Nanda Devi, second highest peak, India and the mystery of missing plutonium!

Reproduced from the early post:

Nanda Devi (altitude : 25,643ft /7815m) is the second highest mountain in India, next only to Kangchenjunga, which is higher on the border of India and Nepal. Considered  as the highest mountain in the world before Geodetic computations in 1808,  Nanda Devi is part of the Garhwal Himalayas, and is in the state of Uttarakhand, between the Rishiganga valley on the west and the Goriganga valley on the east. 

Mount Nanda Devi, India.

Nanda Devi, a highly revered peak, is considered as among the most difficult Himalayan climbs by Tenzing Norgay, the man who first reached the roof of the world  Mt. Everest along with Edmund Hillary (29 May 1953). This peak played a vital  role during  an important  clandestine missions in the 1960s. Unlike other peaks, Mt. Nanda Devi became a mysterious peak for decades and was not approachable by many mountain climbers. But for  a few exceptions such as army or IMF sponsored expeditions,  nobody was allowed  either  to climb or explore Nanda Devi. Reason: Supposedly  environmentally fragile place.  Mount Nanda Devi was shrouded in mystery for decades and finally the veil over the  puzzle was removed to let the public know the naked truth.  Read further:.......

In the early 1960s, the sudden and unprovoked war (1962) with India, ended in favor of China. The Communist China's military muscle became a subject of discussion, so it became a necessity to keep a tab on China's military activities.  China's had first successful nuclear tests in Xinjiang province in 1964,  and it made India and other countries to install a device on Nanda Devi to keep track of its military threats.

Route to Nanda Devi,

In October 1965, the US’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB) together  wanted to have a sophisticated nuclear-powered sensing device installed on the summit to keep an eye on China.

Location map of Nanda Devi.

The daunting task is to take the heavy tracking  device uphill  and install it atop the peak. It was a tough  job  considering, the difficult mountainous route, the weight of the device - roughly 56 kg, tall 8 to 10 feet antenna, two transceiver sets,  and nuclear auxiliary power (SNAP) generator. Most importantly, the dangerous job was to set atop the summit the generator’s nuclear fuel, consisting of seven plutonium capsules  safely kept in a special  steel container.

A mountaineering team consisting of  Americans and  four army men was  entrusted with the job of installing the device on  top of Mt. Nanda Devi. The team was led my one  Manmohan Singh Kohli, an ace mountaineer and when the team reached  Camp IV on 18 October, 1965 at over 24,000ft, an unexpected thing had happened. A terrible blizzard and severe cold conditions  hampered the tough endeavor. The blizzard being severe, the leader was left with one choice - either to move up or abandon the mission for the time being. Being a smart leader,  Kholi gave up the assault  to save the lives of his men. Had he not taken the right decision  “many would have been under the snow to day in the eternal grave in the snow-clad mountain.

Expedition Poster: Nanda Devi East. blogger

The nuclear-powered generator, nicknamed Guru Rinpoche by the climbing Sherpas, after the Buddhist god, was already emitting unusual heat and when the porters and others came to know that the heat was due to  radioactive  fuel, they realized the inherent danger and became agitated. Unable to move the generator uphill with them, the team safely kept  it near Camp IV and returned to safety. The crux of the matter is what they left behind at higher slopes of Nanda Devi was  the deadly stock of plutonium, which was “about half the size of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima”, according to the team leader Kohli.

When the team returned to the mountain in May 1966 to resume their work, to their utter dismay, the container with Plutonium (it is an alloy of Pu-238 with 18 percent Pu-239. Pu-238 gives off far more heat than Pu-239) was missing and they made a vain attempt to find it. Theories and dangers of radiation were thick in the air. Nobody knew what had happened to the nuclear fuel pack. Team leader was of the opinion that the life span of the nuclear fuel was just 100 years and it is likely that the it lay buried in the snow as a result of a snow avalanche,

Nanda Devi temple. Flicker. com

Officer  and ace mountaineer Captain Kholi.

Above image: Captain M.S. Kohli climbed Mt. Everest in 1966 and got an Arjuna award from the Indian Govt.  He also scaled Mt. Annapurna. Captain

Believed to be the  20th century’s dangerous  mountaineering - cum-espionage operation ever  conducted on the slopes of the second highest peaks in the world, the mission tested the limits of human stamina, tenacity  and courage.  The US and Indian team,  as part of the installation of the  surveillance device and retrieval, witnessed as many as one dozen tough ascents, involving countless  daring people between 1965 and 1968, according to Captain Kohli.

Mt. Nanda Devi, India.

Since the fear of plutonium contamination of a vast area, stretching from the terrain of Rishiganga along the river Ganga  up to Kolkata and  the threats to millions of people  along the river became a serious issue,  the US and Indian teams monitored the entire stretch for some period. They continuously checked  the various water resources  and rocks  for any trace of radiation according to Prabhat Kumar Ganguli, the author of Nanda Abhiyatra, a book written in Bengali. Captain Kohli’s 8th Indo-Tibetan Border Police Battalion (from Tapovan) was actively involved in checking the radioactivity in the Rishi Ganga area.   In his 2005 book, "One More Step", Kohli described in detail the scare of nuclear contamination. When a team led by  one Rawat went up to retrieve the device from Nanda Kot in the summer of 1968, the device was very much there with the cover prized and the perpetual radiation made a  spherical cave around it in the ice. What about the plutonium capsules? There was no trace of them!! No body understood the ramification of missing plutonium on Nanda Devi, a perineal source of water  for the Ganga river and its repercussions. Fortunately, there was no calamity on account of this unexpected mishap, and it was a blessing in disguise.

It was only in 1967, the Americans, with the help of Kohli and other Indian climbers such as Sonam Wangyal, H.C.S. Rawat, et al successfully installed a second nuclear-powered listening device on the neighboring peak, the 22,510 ft Nanda Kot. The device worked well almost  for a year before developing a snag. The faulty Nanda Kot equipment  was removed away in 1968 in a helicopter by the Americans,  After reading countless reports and studies made by top Indian scientists, mountaineer Kohli concludes. “According to me, the plutonium capsules will remain hot and melt the snow. It is a mystery whether it formed a cavity or traveled to the bottom of the glacier or got stuck somewhere in between. I see very little chance of radioactivity. No chance,”

The news of  the CIA-IB furtive operation and the missing plutonium broke out  in the international media, for the first time in 1977 in the American magazine 'Outside'.  The sensational  adventure on Mt. Nanda Devi led to  national and international outrage and the then PM Morarji Desai had to admit to the secret mission in Parliament, and further stated that no other device was kept on the Indian soil as the faulty device was already taken away from Nanda Kot by the Americans in 1968.  In 1993 the team that did environmental study had found the steel case in the Nanda Devi Sanctuary. The steel cover had been prised  away because of extreme forces of Nature.

The unfortunate fact is several  Sherpas who carried the nuclear device  up hill later died of cancer due to exposure to radiation. The mystery around the missing plutonium continues to haunt many Himalayan mountaineers and according to one author  Stephen Alter (who wrote Himalayan Journeys In Search Of The Sacred And The Sublime) “There’s a lot of speculation and rumor surrounding those events, but it’s difficult to say exactly what happened.” According to the former VP of IMF Kapadia, the “threat of radioactivity is certainly there”.

American author and climber Pete Takeda, authored the book An Eye At The Top Of The World: The Terrifying Legacy Of The Cold War’s Most Daring CIA Operation.  ...."Some experts will say that the plutonium represents a major health threat. Others dismiss the danger as no more hazardous than an airport X-ray machine. The truth lies somewhere in between,” he writes over messages on Facebook.

The missing plutonium issue that has layers of riddle wrapped around it, is an enigma that  represents the horrible legacy of  CIA tactics in  a clandestine espionage operation. This brings out the recklessness of men to challenge the sanctity  of  serene nature, unmindful of the threats to a vast human population living on the banks of the Ganga river.  In case something goes awry, the consequences will be disastrous. 


Nanda Devi in local parlance means  Blissful Goddess and she is the  the patron - goddess of the Uttarakhand Himalayas. In view of its  religious significance and delicate Eco System, Mt. Nanda Devi sanctuary was closed to climbers and others in 1983. The surrounding Nanda Devi National Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988.

Harish Kapadia  built a small stone temple at the base camp, a place named Chaubata in  memory” of his son, Lt.  Nawang Kapadia of 4/3 Gorkha Rifles. He was  killed in a terrorist attack in Kashmir. The temple is dedicated to the supreme goddess of the region, Nanda Devi -the goddess who has protected the innocent Indian people by way of preventing a big national calamity.

This post is based on the following interesting article.

                                             (corrections made 28 March 2017)