Does this Cold War Spy Mission have a Connection to the Recent Floods in India?

Jack Beckett
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Catastrophic floods swept through Northern India earlier this month, resulting in destruction and death. But could it have been caused by a Cold War spying operation?

This is the devastating claim made by villagers in Raini – part of the Chamoli district – who point to a home grown joint intelligence effort between the CIA and IB (Intelligence Bureau) dating back to the mid-1960s.

What happened during the floods? At least 50 people lost their lives when a glacier and rock face broke away, blocking a river. Massive amounts of water, together with natural debris, surged through a valley and hit communities below. Property was destroyed. Approx 200 are unaccounted for, as reported by the Daily Mail in late Feb.

How is the decades-old spying operation potentially to blame? Locals have long told the story of when the USA and India joined forces against neighboring China. A team of climbers headed for Nanda Devi, India’s second largest peak.

Nanda Devi was to be used as a ‘listening’ position for Chinese nuclear tests. Image by Asheeshmamgain CC BY-SA 4.0.
Nanda Devi was to be used as a ‘listening’ position for Chinese nuclear tests. Image by Asheeshmamgain CC BY-SA 4.0.

From there they hoped to grab information about Chinese nuclear tests. 1964 saw the People’s Republic blow up a bomb in Lop Nur to the West.

Nanda Devi was the closest opponents could come for a listen. Their ears in this case were plutonium-powered. A generator called SNAP (System for Nuclear Auxiliary Power) accompanied the men up the mountain.

SNAP needed to be installed at the summit, connected to fuel rods. The Mail writes these contained “a compound of two plutonium isotopes, Pu-238, which has a half-life of 87 years, and Pu-239, with a half-life of 24,400 years.” Put simply, 239 is an essential ingredient for nukes.

SNAP had a reported life span of 100 years. Referring to comments made by team member Manmohan Singh Kohli, the Mail reports there was enough plutonium up there for a half-sized Hiroshima scale explosion.

Popular Mechanics delves into the workings of the device. “The sensor used a radiothermal generator to provide power,” it notes, “essentially turning the waste heat from decaying nuclear isotopes into electricity.”

Did the spooks obtain any intelligence? Unfortunately the weather had other plans. Blizzard conditions meant they retreated. The device and rods were secreted at the base of Nanda Devi. The plan was to collect it once things died down.

One problem – when they finally made it back, the kit was missing.

Another operation was launched in 1967. This time the kit was placed successfully, though the location was different – Nanda Kot, adjacent to Nanda Devi.

Information on the covert activity wasn’t accessible to the public till 1978.

A Pu-238 fuel pellet, similar to those used in nuclear power sources.
A Pu-238 fuel pellet, similar to those used in nuclear power sources.

Flash forward to 2021. Raini villagers noticed, as covered by the Times of India, “an extremely pungent smell in the air as muck and rubble from the mountain came rolling down and fell into the Rishiganga river.”

Could the nuclear-powered device’s heat melted the ice?

It’s believed the odor could have come from old plutonium. Climate change and possible damage from construction work have been highlighted as more convincing explanations by scientists.

However for some like Sangram Singh Rawat, “headman” – community leader – of Raini, the evidence is ambiguous. “How can a glacier simply break off in winter?” he asks, quoted by BBC News.

As reported by the Times of India, a chemist from Dehradun’s FRI (Forest Research Institute) states that dangerous material would have been sealed. Would this be enough to prevent serious environmental impact?

30 people are believed to be trapped within the tunnels of a Hydropower plant currently under construction. Press Information Bureau, India.
30 people are believed to be trapped within the tunnels of a Hydropower plant currently under construction. Press Information Bureau, India.

Critics point to the 1967 mission. Surveillance went fine till the signal cut out. When they investigated, spies discovered the equipment had sunk into the snow. Could the same have happened with the missing rods from ‘65?

Kartik Singh Rana – son of mission porter Prem Singh Rana – is calling for a government investigation, according to Times of India. A survey has reportedly been carried out every decade to assess the situation.

It is doubtful that this nuclear device is the culprit, as it has been there for 50 years, meaning if it was capable of causing damage, it would have done it already. This is especially compounded when considering the half-life of Pu-238 is 88 years, and will no longer have the same heat output as it once did.

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The Cold War had a perfect backdrop in the frosty Himalayas. Is the ice being melted by global warming, or the tragic consequences of a secret spying mission? The stark reality of a shocking flood has underlined these questions like never before…