If concerted efforts are not made to recover two missing radiation detectors in the Himalayan ranges, another Chernobyl could erupt, poisoning two of Asia's biggest rivers, a Japanese filmmaker has warned.
Yoichi Shimatsu, a former editor of Japan Times who now runs an independent documentary-making agency, is asking all SAARC countries along with China and Unesco to mobilise search and recovery operations on the slopes of Mt Everest and another Himalayan range, the Nanda Devi, to locate two radiation detectors planted there by Western governments to spy on China's nuclear programme.
The Ganges and the Brahmaputra are under threat from these devices, says Shimatsu, who was here to release his presentation on the misuse of scientific research on Mt Everest.
The first incident goes back to the 1960s after China conducted its first nuclear test in 1964, unnerving both neighbour India and the US, both of whom wanted to know what was happening on the other side of the bamboo curtain. New Delhi and America's CIA formed an alliance to plant a nuclear-powered sensing device on the Nanda Devi to intercept messages from China and spy on its missile launches.
CIA operators and accomplished mountaineers from the Indo-Tibet Border Police were entrusted with the mission, which however ended in a fiasco with the detector getting lost in the mountain. In 1968, the CIA and the Indian authorities launched a frantic search of the slopes to locate the sensor that contains plutonium, a highly radioactive element but were unsuccessful.
When news of the missing sensor became known, it created a furore in Indian parliament, forcing then-prime minister Morarji Desai to make a detailed statement.
Though the Indian government says there is little danger of the plutonium breaking out of its protective sheath, Shimatsu says the menace can't be ruled out and once that happens, the waters of the Ganga, one of Asia's biggest and most sacred rivers, will be poisoned.
The danger of a potential environmental disaster, he warns, has increased with the loss of a second radiation sensor on Mt Everest, the highest peak in the world.
After the G-7 Summit in London in 1991, the group decided to plant a "weather robot" on the 8,848-metre peak to record weather changes.
In 1993, climbers from the Tokai Mountaineering Club in central Japan put the robot on the peak, without being told what it contained. Later, when the team went down and tried to radio contact the robot, there was no sign, making them realise it was lost. Shimatsu claims the robot actually contained a radiation detector to spy on Asian nuclear sites and was powered by plutonium.
He thinks it must have fallen into Tibet, near the watershed of the Brahmaputra, another of Asia's greatest rivers.
Eventually, he says, growing heat from the plutonium will cause it to break free and contaminate the surroundings, which in turn will affect Shigatse in Tibet, Assam in India and Bangladesh.
There are parallels with Chernobyl in Russia where radioactive material leaked out from a nuclear plant in 1986, killing at least 56 people and exposing thousands to diseases like cancer.
Shimatsu says the only way to avert potential disaster in the Himalayas is for the international community to start afresh the search for radiation detectors, the cost of which should be borne by the countries responsible. He also fears that not all Everest expeditions are simply mountaineering trips. Some, he says, are a façade for planting spying devices and some to retrieve them.
His warnings could sound like ramblings but for the revelation made by an Everest hero and former officer of the Indian Navy.
Spies in the Himalayas: Secret Missions and Perilous Climbs, a book jointly written by Captain M S Kohli and Kenneth Conboy, describe the CIA-India project and its failure in graphic details.