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

13 May 2015
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
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

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.”

Vinod K Jose is the Executive Editor of The Caravan.

COMMENT