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Rediff.com  » News » The threat of radio-active rays looms large

The threat of radio-active rays looms large

April 10, 2010 22:15 IST

Why the recent incident of a radiation leak in New Delhi should not be taken lightly. Gopal Krishna tracks the vicious cycle.

A metal scrap dealer and four workers are being treated in Delhi for exposure to radioactive material, identified as Cobalt-60. They are in a serious condition.The radiation exposure happened in the Mayapuri locality of West Delhi in the last fortnight. A 1-kilometre radius around the shop was cordoned off as a precautionary measure. Experts from the Atomic Centre as well as National Security Guards have told police that the radiation is only in a limited area. This needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.

A team was requisitioned from Mumbai-based Atomic Energy Regulatory Board which found during screening that radio-active emissions were coming from the scrap. The workers were exposed to a radioactive isotope under mysterious circumstances at a scrap market in West Delhi. The police suspect that the scrap consignment containing the metal piece was brought from neighboring Faridabad and that it originated from abroad.

Cobalt-60 is not categorized extremely radioactive, but it still emits gamma rays which can cause skin burns, cancer and death. It takes about 5.27 years to for cobalt 60 to lose its radioactivity to 50%. One can calculate how long it will take to completely lose its radioactivity and become stable nickel.

Radioactive cobalt-60 was discovered in the late 1930's in the US. Gamma rays are produced following the decay of radioactive materials such as cobalt-60.

Because it decays by gamma radiation, external exposure to large sources of Co-60 can cause skin burns, acute radiation sickness, or death. Most Co-60 that is ingested is excreted in the feces; however, a small amount is absorbed by the liver, kidneys, and bones. Co-60 absorbed by the liver, kidneys, or bone tissue can cause cancer because of exposure to the gamma radiation.

The magnitude of the health risk depends on the quantity of cobalt-60 involved and on exposure conditions such as length of exposure, distance from the source (for external exposure) and whether the cobalt-60 was ingested or inhaled. Medical test can determine exposure to cobalt-60 but it requires special laboratory equipment that are not routinely available in hospitals.

The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) confirms that the cause for the radiation of finished products in India is due to the import of hazardous materials. It also insists that every importer of metal scrap in India should obtain a certificate from the exporting country that the scrap is free from radioactivity. A multilayer radiation check system proposed by AERB has not been followed to prevent the import and export of radioactive contaminated material.

Earlier, when the French ships such as radioactive material laden SS Blue Lady (SS France, SS Norway) and RIKY got dumped purportedly for scrap metal in India, the European ship owners must have heaved a sigh of relief because they managed to escape decontamination cost. Little did they realize that the scarp metals would end up in their backyards as lift buttons made of the same contaminated steel.

Even the Division Bench of Justice Dr Arijit Pasayat and Justice S H Kapadia overlooked the admittedly known dangers of radioactive material in their order that gave a go ahead to dismantling of the Blue Lady, a dead French ship.

The bench granted permission for the dismantling based on the submission by Gopal Subramaniam, the then Additional Solicitor General, to the effect that the ship does not have any more radioactive material and beaching is irreversible. But contrary to the recommendations of the Technical Experts Committee on Hazardous Wastes relating to Ship-breaking, Gujarat Pollution Control Board, Gujarat Enviro Protection and Infrastructure Ltd, (GEPIL) and the ship's current owner Priya Blue Shipping Pvt Ltd., the ship does contain radioactive substances at thousands of places.

In the order passed the apex court merely states, "There was also an apprehension rightly expressed by the petitioner regarding radioactive material on board the vessel Blue Lady. Therefore, an immediate inspection of the said vessel beached at Alang since 16.8.2006 was undertaken by Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) and by Gujarat Maritime Board (GMB).

The apprehension expressed by the petitioner was right. However, as the matter stands today, AERB and GMB have certified that the said vessel Blue Lady beached in Alang no more contains any radioactive material on board the ship."

What changed? A perusal of the report of the inspection undertaken on 14 August 2007 showed that the entire inspection of 16 floors of 315 meter long ship seems to have been completed within a period of 4 hours (a commendable task no doubt) and the report states that they could detect only 12 smoke detectors containing Americium 241. Having found these 12 smoke detectors containing radioactive materials, the report concludes that the ship "now, does not contain any radioactive material on board".

In a petition to the Supreme Court, a letter sent by one Tom Haugen (who had been the Project Manager for Engineering, Delivery, Installation, Commissioning and later services and upgrades as regards Fire Detection Installation Systems on-board the Blue Lady) was brought on record. Haugen had written to Chairman of the Technical Experts Committee (by virtue of being the Secretary at the Ministry of Environment) that the fire detection system on the Blue Lady contained 5500 detection points which included 1100 ion smoke detectors that use radioactive elements composed of Americium 241.

Further, in a separate letter to the Prime Minister dated 19 September 2007, Haugen has reiterated the fact about the enormity of radioactive material on the ship given that he himself supervised its installation.

Countering the AERB-GMB report that that ship did not contain any radioactive material after their inspection, Haugen wrote that in most cases, the fire detection systems are not labeled or indicated in any way, as they are typically 'buried' out of sight.

According to Haugen, due to the risk of hazardous radioactive exposure, they should only be handled by professionals or certified technicians.

"The system and its detectors are very subtly placed and virtually completely hidden in most parts, so it is totally understandable that a non-expert team might miss it during a broader inspection of the vessel," wrote Haugen.

In fact, even though the technical experts committee had put in its 2006 report that there was no radioactive material on the ship, one of the Committee's members Dr Virendra Misra of the Industrial Toxicology Research Centre, Lucknow, had disagreed with the findings. He wrote that, "Presence of radioactive materials should be ascertained well in advance.

Though it is mentioned in the report that radioactive material is not available, in my opinion there is possibility of the presence of radioactive materials due to existence of liquid level indicators and smoke detectors on the ship." This was ignored by TEC's then chairman, Prodipto Ghosh. The final report of the Technical Committee was signed by only Ghosh. All of this is in the records of the apex court.

What goes around, comes around. It is indeed a vicious circle. Pollutants of all ilk are passengers without passports.
Howsoever, the free trade fundamentalists may try, cost externalization of pollution gets internalized in myriad ways. 

In the past six years the Vienna-based UN International Atomic Energy Agency has helped countries which member states of UN to repatriate 45 consignments of radioactive materials from developing countries where they were used in medicine, industry or research.

Last year, Scrap News reported that more than 50% of the total 123 shipments of contaminated steel is from India. The 67 shipments from India were denied entry into European and US ports because of contamination of Cobalt-60 in the finished products. There were unconfirmed reports that the highly radioactive Chernobyl scrap was shipped to Asia but there is we do not have any substantial evidence on that.

When 47 countries gather in Washington on April 12 at a summit to prevent nuclear proliferation and counter the risk of atomic weapons falling into terrorist hands, one United Nations agency with a proven track record in the field will be front and centre in offering help.

From protecting nuclear sites against theft and sabotage to enabling secure repatriation of used but still dangerous atomic fuels to helping countries guard against radioactive attacks on major events such as the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games the Vienna-based UN International Atomic Energy Agency has played a major role. With the proposed Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, these concerns become quite relevant for India. The Beijing Olympics involved one and a half years of work in which IAEA helped train people to detect radioactive material that might be brought into the venues, and to know what to do if that happened.

Recent news reports about the incident of exposure of workers from radioactive contaminated metal scrap, reveals only the tip of the ice berg. It is an open secret that huge amount of hazardous wastes, end of life products and scrap metal is coming to India in the name of it being a recyclable material.

The Supreme Court had cognizance of this problem in the hazardous wastes case wherein the role of Atomic Energy Regulatory Board was also specified. The issue of radioactive material has also been raised in the matter of the ship breaking activity in Alang and the illegal traffic of European Blue Lady ship and US ship Platinum II.

The Washington meeting has been convened by Barack Obama, President, United States of America and which Dr Manmohan Singh will also attend along with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

The IAEA, which began life 53 years ago as a UN body with the name Atoms for Peace, does not have responsibility for nuclear security in Member States but can help all countries that so wish "to establish effective, sustainable nuclear security systems that would significantly reduce or even eliminate this threat.

The IAEA is aware that the international community has been confronting a new security threat: the risk of the malicious use of nuclear or other radioactive material, an area in which the IAEA has unique expertise. But the agency is not only concerned with nuclear materials if they should get into the wrong hands. Much of its work focuses on trying to ensure that this does not happen in the first place.

IAEA experts help countries protect nuclear facilities and transport against sabotage or theft, offering specialized training, helping to enhance cooperation between various national law enforcement officials and backing the installation of radiological monitoring equipment and training at border crossings. Should a nuclear security incident occur or a nuclear or radiation emergency arise, the IAEA Incident and Emergency Centre coordinates 24/7 specialized support and assistance for Member States.

Some 110 States and several international organizations voluntarily contribute information to the agency's illicit trafficking database, which tracks nuclear or other radioactive materials outside authorized custody and control.

But so far IAEA does appear pro-active in the matter of radioactive steel that gets produced when radioactive sources containing cobalt gets amalgamated with scrap steel such as the ones sourced from ship-breaking industry and other secondary steel production sources.

Radioactive Co-60 is produced commercially through linear acceleration for use in medicine and industry. It is also a byproduct of nuclear reactor operations, when metal structures, such as steel rods, are exposed to neutron radiation. A tale of radioactive radiation, hazardous substances and toxic trade has consistently been brushed under the carpet in the name of secrecy by the Department of Atomic Energy that comes directly under the prime minister.

Hazardous waste has been going on in the Supreme Court since 1995 because of non-cooperation from the concerned ministries. In the matter of radioactive contaminated scrap metal lack of coordination among Commerce Ministry, Steel Ministry, Environment Ministry and Department of Atomic Energy is quite manifest. 

Huge amount of hazardous radioactive scrap metal is imported into India considering the cheap rates. Indian harbors do not have a proper regulation on hazardous materials.

Indeed if the finished products has radioactive hazards, one can visualize the fate of raw scrap and the workers who process the scrap. Only a bare minimum of these finished products are exported. The major portion of the recycled scrap is used in India.

Even earlier, last year lift buttons made of scrap steel were being used by Otis elevators, which was being handled by a French firm. Some 30 workers of their suffered radioactive radiation. French nuclear safety authority informed Indian Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) and all other nuclear countries...now complaints have emerged from Russia and Sweden too.

The buttons has been traced to factories near Pune. AERB issued a letter asking all port agencies to use radioactive monitors but while French workers who suffered are identified, the Indian workers who suffered are yet to be traced. The lift button were contaminated with Cobalt 60, a by product of nuclear reactors. The radiation was measured between 1 and 3 on an International Nuclear Event Scale (INES). There are 7 levels on the INES scale; 3 incident-levels and 4 accident-levels.

It has not been revealed so far as to what is the measurement of the radiation level in the case of exposure in the current Mayapuri, West Delhi case. 

INES was introduced in 1990 by the IAEA in order to enable prompt communication of safety significance information in case of nuclear accidents. The scale is inspired on the Richter scale for earthquakes, each increasing level representing an accident ten times more severe than the previous level. However, compared to earthquakes, where ground elevation is relatively easy to assert, the level of severity of a Man made disaster, such as a nuclear accident, is more subject to interpretation, and often the INES level of an incident is only assigned well past the incident occurrence. Therefore the scale cannot aid immediate appropriate disaster-control deployment.

The French France's Nuclear Safety Authority has detected that the steel lift buttons brought from India contained traces of radioactive Cobalt 60. It has alerted the Indian authorities about the radioactive buttons. The original complain was from Otis firm, a French subsidiary of the US company.

The factory belonging to Mafelec company, which delivers the buttons to Otis noticed in early October. Nuclear Safety Authority classed the incident at a factory of the Mafelec firm in the east-central town of Chimilin at level two on the seven-level International Nuclear Event Scale (INES). It said that of 30 workers exposed, 20 had been exposed to doses of between one mSv (milli-Sievert) and three mSv.

The maximum permitted dose for workers in the non-nuclear sector is one mSv.
Otis Elevator Company's lifts in France were traced to a foundry in Maharashtra. There is a foundry near Khopoli on the way to Pune from Mumbai called Vipras, which melted this scrap. French firm Mafelec delivered thousands of lift buttons to Otis. Otis has said it is now in the process of removing the buttons, after the Nuclear Safety Authority announced that 20 workers who handled the lift buttons had been exposed to excessive levels of radiation.

The components used by Mafelec were supplied by two Indian firms, which purchased the inputs from SKM Steels Ltd, which in turn worked with foundry Vipras Casting Foundry. Vipras was provided scrap by SKM Steels to convert into bars. Currently, it is not mandatory for Indian foundries to install radiation detectors to check scrap metals. It is noteworthy that although the factory explosions of October 2004 in the missile scrap metal imported without detection by the Bhushan Steel Ltd in Ghaziabad, UP had compelled governmental responses at the highest level both in the state and at the centre but it has been of no avail. No visible police action or remedial action was taken beyond routine posturing. In this case too in all likelihood it would meet the same fate. 

Scrap metal and its contamination comes under the Hazardous Waste (Management, Handling and Transboundary Movement) Rules, 2008, but this incident and several others in the recent past illustrate that the Rules offers no resistance to transboundary movement of hazardous and radioactive contaminated scrap materials. According to the Rules, it does not matter if contaminated "recyclable scarp metal"/hazardous waste comes without prior decontamination in the country of export although it is in manifest contempt of Supreme Court's directions in its order dated 14 October, 2003 in Writ Petition (Civil) 657 of 1995.

Radioactive contamination is dealt under Radiation Atomic Energy (Safe Disposal of Radioactive Wastes) Rules, 1987 that deals with the radioactive waste, not with radioactive contaminated finished products. The framers of both the Rules were oblivious to a situation where hazardous waste (recyclable metal scrap, according to Environment Ministry) and the products made out of it would be contaminated with radioactive materials.

Hazardous Waste Rules lays down the procedure for import of hazardous waste and how it would facilitate the same by providing administrative mechanism to ensure that even Port and Customs authorities ensure compliance when hazardous waste is imported by paying lip service seeking "safe handling".

After creating the loophole it says, Custom authorities would take samples as per Customs Act 1962 prior to clearing the assignments. Technical Review Committee of Ministry of Environment & Forests as noted in the Rules should now show its sense of purpose by finding out where did the radioactive materials come from in the lift buttons made of scrap steel.

The case illustrates how even the new Rules remain full of loopholes. One would have been surprised, had it not been so because the Ministry defines hazardous waste as recyclable metal...and then asks agencies Customs and Atomic Energy Regulatory Board to probe the consequences of the flawed Rules. The Hazardous Waste Rules do not apply to radioactive waste as covered under the Atomic Energy Act, 1962 (33 of 1962) and rules made there under. Consequently, Atomic Energy (Safe Disposal of Radioactive Wastes) Rules, 1987 apply to it.

But neither the Hazardous Waste Rules nor the Safe Disposal of Radioactive Wastes Rules seem to have foreseen a situation where metal scrap products are found to be contaminated with radioactive materials although while providing the definition, the Radioactive waste Rules, it says, "radioactive waste" means any waste material containing radio-nuclides in quantities or concentrations as prescribed by the competent authority by notification in the official gazette".

Safe Disposal of Radioactive Wastes Rules also provides for a "Radiological Safety Officer" who can advise the employer regarding the safe handling and disposal of radioactive wastes and on the steps necessary to ensure that the operational limits are not exceeded; to instruct the radiation workers engaged in waste disposal on the hazards of radiation and on suitable safety measures and work practices aimed at minimising exposures to radiation and contamination, and to ensure that adequate radiation surveillance is provided for all radiation workers and the environment.

Neither the environment ministry nor the atomic energy ministry provides for Radiological Safety Officer in the scrap metal factories and ship breaking yards.

The labour ministry does not seem to have any role in ensuring worker's safety although International Labour Organisation provides guideline to be followed. As per the Radioactive Waste Rules, Radiological Safety Officer has to carry out such tests on conditioned radioactive wastes, as specified by the competent authority; to ensure that all buildings, laboratories and plants wherein radioactive wastes will be or are likely to be handled/produced, conditioned or stored or discharged from, are designed to provide adequate safety for safe handling and disposal of radioactive waste.

He has to help investigate and initiate prompt and suitable remedial measures in respect of any situation that could lead to radiation hazards; and ...to ensure that the provisions of the Radiation Protection Rules, 1971 are followed properly.

Like in the current case of Delhi, in France, the 20 workers who suffered the radioactive radiation were being treated (if there is a treatment), our environment ministry, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) and Labour Ministry must now trace the Indian workers who suffered due to radiation while working with the metal scrap (from the scrap yard, re-rolling mills to the lift steel button manufacturing) that was contaminated with radioactive material. The failure of the Ministries concerned is too stark to remain unnoticed.

There is an urgent need to rewrite the present Rules that is more concerned about human health than hazardous waste trade. Officials who draft such Rules must be made accountable. The issue must be dealt with at a much higher level than is case now. There is no quick-fix solution.

As a knee-jerk reaction, the government is putting in place radiation monitors at ports to check cargo. Although AERB has just about 200 people, it is also a fact that it is an act of grave omission on the part of Environment Ministry and its loophole ridden Rules that allow import of hazardous wastes in the name of recycling. It is also a result of an exercise in linguistic corruption while drafting the Rules that redefines hazardous waste as a recyclable metal scarp.

It is not that such incidents have not happened anywhere earlier and it was clearly unforeseen. In December 1983 Mexico too faced a similar situation where a discarded radiation therapy source caused contamination of 5,000 metric tons of steel. Another example of Co-60 contamination is the March, 2008 incident at an Italian port where a cargo ship from China was found to contain 30 tons of steel contaminated by with Cobalt 60.

While unsatisfactory governmental response in matters of environmental health and workers occupational health is nothing new, what is alarming is that even the French alert to has failed to hammer the frozen passivity of the government. What else can justify the ongoing dismantling of ships such as Blue Lady by migrant, casual workers of UP, Bihar, Jharkhand and Orissa that is evidently and admittedly contaminated with radioactive material and killer asbestos fibers.

In the current incident, Radiological safety division of India's Atomic Energy Regulatory Board is investigating the concerns raised by France's Nuclear Safety Authority. The million dollar question is: Has AERB's lackadaisical approach as revealed in the Supreme Court in September 2007 in dealing with radioactive material in ships changed? It has chosen to become oblivious of for instance 1088 radioactive material containing equipments onboard Blue Lady, a contaminated ship under demolition in Alang, Bhavnagar, Gujarat.

Under the new Rules from the Ministry of Environment, hazardous waste gets classified as hazardous material meant for recycling, and it would fall in the category of second hand materials. The commerce ministry allows even hazardous waste since as per the new notification a waste would be deemed as non-waste. In this way toxic waste will reincarnate itself as a reusable or recyclable product.

It is high time the government revised its existing Hazardous Waste and Radioactive Waste Rules. The Prime Minister who also holds the Environment Ministry port folio and is in charge of the Department of Atomic Energy must acknowledge this serious lapse and constitute a High Power Expert Committee to investigate metal scrap unit, foundry and every yard of the ship-breaking industry in order to trace the workers and communities who have been exposed to radioactive radiation.

Eternal vigilance and identifying the villains of the environmental and occupational health who are either trading in avoidable toxic wastes or are providing policy support both within the governments and outside is crucial to avoid letting ourselves be raped by unknown contaminants and radiations with no remedy whatsoever.

In a situation where one has either suffered radiation or is vulnerable to it, is buying radioactive monitors as has been suggested by the concerned government agency sufficient? Such measures are neither the remedy for the crisis due to radioactive contamination that is staring in the face nor is any diagnosis.

European hypocrisy with reference to India in letting their toxic ships leave their territory and cruel insensitivity on the part of our welfare state to absolve itself of any accountability is in full display. Does one treat a disease by paying lip-service to environmental and occupational health concerns and by buying thermometers? What a benign act, one must say!

Gopal Krishna