New Delhi, Apr 6: 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 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.
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.
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.
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.