A Nepali hoaxer’s pitch to U.S. diplomats that he could sell them enriched uranium obtained clandestinely from India sent the American Embassy in Kathmandu into a tizzy in September 1973.
The incident saw the U.S and India come together to get to the bottom of the matter despite their serious differences on the nuclear front.
A U.S. diplomatic cable (1973KATHMA04122_b, secret) dated September 26, 1973, to the State Department in Washington details the attempt of a businessman, J.C. Thakur, to sell U-235 to the Embassy.
Responding the next day, the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi (1973NEWDE11370_b, secret) strongly suggests that the information be conveyed to New Delhi. “Embassy would appreciate guidance from the department on whether we should bring this offer to the attention of the Indian government. We believe we should do so. We are confident the GoI would not permit or facilitate such a “sale”. If U-235 has been smuggled from nuclear power facilities in the Bombay area, it has almost certainly been stolen and the GoI should be informed,” the cable from Delhi says.
In the more likely event that it was a hoax, the cable noted, “GoI should still be told we have been approached with a sale offer of purported U-235 smuggled from secret Bombay facilities. We believe that leveling with the GoI on this case would contribute to the atmosphere of trust and confidence in which we would like to deal with the Indians on peaceful uses of nuclear energy,” the cable says.
In a separate cable (1973BOMBY1917_b, secret), the U.S. Consulate in Mumbai advised New Delhi and Kathmandu on how to deal with U-235 in close proximity, but says it does not want to make any enquiry with the Indian Department of Atomic Energy on possible loss of fissile material: “Congen [Consul General] has no relevant background on this matter or on J.C. Thakur. We will report any information which may come up on Thakur but hesitate make any inquiries at Indian DAE for fear arousing Indians’ suspicions.”
The U.S. State Department responds to the initial request in just over a week. Apart from giving the green light to the Kathmandu outpost to procure a sample from the seller, it advises New Delhi’s U.S. Embassy to use its “discretion” and “apprise” the Government of India “informally of offer.” (1973STATE197501_b, secret). “Indicate that we are attempting to obtain sample for analysis and will inform them of results,” it adds.
Soon after the embassies in Kathmandu and New Delhi get down to work, Thakur approaches the U.S. station in Kathmandu again, this time willing to lower the price, and claiming he would be able to procure two to three kg each month at a reduced price of $35,000 a kg (down from the initial offer of $40,000) (1973KATHMA04255_b, secret).
Meanwhile, the New Delhi U.S. Embassy informed External Affairs Ministry coordination division director Hashmi on October 10, (1973NEWDE11835_b, secret) of Thakur and his approach to the U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu. It also tells the MEA official that the Kathmandu Embassy was trying to get a sample for analysis and would inform the Indian government of the results.
The DAE was being kept in the loop by the Mumbai Consulate. The Indian Department of Atomic Energy chairman Homi Sethna was in direct touch with U.S. officials on the issue. He took the opportunity to enquire (1973NEWDE11912_b, secret) about a “Ford Foundation supported study of the pilferage of nuclear materials,” apart from the Nepali businessman.
As the U-235 was being sent to the U.S. for testing, “Sethna expressed concern that USG might be ‘associating’ unauthorized shipment of nuclear materials ... he offered DAE facilities for this test” in the presence of U.S representatives.
The material, as was suspected all along, was not uranium.
Keywords: Kissinger Cables, The Hindu, Henry Kissinger, WikiLeaks, U-235, U.S.-India relations, American Embassy in Kathmandu, Nepali hoaxer, cable 1973KATHMA04122_b, cable 1973NEWDE11370_b, cable 1973BOMBY1917_b, cable 1973STATE197501_b, cable 1973KATHMA04255_b, cable 1973NEWDE11835_b, cable 1973NEWDE11912_b