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Nanda Devi and the Nuclear Genie
August 28, 2007 11:24 AM   Subscribe

Nanda Devi - India's second-highest peak, at 25,645 feet (7816m), sits in a "sanctuary," surrounded by 21,000-foot+ lesser mountains. This has made it even more of a challenge to climb. Among those who took up the challenge were a 1965 CIA team trying to set up a plutonium-powered device to spy on China's nuclear testing program. That expedition retreated in the face of bad weather, leaving the device on the mountain. When they returned the next spring, it was gone. The Nanda Devi Sanctuary supplies water to the Ganges River, and there were fears that the four pounds of plutonium in the device could escape into the watershed. Those fears have been confirmed.
posted by Kirth Gerson (42 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
Excellent! Everything is going according to plan. Our skyscraper-sized lizards will conquer the East any day now.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 11:34 AM on August 28, 2007


U S A!!! ... U S A!!!

*cock*

BLAMMM!!!!!

thud.
posted by LordSludge at 11:36 AM on August 28, 2007


That's classic.
posted by jsavimbi at 11:37 AM on August 28, 2007


Note that there's some interesting radiochemistry discussion going on in the Pete Takeda post comments.
posted by aramaic at 11:45 AM on August 28, 2007


This is like one of those Zen koans:

If you pollute in a place where it's extremely difficult to even measure the pollution, does it still count?
posted by smackfu at 11:46 AM on August 28, 2007


The comments on Pete Takeda's blog are worth reading. This may not (yet) be a big deal.
posted by anthill at 11:47 AM on August 28, 2007


It does if the pollution is as potent as plutonium, and if it migrates to a densely-populated place.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 11:48 AM on August 28, 2007


I enjoyed the dissertation on Plutonium sample detection and the ratio of isotopes in the comments of the last link. They support my thesis that Union Carbide has poisoned more Indians than the battery form the CIA's little CB radio
posted by Megafly at 11:52 AM on August 28, 2007


Well, some of the comments say that this is the same Pu isotope that exists pretty much everywhere, due to atmospheric nuclear testing, and that the properties of the isotope might make it difficult for the body to absorb anyway.
posted by Snyder at 11:52 AM on August 28, 2007


Yeah, this isn't completely confirmed, I'd say. Reading the comments, including those from the analyzing lab indicates that something hinky is going on. There's weirdness with details like the isotope abundances, they've found one, but not the other, for example. My attitude is cause for concern, but wait and see. Reanalysis is warranted.
posted by bonehead at 11:56 AM on August 28, 2007


You guys are subverting IRFH's lizard program.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 11:58 AM on August 28, 2007


Man, that's just fuckin' great. Do we (i.e. the US) do *anything* right, besides crass prayin' to Jeebus?
posted by notsnot at 12:05 PM on August 28, 2007


Isn't the Ganges like one of THE most polluted rivers on Earth? If anything, a little radioactivity should sterilize it.

</notserious>
posted by DU at 12:09 PM on August 28, 2007


So the plutonium core is melting its way down through the snowpack, and will probably hit rock very quickly. Then, it's just a question of how big the avalanches/glaciers that scrape across it are.
posted by anthill at 12:17 PM on August 28, 2007


They took their sample 200 yards upstream of the confluence of the Rishi Ganga and Dhauli Ganga. The Rishi Ganga drains the glacier where the plutonium supposedly originates. They should have taken a second sample 200 yards the other direction from the Dhauli Ganga, which drains from a different area. Then do blind tests of both samples. This single sample confirms nothing. Glaciers collect atmospheric contaminants over vast areas and then concentrate them into very narrow collection troughs.
posted by JackFlash at 12:25 PM on August 28, 2007 [1 favorite]


Now HERE is a weird coincidence. The guy who did this, Robert Schaller, operated on me in 1985, when I was a kid and had a tumor by the name of ganglioneuroma. I still have a foot-long scar from the operation, which basically split me in half when I was 2. My mom saw this article when it came out in the Times here in Seattle and pretty much flipped out. My pediatric surgeon was an international spy-mountaineer. Who knew? Incidentally, I'd like to thank him for removing that thing from my body.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 12:28 PM on August 28, 2007 [10 favorites]


From the comments:
at one point almost the entire world’s supply of pu was ingested by a Manhattan Project researcher – who could at one point blow across a room and make the neutron counter dance. Almost all that pu was later recovered and the guy lived to a ripe old age.

!?! Is there an account of this on the web?
posted by 445supermag at 12:28 PM on August 28, 2007


MetaFilter: entire world’s supply of pu
posted by DU at 12:36 PM on August 28, 2007 [3 favorites]


“As I was explaining to an Outside editor today, at one point almost the entire world’s supply of pu was ingested by a Manhattan Project researcher – who could at one point blow across a room and make the neutron counter dance.”

Now that’s how you cage drinks at a bar. (Hey sonny, pull out that geiger counter and watch this!)
posted by Smedleyman at 1:00 PM on August 28, 2007


445supermag, exactly my question. Is there an account of this anywhere? Personally, I would be willing to go to the library and/or buy a book to verify this story.
posted by GuyZero at 1:01 PM on August 28, 2007


Great post Kirth, I just finished reading Tim Powers Declare, and this had striking similarities. Also, having read the Eiger Sanction and the Loo Sanction, which I think were written before 69, it's interesting to see life imitate art (somewhat).
posted by doctor_negative at 1:06 PM on August 28, 2007 [1 favorite]


Whilst searching for plutonium ingestion anecdotes (and mostly finding tedious AEC study summaries) I found a somewhat interesting transcript of Frontline interviewing Glenn Seaborg.

...unfortunately he just tangentially mentions the Manhattan Project escapades.
posted by aramaic at 1:16 PM on August 28, 2007


Pete Takeda blog's discussion was really interesting lecture on detection and quantification of radionuclides. ....Mr.Phelps should any team member be caught or killed, the Secretary of State would disavow any knowledge of your actions. This tape will self destruct in 5 seconds.
posted by Rancid Badger at 1:16 PM on August 28, 2007


That Schaller article is heartbreaking. The guy may have made one of the world's most amazing solo alpine ascents, and he can't lay claim to it, due to rather bizarre claims of 'national security.' Quite the story.

Great post.
posted by Haruspex at 1:21 PM on August 28, 2007


Is there an account of this on the web?
Here it is:
Unaware of the small bomb he was holding, Mastick snapped the slender neck of the vial. It made a small, popping sound in the quiet laboratory. Instantly the material spewed out of the bottle and onto the wall in front of him. Some of the solution ricocheted back into his mouth, flooding his lips and tongue with a metallic taste.

Not overly alarmed, Mastick replaced the vial in its wooden container. Then he trotted across the hard-packed ground of the technical area to knock on the door of Dr. Hempelmann's first-aid station. He had just swallowed a significant amount of the world's supply of plutonium. "I could taste the acid so I knew perfectly well I had a little bit of plutonium in my mouth," he said in an interview in 1995.
Also:
ANL-3. Plutonium Ingestion Study
IN MAY 1946, six male employees of the Metallurgical Laboratory of the Manhattan Engineer District in Chicago drank a water solution containing about 0.18 nanocurie of plutonium­239 (Pu239). The purpose of this study was to investigate the gastrointestinal absorption and fecal excretion rate of ingested plutonium. Researchers also hoped to use the results to improve the interpretation of previously collected data on persons occupationally exposed to plutonium. Participation in this experiment was voluntary, and the amounts of plutonium ingested were sufficiently low to be barely detectable in urine and feces with instrumentation available in 1946. At least two of the subjects were still alive in 1994.

And:
In 1944 a chemist named Don Mastick ingested several milligrams of plutonium, the glowing eyes in a birthday cake for J. Robert Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer forbade future radioactive cakes, but he did admit that the plutonium eyes were "creepy."
posted by Kirth Gerson at 1:22 PM on August 28, 2007 [2 favorites]


Between the ejaculating vial and the creepy birthday cake, Mastick looks like the guy.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 1:27 PM on August 28, 2007 [1 favorite]


What's the worst that could happen?
posted by telstar at 2:23 PM on August 28, 2007


What's the worst that could happen?

Attack of the 50 Foot Britney's Beleaguered Beaver
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 2:27 PM on August 28, 2007


Nothing says 'eat me' like a face cake.
Especially a Jesus face cake. Unless it's a radioactive eyes Jesus face cake.
...I just like saying 'face cake.'
posted by Smedleyman at 3:27 PM on August 28, 2007


Instantly the material spewed out of the bottle and onto the wall in front of him. Some of the solution ricocheted back into his mouth, flooding his lips and tongue with a metallic taste.

Pu-kakke!
posted by banshee at 4:17 PM on August 28, 2007 [1 favorite]


Instantly the material spewed out of the bottle and onto the wall in front of him. Some of the solution ricocheted back into his mouth, flooding his lips and tongue with a metallic taste.

JERRY: Unfortunately, the immutable laws of physics contradict the whole premise of your account. Allow me to reconstruct this if I may for Miss Benes as I've heard this story a number of times.

JERRY: Newman, Kramer, if you'll indulge me. According to your story, Keith passes you and starts walking up the ramp. Then you say you were struck on the right temple. The spit then proceeds to ricochet off the temple, striking Newman between the third and fourth rib. The spit then came off the rib, turned, and hit Newman in the right wrist causing him to drop his baseball cap. The spit then splashed off the wrist, pauses -- in midair, mind you -- makes a left turn, and lands on Newman's left thigh. That is one magic loogie.

NEWMAN: Well that's the way it happened.

JERRY: What happened to your head when you got hit?

KRAMER: Well. Uh, well my head went back and to the left.

JERRY: Again?

KRAMER: Back and to the left.

JERRY: Back and to the left. Back and to the left.

ELAINE: So, what are you saying?

JERRY: I am saying that the spit could not have come from behind ... that there had to have been a second spitter behind the bushes on the gravelly road. If the spitter was behind you as you claimed that would have caused your head to pitch forward.

ELAINE: So the spit could have only come from the front and to the right.

JERRY: But that is not what they would have you believe.

NEWMAN: I'm leavin'. Jerry's a nut. [Exits]

KRAMER: Wait, wait, [Exits]

JERRY: The sad thing is we may never know the real truth.


...

i wonder if this whole story came about because don mastick didnt want to admit to the world that he just got curious and tasted the plutonium.
posted by sergeant sandwich at 5:15 PM on August 28, 2007


Does the CIA ever do anything without fubaring it?
posted by five fresh fish at 7:12 PM on August 28, 2007


Nanda Devi is indeed one of the world's loveliest mountains. I especially like Eric Shipton's book about it.
posted by DenOfSizer at 7:59 PM on August 28, 2007


Outside magazine did an article about this (way back when), all I remember is the Sherpas fought over who got to carry the hat shaped device because it was so warm.
posted by hortense at 8:23 PM on August 28, 2007


Does the CIA ever do anything without fubaring it?

That was what I was wondering myself. On the other hand you are not supposed to hear about the successes. I get the impression that the CIA has (rightly or wrongly) had its hands in so many things that even if they only screwed up a small percentage of the time that percentage would be a large number of screw ups.
posted by moonbiter at 9:54 PM on August 28, 2007


That takes it into scary Illuminati territory.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:24 PM on August 28, 2007


If the CIA were as competent as the Illuminati are in popular fiction, I would be somewhat comforted. As it is, I was playing devil's advocate.

I tend to think that the kind of things CIA tries to do lend themselves to spectacular failure by their very nature; i.e., incredibly stupid Rube goldberg-esque plans to topple nations and Change The World™.
posted by moonbiter at 10:39 PM on August 28, 2007


There's an interesting alternate perspective in the (unsourced) Wikipedia article for the Special Frontier Force -- basically Indian Army mountain commandos. Some Indians, but mainly Americans, believe that the device was surreptitiously retrieved by an Indian team for study of its nuclear technology.

Does the CIA ever do anything without fubaring it?

Plenty, if insiders like Miles Copeland Jr. are to be believed. Among other things, you have to consider that many of their successes are temporary. For instance, Operation Ajax (the Mossadegh coup in Iran) seemed like a success in 1954; after 1979, not so much. And really, in its time, the Afghanistan guerrilla effort looked like it did what it was intended to do.

If you want an unqualified success, 1979 actually offers one, though: the so-called Canadian Caper.

Anyway, it is weird that this hasn't been declassified yet, nor does Nanda Devi merit any mention on cia.gov, according to Google.
posted by dhartung at 10:52 PM on August 28, 2007


incredibly stupid Rube goldberg-esque plans

It's as if Wile E. Coyote had his own covert department within the organization.

The CIA's plans seem about as far-sighted, too. How many times have they armed "friendly" insurgents and terrorists, only to have those self-same "friends" turn 'em back against the USA?

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, yet expecting a different result.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:08 PM on August 28, 2007


NO.
IT.
ISN'T.

posted by blasdelf at 11:56 PM on August 28, 2007


[dies of boredom]
posted by five fresh fish at 7:45 AM on August 29, 2007


Does the CIA ever do anything without fubaring it?

Huh. I suppose that's meant as a rhetorical question, but if it's not, think about it. Would you really expect to find out?
posted by pax digita at 6:34 PM on August 29, 2007


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