A Nuclear Mystery: The Nanda Devi Plutonium Mission

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Nanda Devi – located in the state of Uttarakhand in the Garhwal Himalayas – is widely regarded as one of the hardest mountains to climb in the world. The mountain is not only infamous for its altitude of 7817 metres (making it the second highest peak in India) but also for being extremely inaccessible and having some of the most unpredictable and harsh weather in the region. Yet, in spite of these well-known difficulties, in October 1965, the US and India embarked on ‘The Nanda Devi Plutonium Mission’. Planned jointly by the Central Intelligence Agency and Indian Intelligence Bureau, the mission aimed to install a nuclear-powered remote sensing station on the summit of the mountain, with the ultimate aim of gathering intelligence on nuclear developments in the Xinjiang province of China.

On 16 October 1864, China conducted its first nuclear test, code-named Miss Qiu, or Project 596, and within eight months, a deliverable nuclear bomb was successfully dropped from a bomber and detonated. This proved threatening to the United States, who, in the aftermath of Project 596, began talks of non-proliferation with the Soviet Union to offset the possibility of a nuclear China propelling a larger and more unpredictable global arms race. Thus, the Chinese were spurred to conduct their nuclear test in the Xinjiang province as it was devoid of US satellite technology, meaning that they had no data to counter any potential Chinese threats. Moreover, the worsening situation in Vietnam further worried the US, therefore exacerbating the need to gain information on how much nuclear power China actually had. Hence, this made the peaks of the Himalayan Mountains strategically crucial to the US since a large proportion of the Xinjiang province was visible from there.

The thought of the Nanda Devi mission was first visualised at a Cocktail Party in Washington DC in 1964, during a meeting between Barry Bishop (a photographer associated with National Geographic) and Curtis Lemay (the US air force chief). A primary concern they discussed was the Vietnam War; as part of their military and ideological wars against Communism, over the course of 1965, over 200,000 US soldiers had been sent to fight in the futile and costly war in Vietnam. Thus, the two very soon realised how crucial it was for the US to keep an eye on China’s nuclear capabilities. As Pete Takeda – author of ‘The Secret of Nanda Devi’ – states: “Cold War paranoia was at its height. No plan was too outlandish, no investment too great and no means unjustified”. Furthermore, upon being approached, the Indians were also very keen to go ahead with this plan. Having recently lost the Sino-Indian War against China (Oct 20th – Now 21st 1962), coupled with the panic of their immediate neighbour arming itself with nuclear arms, India had every reason to support the Americans.

With both parties onboard, the next step in the process was to plan the mission. It was collectively decided by the Indians that the expedition would be led by Manmohan Singh Kholi – one of the most revered mountaineers in the country, who had recently led India’s first successful expedition to the summit of Mount Everest a few months prior in May 1965. Although only the top Indian mountaineers had been selected for this mission, the team was still sent for vigorous training for four months in Mount McKinley in Alaska. The utmost precautions were put in place in order to ensure that the team was ready for what would be one of their most demanding journeys.

A photo of the Indian mountaineers in Alaska in 1965

Undoubtedly, the hardest aspect of the journey was the equipment that they were required to carry with them to the summit. The primary device was a plutonium-powered Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator, weighing a substantial 57 kilograms. Along with this, there was also: an eight-ten feet antenna, two transceiver sets, seven plutonium capsules and a snap generator that was allegedly half of the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. Additionally, to provide various forms of aid, the mountaineers were accompanied by porters, sherpas, nuclear experts, intelligence officers, signal experts and communicators.

A picture of the nuclear device and equipment, taken at the foot of Nanda Devi

Although most of the mission went relatively smoothly, in the last few days of October, when the team had reached camp IV (at 24,000 feet) they were met with a rough snow blizzard. As captain of the group, Manmohan Singh Kholi made a quick decision to secure the device (along with the additional equipment) in a cave, then proceeding to tie it down with ropes and fasten it with batons. Once happy with the arrangements, the team retreated down the mountains as the weather was too severe for the mission to continue. In May 1966, the team returned back to Camp IV aiming to complete the final stage of the mission. However, they soon found that the device was missing. Owing to an avalanche triggered by that very snow blizzard, the ropes had all been broken and thus the equipment had plunged down the side of the mountain.

To this day, the whereabouts of the 1965 nuclear device are still completely unknown. A vast number of additional search operations to find the missing device have also turned out to be futile. This inevitably means that a plutonium-powered nuclear device along with seven plutonium capsules lies somewhere along the Indian Himalayan mountains. The reason this is potentially hazardous is due to the fact that Pu238 (the element used in both the device and capsules) is radioactive. It has a half-life of around 88 years, hence meaning it could take centuries before it fully deteriorates. Despite the fact that the Nanda Devi peak and sanctuary remained closed for expeditions until 1974, the operation remained a secret till the late 1970s – at which point larger international media started reporting about it. This led to Prime Minister Morarji Desai being forced to acknowledge the operation in the Indian Parliament in April 1978.

In 1967, the CIA was able to install a nuclear-powered signal device at the summit of Nanda Kot; an adjacent and easier mountain compared to Nanda Devi, with an altitude of 6861 metres (22,510 feet). A total of 14 American climbers had been paid $1,000 a month for their work to set up the spying devices in the Himalayas over three years. The device worked for a few months and confirmed that the Chinese did not – at the time – possess a long-term nuclear bomb; hence quelling American worry for the time being.

However, the lost nuclear device from 1965 could potentially have some very hazardous impacts on the people of India. One major worry is that the radioactive material could leak into the Himalayan snow and infiltrate the Indian river system through the headwaters of the Ganges – a concern voiced by the tourism minister of Uttarakhand in 2018. This contamination of water could have a severe effect on the supply of water to the Indian people, with the Himalayan Mountain range serving as a huge water source and being drained by 19 major rivers, including the Indus and Brahmaputra.  Moreover, many villagers have started to suspect that it was the lost radioactive device that was responsible for Uttarakhand’s Chamoli disaster.

The Chamoli disaster was a huge flood that occurred in the environs of the Nanda Devi National Park. Flooding began on 7 February 2021, in total killing 83 people and leaving 121 missing. In reality, scientists believe it was a piece of broken glacier that actually caused the flooding; nevertheless, a large proportion of those affected are still convinced that it was the nuclear device exploding which caused the disaster.

Additionally, the greater Nanda Devi region has been experiencing severe climatic changes in the last few decades. A study conducted by the major institute IIT Kanpur and Uttarakhand Space Application Centre from 1980-2017 into the receding glaciers in the region, found that 26 square kilometres of glaciated area had been lost in 37 years. These changes in the glaciated area have had a major effect on the 47 villages located in the buffer zone, resulting in substantial shifts in the lifestyle, culture and agricultural practices of residents. For example, changes in the local weather – primarily snowfall being replaced by rain – have led to villagers having to change the layout of their houses and replace the logs on their roofs with tiles.

Research continues to be conducted by scientists as to the cause of this alarming climate change in the area, however, the possibility of the increase in temperature being exacerbated by nuclear activity from the lost device is yet to be ruled out. If experiments were to attribute these extraordinary shifts in climate to the nuclear device in any way, it would once again instil a sense of urgency in having to locate the device. Yet, with 58 years having passed since the device was lost, this would certainly not prove to be a straightforward job; whether the device is actually still near the Nanda Devi mountain, or buried under kilometres of snow would truly be anyone’s guess.

Power, Paul F. “The Indo-American Nuclear Controversy.” Asian Survey 19, no. 6 (1979): 574–96. https://doi.org/10.2307/2643896.

Ram, Mohan. “Unanswered Questions.” Economic and Political Weekly 13, no. 17 (1978): 720–720. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4366566.