporation analyzed the samples and detected plutonium 239, as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports. (Takeda has a recent posting up on his website about a scientist who claims to have found no evidence of plutonium in the sample that Takeda subsequently sent him, further complicating matters.)

The second person to throw the spotlight on the issue has been Yoichi Shimatsu, a Japanese journalist and filmmaker who has made a documentary about the misuse of science in the Himalayas. Shimatsu warned last month about the consequences if the plutonium in the device ever leaks from its casing.

“Though the Indian government says there is little danger of the plutonium breaking out of its protective sheath, Shimatsu says the menace can’t be ruled out and once that happens, the waters of the Ganges, one of Asia’s biggest and most sacred rivers, will be poisoned,” reports the Hindustan Times.

Shimatsu is urging the international community to launch joint expeditions to locate the device, with the cost being borne by the countries responsible—the United States and India.

“I think it could and should be found,” affirms Takeda in his Denver Post interview. “It would settle the whole matter and it’s a piece of Cold War history, and it would mitigate the potential notion that plutonium is leaking and is a health hazard. But it would cost millions of dollars.”

The chances of an environmental calamity seem low at the moment. But given the ecological catastrophe—and the massive radiation poisoning—that could be caused by the puerile spy games that the CIA and India played, it’d be best to err on the side of caution and hunt for the device. The Cold War took too many casualties, and that toll doesn’t need to be increased.

For further details, please also see –
The Secret of Nanda Devi
Spies on the Roof of the World
Did A Plutonium Generator End Up in the Ganges?



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