- Soutik Biswas
- BBC correspondent in India
For generations, the inhabitants of a village in the Indian part of the Himalayas have believed that nuclear devices are buried under the snow and rocks in the towering mountains around them.
Hence when a heavy flood affected the area in early February, the villagers they panicked and rumors spread that it was an “explosion” of these devices that had caused it.
In fact, scientists point to the glacier collapse as responsible for the alluvium in the state of Uttarakhand, in the Himalayas, as a result of which more than 50 people died.
But the inhabitants of Raini, a mountain farming town, they don’t believe that version.
“We think the devices could have played a role. How can a glacier just collapse in winter? We think the government should investigate and find the devices,” Sangram Singh Rawat, the head of the community, tells the BBC.
At the heart of their fears is a tale of intrigue and spying, involving some of the best climbers in the world, radioactive material to execute electronic espionage systems, and ghosts.
It’s a story about how The United States collaborated with India in the 1960s to place nuclear-powered monitoring devices in the Himalayas to spy on Chinese atomic tests and missile launches, after Beijing carried out its first nuclear test in 1964.
“Cold War paranoia was at its height. No plan was too extravagant, no investment too large, and no means unjustified,” says Pete Takeda, contributing editor of the American magazine. Rock and Ice and who has written extensively on the subject.
The origins of the myth
In October 1965 a group of Indian and American climbers charged up to the Himalayas seven plutonium capsules along with surveillance equipment they weighed about 57 kg.
They were to be placed on the summit of Nanda Devi, which at 7,816 meters is the second highest peak in India, and is located near the northeast border with China.
A blizzard forced the climbers to abandon the climb well before reaching the top.
As they ran down, they left the devices – a six-foot-long antenna, two radio communication equipment, batteries, and the plutonium capsules – on a “platform.”
One magazine reported that they were left in a “crevasse” in the side of a mountain that was sheltered from the wind.
“We had to go down. Otherwise, many climbers would have died,” said Manmohan Singh Kohli, a famous mountaineer who worked for the main border patrol organization and led the Indian team.
When climbers returned to the mountain next spring to search for the device and carry it back to the top, they had disappeared.
More than half a century later and after several search expeditions to Nanda Devi, no one knows what happened to the capsules.
“To this day, the lost plutonium is probably in a glacier, perhaps on its way to turning to dust, or it may be seeping into the headwaters of the Ganges,” Takeda wrote.
Plutonium is the main component of an atomic bomb. But batteries made of this metal use a different isotope (a variant of a chemical element) called plutonium-238, which has a half-life (the amount of time it takes for half a radioactive isotope to break down) of 88 years.
The bases of the legend
What remains of those days is the story of a fascinating expedition.
In his book Nanda Devi: A Journey to the Last Sanctuary, British travel writer Hugh Thompson recounts how American climbers were asked to use an Indian tanning lotion to darken their skins and not arouse suspicion among the locals.
They were also instructed to pretend they were on a “high altitude training program” to study the effects of oxygen deprivation on their bodies.
The porters who carried the nuclear luggage were told that it was a “treasure of some kind, possibly gold“.
According to the American magazine OutsideBefore that, the climbers were taken to Harvey Point, a CIA base in North Carolina, for a crash course in “nuclear espionage.”
There, a mountaineer told the magazine that “after a while, we spent most of our time playing volleyball and drinking.”
The failed expedition was kept secret in India until 1978, when the daily The Washington Post resumed the story reported by Outside and wrote that the CIA had hired American climbers, including members of an expedition to Mount Everest, to place nuclear devices on two Himalayan peaks to spy on the Chinese.
The newspaper confirmed that the first expedition ended with the loss of the instruments in 1965, and that the “second raid occurred two years later and ended in what a former CIA official called a “partial success “.
In 1967, a third attempt to plant a new set of devices, this time on an adjacent 6,861-meter (22,510-foot) mountain called Nanda Kot, was successful.
A total of 14 American climbers had been paid US $ 1,000 a month for their work to place the spy devices in the Himalayas for three years.
In April 1978, the then Prime Minister of India, Morarji Desai, dropped a “bomb” on Parliament when he revealed that India and the United States had collaborated at the “higher level” to install these nuclear devices on the Nanda Devi.
But Desai did not say how successful the mission was, according to a report.
Declassified cables from the US State Department from the same month speak of some 60 people who demonstrated in front of the embassy in Delhi against “alleged CIA activities in India.”
The protesters carried signs that read “The CIA is leaving India” and “The CIA is poisoning our waters.”
As for the nuclear artifacts lost in the Himalayas, no one really knows what happened to them.
Climbers say a small station in Raini regularly tested the river’s waters and sand for radioactivity, but it’s unclear if they got any evidence of contamination.
“Until the plutonium [la fuente de la radioactividad] deteriorates, which can take centuries, the device will remain a radioactive threat that could seep into Himalayan snow and infiltrate the river system from India through the headwaters of the Ganges, “Outside reported.
I asked Captain Kohli, now 89, if he regretted being part of an expedition that ended up leaving nuclear devices in the Himalayas.
“There is no regret or happiness. I was just following orders,” he said.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.