- Sotic Biswas
- Indian Affairs Correspondent
In a village in the Indian Himalayas, generations of residents believed that there was nuclear equipment buried under the ice and rocks in the steep mountains in which they lived.
So when a massive flood struck the village of Rennie earlier this February, the villagers panicked and rumors spread that the nuclear equipment had “exploded” and led to a flood.
In fact, scientists believe that a fracture in a glacier was responsible for the floods in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, which killed more than 50 people.
But tell the people of Rene, the agricultural mountain village of 250 families, many of them will not completely believe you. Sangram Singh Rawat, the mayor of Reni Village, told me: “We believe that nuclear equipment played a role, how could a glacier simply break in winter? The government should investigate and find that equipment. “
At the heart of their fears is an exciting story of spying over these steep heights, and that story includes some of the world’s top climbers, radioactive materials to operate electronic spy systems and intelligence jargon.
It is a story about how the United States cooperated with India in the 1960s to place nuclear-powered surveillance devices across the Himalayas to spy on Chinese nuclear tests and launch missiles, and China had conducted its first nuclear explosion in 1964.
Pete Takeda, a contributing editor for the American magazine Rock and Ice who has written extensively on the topic, says: “The cold war madness was at its peak and then there was no very strange plan, and there was no very big investment, and there was no way. unjustified”.
In October of 1965, a group of Indian and American climbers pulled 7 capsules of plutonium with surveillance gear, weighing about 57 kilograms, to place it 7,816 meters above the summit of Nanda Devi, the second highest peak in India, near the northeastern border of India. With China.
The snowstorm forced the climbers to abandon their summit plan despite their approach, and as they were running downhill they left behind devices that included a 6-foot-long antenna, two walkie-talkies, a fixed power supply unit, and plutonium capsules.
“We had to land, otherwise many climbers would be killed,” said Manmohan Singh Kohli, a famous climber who worked for the main border patrol organization and led the Indian team, said one magazine.
When the climbers returned to the mountain the following spring to search for equipment and bring it back to the summit, it was gone.
After more than half a century and after a number of expeditions to Nanda Devi, no one knows what happened to the capsules.
“To this day, it is possible that the lost plutonium lies in a glacier, and may turn into dust and infiltrate into the headwaters of the Ganges,” wrote Takeda.
Scientists say that may be an exaggeration.
Plutonium is the main component of the atomic bomb, but plutonium batteries use a different isotope (which is a different type of chemical element) called plutonium-238, which has a half-life of the radioactive isotope to decay, which is estimated at 88 years.
What remains are wonderful expedition stories.
In his book Nanda Davy: A Journey to a Final Refuge, British traveler Hugh Thompson recounts how American climbers were asked to use an Indian sunbathing solution to darken their skin so that they would not arouse suspicion among the locals, and how climbers were asked to pretend they were in a “high altitude climbing program” to study The effects of low oxygen on their bodies, the porters carrying the nuclear belongings were told that it was “a treasure of sorts, perhaps gold.”
The American Outside Magazine reported that the climbers had previously taken to Harvey Point, a CIA base in North Carolina, to attend an intensive training course in “nuclear espionage,” and a climber told the magazine: “After a while we spent most of our time there playing volleyball and eating. Alcoholic drinks in large quantities. “
The failed expedition remained a secret in India until 1978 when the Washington Post picked up the story in Outside and wrote that the CIA had hired American climbers, including members of a then-successful expedition to climb Mount Everest, to place nuclear-powered equipment. On two peaks in the Himalayas to spy on the Chinese.
The newspaper confirmed that the first expedition ended with the loss of equipment in 1965, and “the second expedition took place two years later and ended with what a former CIA official described as” partial success. “
In 1967, the third attempt to plant a new set of devices succeeded, this time on a nearby and easier mountain to climb, with a height of 6861 meters called Nanda Kot, and a group of 14 American climbers paid a thousand dollars a month to install spy devices in the Himalayas over a period of 3 years.
In April 1978, then Indian Prime Minister Morarji Desai threw a “bomb” in Parliament when he revealed that India and the United States had cooperated at “the highest level” to implant these nuclear-powered devices on Nanda Devi, but Desai did not mention to any. How successful the mission was, according to a report.
The declassified US State Department telegrams issued in April 1978 spoke of about 60 people demonstrating outside the embassy in Delhi against “alleged CIA activities in India,” and the demonstrators carried banners reading “Leave India, CIA.” And “the CIA is poisoning our water.”
As for the missing nuclear equipment in the Himalayas, no one knows what happened to it.
Jim McCarthy, one of the American climbers, said: “Yes, the device collapsed and got stuck in the glacier. God knows what effects it will have.”
Climbers say a small station in Rene has regularly tested water and sand from the river for radioactivity, but it is unclear if it has obtained any evidence of contamination.
Outside magazine said: “Until plutonium (the source of radioactivity in the power unit that drives these devices) decomposes, which may take centuries, the device will still represent a radiation danger that could seep into the Himalayan ice and infiltrate the Indian river system through the headwaters of the Ganges River.” .
I asked Captain Kohli, 89, if he regretted being part of an expedition that ended with nuclear equipment abandoned in the Himalayas.
He said, “There is no remorse or happiness, for I would have followed the orders.”
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