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US tried to plant nuclear device in the Himalayas, fails, loses device.


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Yeah, it's a clickbait-y headline, but an unreal story.  I had no idea.

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-56102459

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In a village in the Indian Himalayas, generations of residents have believed that nuclear devices lie buried under the snow and rocks in the towering mountains above.

So when Raini got hit by a huge flood earlier in February, villagers panicked and rumours flew that the devices had "exploded" and triggered the deluge. In reality, scientists believe, a piece of broken glacier was responsible for the flooding in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, in which more than 50 people have died.

 

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But tell that to the people of Raini - the farming mountain village with 250 households - and many don't quite believe you. "We think that the devices could have played a role. How can a glacier simply break off in winter? We think the government should investigate and find the devices," Sangram Singh Rawat, the headman of Raini, told me.

At the heart of their fears is an intriguing tale of high-altitude espionage, involving some of the world's top climbers, radioactive material to run electronic spy systems, and spooks.

 

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It is a story about how the US collaborated with India in the 1960s to place nuclear-powered monitoring devices across the Himalayas to spy on Chinese nuclear tests and missile firings. China had detonated its first nuclear device in 1964. 

"Cold War paranoia was at its height. No plan was too outlandish, no investment too great and no means unjustified," notes Pete Takeda, a contributing editor at US's Rock and Ice Magazine, who has written extensively on the subject.

 

Spoiler

In October 1965, a group of Indian and American climbers lugged up seven plutonium capsules along with surveillance equipment - weighing some 57kgs (125 pounds) - which were meant to be placed on top of the 7,816-metre (25,643-ft) Nanda Devi, India's second highest peak, and near India's north-eastern border with China. 

A blizzard forced the climbers to abandon the climb well short of the peak. As they scampered down, they left behind the devices - a six-foot-long antenna, two radio communication sets, a power pack, and the plutonium capsules - on a "platform". 

One magazine reported that they were left in a "sheltered cranny" on a mountainside which was sheltered by the wind. "We had to come down. Otherwise many climbers would have been killed," Manmohan Singh Kohli, a celebrated climber who worked for the main border patrol organisation and led the Indian team, said.

When the climbers returned to the mountain next spring to look for the device and haul it back to the peak, they had vanished.

More than half a century later and after a number of hunting expeditions to Nanda Devi, nobody knows what happened to the capsules.

"To this day, the lost plutonium likely lies in a glacier, perhaps being pulverised to dust, creeping towards the headwaters of the Ganges," wrote Mr Takeda. 

This could well be an exaggeration, say scientists. Plutonium is the main ingredient of an atomic bomb. But plutonium batteries use a different isotope (a variant of a chemical element) called plutonium-238, which has a half-life (the amount of time taken for one-half of a radioactive isotope to decay) of 88 years. 

What survives are the stories of a fascinating expedition. 

In his book Nanda Devi: A Journey to the Last Sanctuary, British travel writer Hugh Thompson recounts how the American climbers were asked to use an Indian sun tan lotion to darken their skins so that they didn't evoke suspicion among locals; and how the climbers were told to pretend that they were on a "high altitude programme" to study the effects of low oxygen on their bodies. The porters who carried up the nuclear luggage were told it was a "treasure of some sort, possibly gold". 

Before that, the climbers, reported Outside, an American magazine, were taken to Harvey Point, a CIA base in North Carolina, for a crash course in "nuclear espionage". There, a climber told the magazine, that "after a while, we spent most of our time playing volleyball and doing some serious drinking".

The botched expedition was kept a secret in India until 1978, when the Washington Post picked up the story reported by Outside, and wrote that the CIA had hired American climbers, including members of a successful recent summit of Mount Everest, to place nuclear-powered devices on two peaks of the Himalayas to spy on the Chinese. 

The newspaper confirmed that the first expedition ended in the loss of the instrument in 1965, and the "second foray happened two years later and ended in what one former CIA official termed a "partial success". 

In 1967, a third attempt to plant a fresh set of devices, this time on an adjacent and easier 6,861-metre (22,510-ft) mountain called Nanda Kot, had succeeded. A total of 14 American climbers, had been paid $1,000 a month for their work to put the spying devices in the Himalayas over three years.

In April 1978, India's then prime minister Morarji Desai dropped a "bombshell" in the parliament when he disclosed that India and the US had collaborated at "top level" to plant these nuclear-powered devices on the Nanda Devi. But Desai did not say how far the mission was successful, according to a report. 

Declassified US State Department cables from the same month talk about some 60 people demonstrating outside the embassy in Delhi against "alleged CIA activities in India". The protesters carried signs, saying "CIA Quit India" and "CIA is poisoning our waters".

As for the lost nuclear devices in the Himalayas, nobody quite knows what happened to them. "Yeah, the device got avalanched and stuck in the glacier and God knows what effects that will have," Jim McCarthy, one of the American climbers, told Mr Takeda. 

Climbers say a small station in Raini regularly tested the waters and sand from the river for radioactivity, but it is unclear whether they got any evidence of contamination. 

"Until the plutonium [the source of the radio-activity in the power pack] deteriorates, which may take centuries, the device will remain a radioactive menace that could leak into the Himalayan snow and infiltrate the Indian river system through the headwaters of the Ganges," Outside had reported.

I asked Captain Kohli, now 89, whether he regretted being part of an expedition which ended up leaving nuclear devices in the Himalayas

"There is no regret or happiness. I was just following orders," he said.

 

And another story about this over on Defector, with additional details:

Spoiler

The year is 1964. The United States and the Soviet Union have narrowly avoided full-scale nuclear destruction and resolved the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War looms on the horizon, and Mao Zedong‚Äôs China‚ÄĒfresh off a split with the Soviets‚ÄĒhas just successfully blown up its first atomic bomb in a dry lakebed in southeastern Xinjiang, near what is now the¬†world‚Äôs largest reserve for Bactrian camels.¬†

China’s nuclear test announced the country as the world’s fifth nuclear-armed nation, though unlike France, the USSR, and the United Kingdom, the Chinese nuclear program was a black box for American intelligence. Recently declassified government files show, for example, that the U.S. was shocked to learn that the bomb was fueled by uranium, not plutonium. Military-industrial honchos were left scratching their heads as to how to gather intelligence, until a chance meeting between General Curtis LeMay and mountaineer Barry Bishop at a Washington D.C. cocktail party led to one of the most quixotic, unsuccessful operations in the CIA’s long history of screwups.

Bishop was part of the first American team to summit Mt. Everest the year prior, and according to¬†Pete Takeda‚Äôs fascinating 2007¬†Rock And Ice¬†story, he gushed about the unobstructed views he enjoyed from the world‚Äôs (arguably) tallest mountain. Takeda writes that LeMay put the pieces together and, ‚ÄúFrom this casual exchange emerged an unlikely inspiration: Recruit America‚Äôs best high-altitude climbers to place a nuclear powered observation device atop the world‚Äôs greatest mountain range.‚ÄĚ The hope was that a transceiver could pick up radio communications between Chinese nuclear personnel, remaining functional for years off of the heat from decaying plutonium isotopes. Per Takeda, the CIA‚Äôs device was an ‚Äúoven-sized metal bin with five radiating fins‚ÄĚ that weighed 125 pounds and was topped by a six-foot long antenna. If this sounds like a crude product of ‚Äô60s nuclear frenzy, consider that¬†NASA‚Äôs Perseverance rover¬†is scooting around on Mars thanks to this exact sort of battery.¬†

Bishop could no longer climb high alpine peaks after losing all of his toes in the Everest expedition, but by 1965, the CIA started putting together a team, picked a name (Operation Hat), and chose a mountain. Everest straddled China’s border, so it was out of contention. CIA officials eventually chose Nanda Devi, the tallest peak entirely within India’s borders. Nanda Devi offered two advantages to the Americans: long sightlines into Western China and the help of an Indian state that the U.S. had just supported in its 1962 border skirmish with China.

At this point in history, Nanda Devi had only been summited by six people, with three others dying in the process, so the CIA recruited a dream team of famous American climbers. The corps included pioneering El Capitan big-waller¬†Tom Frost,¬†1963 Everestveteran Lute Jerstad,¬†Sports Illustrated¬†cover darling¬†Jim McCarthy, and the unsung alpinist¬†Robert Schaller. They¬†underwent a training¬†course on nuclear technology and ‚Äúthe Asian mentality‚ÄĚ at a South Carolina military base, though the climbers say they mostly spent time ‚Äúplaying volleyball and doing some serious drinking.‚Ä̬†The full team undertook a training mission on Mount McKinley¬†in June with their Indian counterparts, and even though ‚Äúdistressing weather and other difficulties kept them from the summit,‚ÄĚ the CIA ‚Äúchose to ignore‚ÄĚ the omens and the American-Indian team set out for Nanda Devi in October 1965.¬†

The CIA has not yet declassified files from the expedition, including apparently extensive photographs and journal records made by Schaller, so we do not have a detailed account of what happened on the mountain. But we do know how the mission ended: catastrophic failure. A storm pinned several climbers and the device down while they were roughly 1,800 feet from the summit. Indian intelligence lead Capt. M.S. Kohli was forced to call a retreat, and the team stashed the device in a crevice and attempted to anchor it in place, so it would stay put until they could come and retrieve it on the other side of winter.

McCarthy spoke at length with Takeda¬†for the¬†Rock And Ice¬†story‚ÄĒwhich really is great, Takeda makes his own attempt on Nanda Devi and narrowly escapes death by avalanche‚ÄĒand he recalled his fury at the expedition‚Äôs failure:

When I realize that they‚Äôre dumping the fucking generator and going down the mountain, I‚Äôm like, ‚ÄėWhat the fuck are you doing? Have them bring it down! Are you crazy?‚Äô I‚Äôm yelling at the top of my lungs.‚ÄĚ According to McCarthy, the CIA case officer nearly had to pull him off Kohli. ‚ÄúHe says to me,‚ÄĚ McCarthy says, ‚ÄėYou are creating an international incident!‚Äô‚ÄĚ

‚ÄúBut,‚ÄĚ McCarthy adds, ‚ÄúI had a vision of absolute clarity. We‚Äôre going to lose a SNAP generator, powered by plutonium, in the headwaters of the Ganges!‚ÄĚ

Rock And Ice

 

That might be what wound up happening. Nobody knows where the device ended up, since it disappeared from Nanda Devi at some point in the winter. The CIA ran a total of eight field operations in the region between 1965 and 1968, aimed at both finding the first device and getting another one up and running. Though they eventually implanted a plutonium device on nearby Nanda Kot, they have never been able to find their lost transceiver. The successfully placed device was also quickly buried under the snow and stopped working months later, after producing no useful intelligence.

The grim failure of Operation Hat resurfaced this month after violent floods killed over 50 people in the Indian state of Uttarakhand. The floods most likely began when a chunk of the Nanda Devi glacier broke off and trapped flowing water, forming a lake that eventually burst through and swept through nearby valleys. The undeniable oddness of a glacial breaking apart during the winter has led some locals to speculate that perhaps the plutonium generator, which is still likely producing heat, led to the deadly floods.

There’s no evidence for the hypothesis, though even after years of reconnaissance missions and rigorous chemical assays of the surrounding area, nobody knows where the CIA’s lost nuclear powered spy oven is.

 

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