Earlier in February, parts of the Indian Himalayas were hit by flash flooding after the Chamoli Glacier burst, destroying a dam at Tapovan in the process, leaving at least 68 dead.
Scientists looking at the area from above believe that the huge flood was triggered by a piece of the glacier hanging on a slope that broke off – following years of thawing and refreezing – and tumbled down the mountain slope, which blocked the water in the stream below. The water level likely increased, leading to a burst, which in turn damaged the dam further downstream and leading to the flash floods that followed.
The residents of the village of Raini, however, are not convinced by the explanation – and it all goes back to a strange tale of the CIA and radioactive material that took place during the height of the Cold War.
Stories, believed by people living in the village for decades, tell of how the CIA went on a secret expedition to Nanda Devi, India's highest mountain. Rather than climb the mountain themselves, they recruited elite climbers from the local area and the US, training them to plant a device at the top of the mountain: a plutonium-powered piece of equipment that would be used to monitor China.
The stories, strange though they sound, are true – though they were far from the success the CIA was hoping for. Two devices were supposed to be planted, one on the peak of Nanda Devi and one on Nanda Kot. The team on Nanda Kot made it to the peak and planted the device, though nothing useful was gained from it. Given that the device contained seven plutonium rods – never mind the expense – the device was searched for extensively after being buried in blizzards, and the radioactive part was recovered.
On the second peak of Nanda Devi, however, the team didn't make it quite to the top and were forced to leave the device on the mountain before heading down, away from the adverse conditions. When they returned, they found that the device – and the plutonium rods that powered it – had vanished, never to be seen again.
“Yeah, the device got avalanched and stuck in the glacier and God knows what effects that will have," one of the climbers, Jim McCarthy, told Pete Takeda of Rock and Ice Magazine.
“In the Sanctuary, I was the only guy who handled the plutonium, and I’m the one who loaded the device and straddled the fucking thing. Let me tell you, the fuel rods were wildly warm.” McCarthy added.
“I saw the Sherpas fighting over who got to carry [the device]. They had no idea of what it was. They’d put the thing in the middle of their tent and huddle around it. I guarantee none of them are alive now.”
McCarthy was not pleased with the device being left on the mountain, believing it would result in contamination of the environment, but was overruled. Years later, villagers fear that the device could have made its way down the glacier, or begun to pollute the Ganges. Following the flood, it's even made people suspect it was the cause.
“The smell was so intense that we were not able to breathe for some time. Had it been only debris and snow, it would not have carried such a smell," one villager told Times of India, describing a pungent odor in the air before the recent events. "This has triggered concerns in our village that the long-lost radioactive device – about which our elders used to tell us – may be behind the incident."
Government officials are not so keen on this theory.
“Since it is a radioactive element, it is natural that it would be emitting radioactive rays that have potential of harming the water and other elements in its vicinity," a senior scientist in the chemistry department of the Forest Research Institute told Times of India. "However, we can assume that since it was being transported as part of an expedition, it would be taken in a sealed chamber, and therefore, there are less chances of any radiation emitting outside.”
The device has been searched for several times over the years, at great expense to the CIA and Indian governments, but still to no avail. Fresh concerns after the break of the glacier – though likely caused naturally – could prompt further investigations.