A Bigger Disaster in the Making: How Lost Plutonium Could Surface with the Nepal Quakes

A map of the Himalayan region shows the potential for continuing earthquake activity in the ‘seismic hazard’ zone where a nuclear device went missing in 1965. The shaded areas correspond to the sites of earlier major earthquakes. COURTESY: SCIENCE
13 May, 2015

Yesterday, almost three weeks after the 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Nepal, killing more than 8,000 people, a strong aftershock, measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale shook the country again. The aftershocks which occurred intermittently throughout the day led to the deaths of 57 people, three major landslides and extensive damage to makeshift houses and shelters that were erected after the last quake. In our December 2010 issue, Vinod K Jose investigated an Indo-US joint espionage mission in 1965 in which five kilograms of plutonium 238 and 239 were lost in the Himalayas. In this excerpt from that piece, Jose uncovers how the lost nuclear material could return to the surface.

There are several government offices that could turn their attention to the outstanding danger posed today by unsecured nuclear material, including the Principal Scientific Adviser (PSA) to the Government of India; the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC); the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE); Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC); the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB); the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA); and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). The Indian nuclear bureaucracy, in other words, is a big one.

At least four of the above institutions are headed by nuclear scientists-turned-technocrats. For a month I attempted to make appointments with the chiefs of all these institutions. Two of the offices denied my request by demanding to know why I was investigating this story to begin with. “This is an old story, and no officer would want to be seen commenting on a 45-year-old sensitive issue,” one secretary said. After several attempts, the head of one important office listed above agreed to a meeting—on the condition that I not name him or his institution.

On the morning of the day before Gandhi Jayanti I passed through multiple security checks and reached this un-nameable office. The man who I met has occupied almost every important position related to India’s atomic programmes, both in civilian energy and defence.

The un-nameable chief tried to persuade me not to write about the missing device. He said, “As far as the Government of India is concerned, it is a closed chapter.”

I asked him about the failure to follow the recommendations of the scientific committee report—most of whose authors had been his mentors. Why, I asked, were periodic radiation measurements not being conducted?

“It is an old story,” he said. “Don’t ask me anything about it. Don’t dig it up.” Instead, for most of the hour-long meeting he attempted to provide alternative story ideas about nuclear energy that he felt would make for better—or less politically damaging—articles.

The problem with a messy, unresolved 45-year-old nuclear story is that after one or two generations of scientists have considered the situation and moved on, the files have been declared closed: there is no hope that anyone will demonstrate the will to reopen the investigation. A scientist today who tries to take up the recommendations of Desai’s committee faces massive risks and no rewards; the government considers the matter dead, and there are no prizes for opening and then closing a case that everyone has agreed to ignore.

“I can only tell you this much,” the un-nameable scientist finally said. “This particular nuclear device used in Nanda Devi is under the earth. In 1974 and 1998, we conducted nuclear tests, which was also under the earth. So nothing is going to happen. It is buried.”

But the Indian nuclear tests were conducted under the deserts of Rajasthan. “The Nanda Devi device,” I pointed out, “is under ice, and glaciers move and melt. It could surface one day, right?”

He paused for a few seconds, and said, “I told you whatever I can tell you. Don’t ask me anything more.”

As far as the nuclear scientists are concerned, the generator is buried, and it doesn’t matter where. But glaciologists disagree. Unlike the deserts in Rajasthan where India’s nuclear tests were conducted, the Himalayan glaciers are not standing still. They move. The Nanda Devi glacier, in fact, travels a few centimetres every year.

“It is the sudden surges that you need to be afraid of,” said Dr Milap Chand Sharma, one of the very few glaciologists to have studied Nanda Devi. Glaciology remains a nascent discipline in India, and there are only a handful of experts in the country today. As I searched for a specialist on the Nanda Devi glacier, I was inevitably told to contact Dr Sharma, a professor at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, who admits he only began studying Nanda Devi recently.

The contrast between the deserts of Rajasthan and the Himalayan glaciers is even more dramatic from a seismic point of view: not only do these glaciers move, they are located in an area with a history of earthquakes and tremors.

Seismologists identify the Himalayas as a ‘seismic hazard’ area. As the Indian plate continues to hit the Asian plate, a massive tremor is inevitable on the Gangetic Plain, according to a paper published in the prestigious journal Science in 2001, which noted that:

Over centuries immense pressure has built up along the underground faults beneath the front ranges of the Himalayas, and one or more earthquakes will occur in India in the near future… The data indicate that the slip zone located about 12 kilometres underground between the Indian and Asian plates is comprised of hot, steam-like fluid. The temperature, pressure and the amount of fluids affect the entire seismic system.

But such complications are unwelcome news to the nuclear technocrats who advise the government today. Their approach is resolutely single-minded, and they have no interest in the insights provided by seismologists and glaciologists. They refuse to believe that the missing nuclear device, which they insist is buried, could ever resurface.

An excerpt from 'River Deep Mountain High,' published in The Caravan's December 2010 issue. Read the story in full here

Vinod K Jose was the executive editor of The Caravan from 2009 to 2023.