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Delhi radiation case: AEC, AERB also culpable

April 22, 2010 15:57 IST

The Atomic Energy Commission and its subordinate organisations have the mandate to put in place a comprehensive plan to ensure nuclear safety in the country, but that does not seem to have been done, writes Dr A Gopalakrishnan, former chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board.

The Hindu on April 18 had a report on the radioactive material recently found in scrap shops in New Delhi, which cites Dr S Banerjee, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission as having said that "Whatever happened in Delhi had nothing to do with the activities of my department. The scrap materials come from other countries and it was not possible for the Department of Atomic Energy to check at the entry points if there were any radioactive materials in them. Checking all the containers laden with scrap was not possible. Instead, scanning could be done. While a decision to install scanners had been taken, implementation was taking time."

This is an appalling statement from the AEC chairman, considering the all-encompassing responsibility and powers entrusted, both constitutionally and administratively, to the AEC and its subordinate institutions to ensure the safety of the general public and workers, wherever the presence or use of nuclear materials is involved

The stipulations relating to nuclear safety in India were originally brought out succinctly in the Atomic Energy Act of 1962. In particular, Section-16 of that act requires that "the central government may prohibit the manufacture, possession, use, transfer by sale or otherwise, export and import and in an emergency, transport and disposal, of any radioactive substances without its written consent."

Section 17 states that "the central government may, as regards any premises or places, in which radioactive substances are manufactured, produced, mined, treated, stored or used, make such provision by rules as appear to the central government to be necessary to prevent injury being caused to the health of persons employed at such premises or places or other persons either by radiations, or by the ingestion of any radioactive substance. In the event of any contravention of the rules made under this section, the central government shall have the right to take such measures as it may deem necessary to prevent further injury to persons or damage to property arising from radiation or contamination by radioactive substances."

Subsequently, through a gazette notification dated December 31,1983, the government constituted the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board to carry out the safety and regulatory functions pertaining to the use of atomic energy and radioactive materials in India, as envisaged under Sections 16, 17, and 23 of the Atomic Energy Act. The executive functions of the AERB have been vested in the chairman, AERB and he is empowered to exercise full powers of the competent authority to enforce rules and regulations framed under the act for radiation safety in the country. In doing so, as notified by the government, the AERB shall be responsible to the AEC.

One of the responsibilities legally assigned to the AERB through its founding notification is to review operational experience in the light of the radiological safety criteria recommended by the International Commission on Radiological Protection, International Atomic Energy Agency and other similar international bodies, adapt them to suit Indian conditions, and thereby evolve major safety policies.

This aspect is especially relevant in dealing with issues of missing and misplaced powerful radioactive sources, a subject in which IAEA has enormous experience and data bases. IAEA has also, over the years, developed procedures for preventive and corrective action, in consultation with various countries. After evolving appropriate national policies based on this world experience, the AERB is to implement them and maintain a high degree of nuclear safety and security in the country.

The chairman, AERB is the legal competent authority who should continually enforce the implementation of all necessary procedures and precautions to ensure that a radiation hazard incident of the kind which occurred in Delhi does not happen. This mishap may not come under the direct responsibility of the DAE, but certainly the AEC chairman (who is also secretary, DAE) is the highest official ultimately responsible to oversee the AERB's functioning and, therefore, he is equally culpable for actions and inactions of the AERB which might have led to this serious incident.

He cannot just shirk off his responsibility casually, as he did in his Chennai talk. Within the ambit of the above legal assignment of safety responsibilities of the AERB and the AEC, any systematic investigation of the causes of the Delhi radiation incident must begin with a detailed evaluation of the actions and inactions of these two government organisations. This would necessarily lead to a series of questions for which answers are to be sought from them.

Since this investigation is also to evaluate the extent of culpability of the AERB & the AEC themselves, it will be pointless to have these very same agencies investigate the matter, and that too in secrecy. I can personally vouch from my earlier experience as chairman, AERB that the DAE and the AERB often use the Official Secrets Act much more to cover up the serious lapses and inactions in their operations than to protect the safety or security of the public.

Readers may recall the 1995 report on the safety status of DAE installations, which exposed more than 120 serious safety deficiencies which were undisclosed by the DAE and AERB without taking any corrective actions, until this report was compiled and submitted to the prime minister. In spite of that, even till today, the public is unaware as to how many of these safety issues of the past have indeed been satisfactorily resolved. This same guiding principle of 'cover-up' under the Official Secrets Act will once again be used by the AEC, DAE and the AERB, if the Delhi radiation incident is to be investigated solely by them.

Realising this, can our Parliament and/or the judiciary rise to the occasion in the present case and set in motion a transparent process to expose the inactions of the AERB, the AEC, and other ministries of the government which have led to this perhaps preventable hazardous incident in Delhi?

At least for the last 15 years, the IAEA was seriously involved in studying the dangers which could arise from mishandling of 'orphan' radioactive sources and materials. Especially since the 9-11 terrorist strikes in the US, the intensity of IAEA activities to assist member nations on the preventive steps in this regard has substantially increased. India, as an IAEA member, has also participated in helping the IAEA formulate and periodically update the procedures and rules in various areas, including how to minimise the chances of unauthorised transfer of radioactive materials across national boundaries. It is worth examining whether the AERB has already formalised rules on the basis of this collective knowledge, for use in India. Even if such rules and procedures exist on paper, which I doubt, certainly the AERB has not succeeded in implementing them in a timely or effective manner, as the Delhi incident exemplifies.

The AEC is one of the most powerful administrative entities in the country. The minister of state in the PM's office, the cabinet secretary, the finance secretary, the principal secretary to the PM , the national security adviser and the foreign secretary are members of the AEC, with Dr Banerjee as chairman. The chairman reports to the PM and has full access to him at any time. With this all-powerful body at their service, what excuses other than incompetence and neglect do the AEC and AERB chairmen have in not implementing the precautionary procedures, many of which were identified years ago as most essential for public safety?

Reality could be that the AERB and AEC have not yet formulated and obtained consensus of all participating agencies on the comprehensive steps to be taken collectively to avoid such radiation hazards in the country. Neither have they apportioned the various tasks to the concerned agencies, along with an agreed timeframe for coordinated completion. Then only comes the task of monitoring this action plan for slippages in schedule. The entire responsibility to create such a plan, monitor it to completion, and to keep track of any modifications needed from time to time is that of the AERB in view of the onerous responsibility assigned to them through the government A notification which gave birth to that organisation . If they have not lived up to that, it is also the failure of the AEC which is to oversee AERB's functioning, and ultimately the failure of the prime minister to whom alone the AEC is answerable.

Just this month, our prime minister announced in Washington his decision to set up a global centre for nuclear energy partnership in India, to be run with international cooperation. This centre, among other things, is envisaged to conduct research on nuclear security, radiation safety, and the application of radioisotopes!

Instead of jumping into such high-profile international efforts merely for publicity, I wish the prime minister will spend time and effort to focus on cleaning up our own backyard first and rectify the sad state in which we find the Indian nuclear program today, under his leadership.

Dr A Gopalakrishnan