Secret Scotland

If it's secret, and in Scotland…

The atomic secret of Nanda Devi

Nanda Devi is unfortunately being featuring in the news at the moment…

Nanda Devi: Hopes fading for eight missing climbers

But there was a time when the location was relatively unknown, yet was the subject of a story that would have probably have made even more headlines back around 1965 than it is making today.

NEW DELHI: Even as the world celebrated the golden jubilee of the human conquest of Mount Everest, a legendary Indian mountaineer and a CIA expert have come out with an authoritative chronology of how nuclear devices were planted atop high Himalayan peaks to monitor Chinese nuclear tests in the 1960s.

In an explosive book ”Spies in the Himalayas”, the mountaineer, Capt Mohan Singh Kohli, who had led these expeditions to Nanda Devi, Nanda Kot and other summits between 1965 and 1968, and CIA expert Kenneth Conboy chronicle the planting of nuclear-powered monitoring devices by the CIA with the help of intrepid climbers from India and the US.

That was the time when there were no satellites to monitor such developments from the sky.

One of the devices, which could not be planted atop Nanda Devi summit due to bad weather and was left cached on the mountain for the next expedition, went missing.

This caused serious concern about possible radioactive contamination of the environment and, in particular, the River Ganges.

Repeated searches could not retrieve the device which still remains missing, the book, published by Harper Collins, and said, adding that tests done subsequently at different spots indicated there was no cause for alarm.

The highly sophisticated and top-secret mission was kept under wraps for 38 long years, barring a “partial and inaccurate leak” made to a US magazine in 1978, which rocked the Indian Parliament at that time.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then Foreign Minister, declared in London on April 30, 1978, India would recover the nuclear device. To pacify agitated MPs, Vajpayee also made statements in Parliament.

A high-powered committee of scientists, including Dr Atma Ram, H N Sethna, M G K Menon, Raja Ramanna and Dr Saha, was set up to study and assess the risk of the missing device on Nanda Devi, the book said.

While CIA refused to comment on the news, US Congressmen asked then President Jimmy Carter to conduct an investigation.

Kohli also participated in the famous sailing expedition ”Ocean to Sky” in 1977 on the Ganga against the currents. The expedition, led by Sir

Edmund Hillary, was among other things reportedly intended to monitor radioactive contamination on the river as a fallout of the missing nuclear device atop Nanda Devi.

The book also mentions several interesting developments in that period, relating to these expeditions and the plans to install the nuclear monitoring devices.

These included unauthorised climbing of Nanda Devi twice, capture of an Indian Special Frontier Force commando by the Chinese in Tibet, the appearance of an American spy plane U-2 in India on a secret mission, use of the world famous Huskie aircraft for high altitude search up to 22,500 feet and Kohli”s seven close brushes with death.

The legendary Indian mountaineer, along with co-author Conboy, also recalls the involvement of leading intelligence officials, nuclear scientists and dare devil pilots of US and India and the CIA experts who participated in this unusual expedition.

CIA nuclear device atop Himalayas

Another article from the same source…

NEW DELHI: Soon after China detonated its first atom bomb in 1964, CIA tried to plant a nuclear-powered surveillance device atop Nanda Devi to spy on the communist nation.

Though the secret mission failed and the device was lost there, it created ripples in the Indian establishment 12 years later.

The espionage mission remained top secret till April 1978 when a news report published in a US magazine “Outside” claimed that the US intelligence agency had sent a team to set up a remote sensing device atop 25,645-foot mountain in the Himalayas in 1965.

But bad weather halted them 2,000-feet short of the summit and forced them to abandon the 125-pound device containing plutonium 238 that can remain radioactive for about 500 years. When the team returned to the site a year later, the device could not be located.

After a short-term “feckless effort”, the US government gave up its search for the device. Instead, the CIA covertly placed a second snap generator on another mountain, Nanda Kot, in 1967. After serving the agency’s purposes, it was also abandoned a year later, the report had claimed.

The revelations sparked a huge uproar in the country and even forced then foreign minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to say the episode might damage the “recently improving” ties between the two countries, according to recently declassified external affairs ministry documents.

The documents, available with National Archives, show how the Indian embassies abroad, especially in the US, had become active and kept on sending notes explaining how the issue was being played up by the media there.

At the time of this discloser, foreign ministry officials here were apparently unaware of the fact that the Nanda Devi mission was actually a joint collaboration between India and the US, according to the declassified documents.

CIA tried to plant surveillance device atop Nanda Devi

I’ve gone with somewhat longer than usual quotes from the source since I note that nearly all the other accounts I have bookmarked since coming across this story about 10 or so years ago have largely evaporated from the net.

Nanda Devi uncredited image

Nanda Devi uncredited image

The image came this info:

In addition to being the 23rd highest independent peak in the world, Nanda Devi is also notable for its large, steep rise above local terrain. It rises over 3,300 metres (10,800 ft) above its immediate southwestern base on the Dakkhni Nanda Devi Glacier in about 4.2 kilometres (2.6 mi), and its rise above the glaciers to the north is similar. This makes it among the steepest peaks in the world at this scale, closely comparable, for example, to the local profile of K2. Nanda Devi is also impressive when considering terrain that is a bit further away, as it is surrounded by relatively deep valleys. For example, it rises over 6,500 metres (21,300 ft) above the valley of the Ghoriganga in only 50 km (30 mi).

No wonder they thought of installing a surveillance device powered by similar technology to a space probe there!

The only surprising aspect I note is placing something in that environment, and expecting it to stay there.

I’ve also seen other stories claiming contamination (but none with real evidence), which seems rather unlikely given the construction of such devices. But then again, this was ‘new’ technology in those days, so it’s reasonable to assume the hardware may not have been built in the robust manner seen today.

It may even have just been cobbled together.

I wonder if it might have been copied from a Soviet design?

The Russians were always less squeamish about using nuclear power for remote applications, and used nuclear generators to power remote lighthouses, and have nuclear-powered ice breakers sailing in freezing waters to this day.

02/06/2019 Posted by | Cold War, Lost, Surveillance | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hanford – the dirtiest place on Earth

I learned of the Hanford site when I trawled up an old article from New Scientist, written back in 1994.

In the article, an area of wilderness, the Hanford Reservation, in the southeast corner of Washington state is described as one of the world’s great environmental challenges – a vast potpourri of chemical unpleasantness. It refers to cauldrons of highly radioactive soup bumping, burping, and belching flammable gases, with subterranean plumes of carbon tetrachloride, chromium salts, radionuclides and other poisons inching their way through the soil towards the Columbia River. It notes that a  full tonne of plutonium may be lying under the sand, buried among thousands of tonnes of solid wastes. No one is too sure – the records are so poor at the Hanford nuclear site where, for four decades, the US produced plutonium for its nuclear weapons.

It describes the burping tanks: huge sealed stainless vessels holding some 4 million litres or more of chemical and radioactive wastes, dumped indiscriminately by the contractors who ran Hanford. Radioactive decay produced enough heat to keep the tanks boiling for years, believed to be hot enough to destroy  ‘organics’ like he rubber, plastics and oils that were also dumped n the tanks. Still active, these basic chemical reactors generate hydrogen and various toxic gases such as oxides of nitrogen and organic vapours. The contents becaome highly stratified over time: viscous at the bottom, then more liquid, and topped by a semisolid crust, all still highly radioactive.  177 such tanks lie within the site, 18 of them burp. Tank 241-SY-101 is described as belching every four months. Gases released in the 10 metre deep soup build up sifficient pressure to burst through the crust. The exact details as unclear, the chemistry is complex, and access difficult.  A giant stirrer, seven storeys high and weighing 8 tonnes was added, in the hope of making the gases to vent continuously rather than only after building up.

Hanford’s first plutonium was delivered to the bomb makers at Los Alamos early in 1945, and it remained America’s primary source of the element until 1986. For the duration of the the Cold, production pressures meant housekeeping, other than for safety, was less than concientous. An estimated 190,000 cubic metres of highly radioactive solid waste, and 760 billion litres of less radioactive liquid waste and toxic chemicals were stored, dumped or poured into the ground. The vast expanse of the reservation insulated these activities from the public, and even from its own workforce. Three mighty “Queen Marys” – long concrete canyons in which plutonium was separated from spent reactor fuel, and early ancestors of the THORP processing complex at Sellafield – are spaced 16 kilometres apart.

Hanford ceased plutonium production in 1986, after which the process of declassifying details of 40 years of activity began. In 1989, Hanford took on a new role, and became the site where scientists would pioneer techniques for cleaning up all the nuclear production sites across the US. Of all the sites concerned, Hanford was the most seriously contaminated. It is estimated to have two-thirds of all the highly radioactive wastes produced by the US nuclear weapons industry. It contains some 1,377 waste sites including  trenches, tanks, ponds, sand-covered pits and underground storage systems called cribs,  which contain a total of some 1.4 billion cubic metres of hazardous materials. Nine nuclear piles, the original plutonium-producing reactors, lie beside the river awaiting decommissioning. Along with the “Queen Marys” and four newer reprocessing plants, they contain some 430,000 tonnes of radioactive materials.

The US government wanted Hanford to be cleaned up within three decades, by 2020, according to the 1994 article. The prime contractor being Westinghouse Hanford Company – a subsidiary of Westinghouse Electric Corporation and the prime contractor at Hanford during its plutonium-producing days. The 994 article gives an estimate of between $50 billion and $200 billion for the cleanup. It also notes that nobody really knows – since nobody has decided how clean “clean enough” is.

One interesting point noted in the original article was the recognition that the scientists involved in the cleanup would have to be allowed to find out just what was in the 1,377 waste sites before they could be dealt with. So often, when progress is demanded by the pen-pushers, there is no interest in what is to be done, just when it will be done.

The full 1994 article remains available online.

It’s interesting to use the original 1994 New Scientist article as a reference, and look up the various reports that can be found regarding the later years, and the progress of decontamination and clean-up work on the site.

First ever bulk production of plutonium found on Hanford site

The large, stained, glass bottle to the right was found inside this rusty safe, and contains a sample of the first weapons-grade plutonium ever purified. (Image: Washington Closure Hanford)

The large, stained, glass bottle to the right was found inside this rusty safe, and contains a sample of the first weapons-grade plutonium ever purified. (Image: Washington Closure Hanford) Click the image to see a gallery.

In 2004, clean-up work uncovered a battered, rusted, and broken old safe containing a glass jug inside which was 400 millilitres of plutonium. Tests have shown this plutonium was the first ever processed at the site, and the first made on a usable scale anywhere in the world.

The sample is technically the second oldest sample of plutonium-239, but remains the earliest produced during the Manhattan Project and the first bulk batch of weapons grade plutonium manufactured anywhere.

The plutonium-239 was used for Trinity, the first ever nuclear weapon test, on 16 July 1945. Just three-and-a-half weeks later, more of this plutonium was used in the nuclear strike on the Japanese city of Nagasaki.

The team involved in cleaning up the site where it was found read that a safe matching the description of the one unearthed in 2004 was sealed in 1945 because of radioactive contamination. It was disposed of in 1951, and remained lost for the next 50 years.

John Simpson, an expert on nuclear history at Southampton University in the UK, thinks the new find is important.

“From the historical records, it looks as if they’ve got it right,” he says. “But the puzzling thing is, why didn’t this plutonium make it into the bomb?” In 1944, the Americans were working flat out to develop a nuclear capability – it’s strange that any first large batch of plutonium-239 should be stored and not used, he says.

The reason is thought to be because of the radioactive contamination of the safe it was being stored in. The first batch would eventually have been folded back into the stockpile if not for that contamination, which was not due to the plutonium, but something outside its container.

Despite its historic significance, the sample is unlikely to end up in a museum. New Brunswick Labs intend to create a standard reference sample for plutonium-239 from the material, partly because of its primacy as the oldest sample. The other factor is its extreme purity – 99.96% plutonium-239 is as pure a sample of 239 that has been seen produced from any reactor.

20/06/2009 Posted by | Cold War, World War II | , , , , | Leave a comment


%d bloggers like this: