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Radiation dangers: Indian lessons

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By Praful Bidwai

Three weeks after a Delhi scrap dealer was exposed to cobalt-60 and developed acute radiation sickness, the radioisotope was finally traced to a chemistry laboratory of Delhi University. Meanwhile, one of the 11 exposed scrap-workers has died. The condition of another two is reportedly grave, and that of the rest, serious.

The episode highlights the utterly irresponsible conduct of the authorities, including Delhi University and the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board. The tragedy also underscores the infuriatingly poor capacity of Indian agencies to cope with mishaps, in particular damage caused by ionising radiation, an especially insidious poison that’s invisible, intangible and poorly understood.

In February, the University prematurely auctioned to a scrap dealer a gamma irradiator, the apparatus containing cobalt-60, which had been imported in 1968. A University committee certified that disposing of the entire 300 kg assembly, including cobalt pencils and lead containers, would be safe. The poisoning was revealed six weeks afterwards.

It’s extraordinary that a committee of science professors assumed that the cobalt-60, a powerful source with 3,000 Curies (a unit of radiation), had ceased to be hazardous. The half-life of this radioisotope-the time during which it naturally decays to reach half its original mass-is 5.27 years.

This means that about 10-20 Curies would still remain even after 42 years. And even one-billionth of a Curie is harmful to humans. For instance, the US Environmental Protection Agency sets a limit of 8- to 20-trillionths of a Curie for water. All this information is available in the public domain.

The University committee’s decision to auction the irradiator was indefensibly unscientific and cavalier. Its members must be severely punished for endangering the lives of innocent and poor scrap-industry workers.

But the other authorities haven’t conducted themselves exemplarily either. The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board took its own time to track the irradiator’s total of 16 cobalt needles. It’s not the AERB’s “scientists”-in reality technicians, trained to handle simple instruments, much like electricity meter-readers-but the police, who tracked the cobalt-60 source.

In order that no case of radiation injury goes undetected, the whole chain of transactions involving the irradiator must be established. Three other scrap traders were involved. Groups of workers were exposed to the cobalt-60 at different intensities for different durations. Good, responsible science requires identifying the number exposed and extent of their exposure, so they can be treated over a long period.

There is another crucial issue. The irradiator assembly was reportedly sent from Delhi to Rewari in Haryana, where it was melted in a furnace. It’s imperative to establish the precise timing of the melting to estimate exposure duration and intensity.

It’s after the lead cladding was removed that the full intensity of radiation from the cobalt would come into play. Everyone who handled, cut, transported or stored the needles would have been exposed. They must all be tracked down.

However, the AERB hasn’t used a scientific model to map the transactions and processes through which the irradiator went and to estimate the overall exposure or the radiation doses received by the seriously injured, long-hospitalised seven survivors-despite the help it got from the Canadian exporter of the irradiator.

This is of a piece with the functioning of the AERB and its parent, the Department of Atomic Energy.

The extremely sloppy, inefficient, and unsafe DAE has never met a target or completed a major project without a typical cost overrun of 200 percent-plus. By its own projections-and generous subsidies-it should have installed 43,500 MW of nuclear power by 2000 and over 50,000 MW by now. The current installed nuclear capacity of 4,100 MW-3 percent of India’s total electricity capacity-was achieved at the cost of the health and safety of thousands of people.

Shielded by the Atomic Energy Act 1962, the DAE isn’t accountable to the public. It has a poor safety culture. The AERB, set up to regulate the DAE’s installations for safety, has inherited and imbibed its callousness and become its lapdog. The AERB has no independent personnel, equipment or budget, nor even the will, to gain functional autonomy within the DAE.

The AERB’s performance as the regulator of all non-DAE radiation-related equipment and activities has also been shoddy, irresponsible and corrupt. The AERB-created in 1983-has no full record of radiation-emitting equipment or activities going back to the 1950s. Its current records are also sloppy and its reports incomplete.

There are 50,000 X-ray machines, 735 radiotherapy units, 1,754 industrial radiography units, and thousands of apparatuses and radiochemicals used in physical, biological, chemical and agricultural experiments in India’s public and private laboratories and other facilities.

The AERB is meant to track all these. Under the Atomic Energy Act, it alone is authorised to finally dispose of all radioactive material, which it’s legally empowered and mandated to collect. It only rarely monitors regulation enforcement. It doesn’t order labs to hand over to it material for final disposal. It doesn’t have the personnel, will or culture to track “use-by” dates of X-ray units.

Under the Atomic Energy (Safe Disposal of Radioactive Waste) Rules 1987, any venture using radioactive material must appoint a radiological safety officer. This happens rarely, but the AERB doesn’t enforce the rules.

The AERB is supposed to regularly inspect 62,110 installations in 3,210 institutions. It conducted only 110 inspections last year. Of the 16 cases of theft or loss of radiation-related devices reported since 2000, it solved only three.

Scientists in three Delhi-based institutes complain that the AERB never provides technological support or guidance and ignores requests for help with radioactivity disposal. Sometimes, AERB personnel “informally” encourage persistent inquirers to dump the waste. On their rare visits to an institution/lab, they expect to be wined and dined or bribed outright.

The AERB hasn’t installed radiation monitors at all major ports and airports. It refuses to monitor radioactive waste-dumping at Alang, the world’s ship-breaking capital, itself a big disaster. Now it wants to transfer its responsibility for handling radioactive waste to scrap dealers, whom it proposes to train.

So when Minister of State Prithviraj Chauhan claims the AERB is highly efficient and can account for “every gramme” of radioactive material in India, and hence that the Delhi cobalt-60 was illegally imported, he talks through his hat.

The AERB’s failure has allowed metallic products recycled in India to be extensively contaminated with radioactivity. Many countries have recently refused shipments of Indian-made steel after they were found contaminated, including 67 shipments to the US since 2003.

Shockingly, the controversial nuclear liability Bill solely empowers this very AERB to declare whether or not a nuclear mishap has happened, for which the public may be compensated.

The AERB must be made answerable or, better, replaced with a competent and independent agency accountable to Parliament, the public and the Right to Information Act. It should strictly license all nuclear- and radiation-related activities and establishments for safety; monitor their radioactive material stocks, safety practices and precautionary approaches; and must secure the safe disposal of radioisotopes.

The only way to ensure that the agency does its job is to make it accountable to Parliamentary and public oversight-beginning now. Or else, we’ll have more radiation disasters on a horrendous scale.

The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and peace and human-rights activist based in Delhi. Email:


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