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Delhi's radioactive leak: The other side

July 26, 2010 15:13 IST
The inputs collected from the victims by an Atomic Energy Regulatory Board scientist gave vital clues which helped to identify the source of Delhi's radioactive leak, points out Dr K S Parthasarathy, former secretary with the Board.

The most unfortunate radiation accident at Mayapuri, New Delhi, recently woke up all stakeholders including regulators. Everyone realised that it cannot be business as usual. The mistaken notion of a few academics at Delhi University about the concept of 'half life' caused the first radiation death in India and radiation injuries to six other persons.

I am angry that Delhi University, of all the institutions, sold a highly radioactive source as scrap (Nature, May 8, 2010). That 'such an outstanding university was so callous is mind-blowing'. I felt that 'the tragedy should be a wake-up call' (Science, May 7, 2010).

Media reactions were constructive and mostly devoid of rhetoric. But Praful Bidwai's recent article on Rediff.com was unduly short on facts and predictably long on opinion. He does not enjoy any privileged ambiguity in nuclear matters. This will be so as anumukthi is an article of faith for him.

Unwittingly, Bidwai did not spare even doctors who treated the radiation victims. Unfairly and callously, he declared that doctors could do little to help the victims of the radiation incident except to give them repeated transfusions.

While transfusion is an important step, doctors carry out many other lifesaving procedures. They maintain the patients in a sterile environment as their immune system is compromised.

These patients cannot eat well. The cells lining their intestines wither away. They may get infected easily as the guts carry pathogens. Prompt and effective antibiotics therapy is the way forward.

Physicians carry out hyper-alimentation -- a process of administering nutrients by intravenous feeding. Bone marrow transplantation is one of the options in selected patients. Our physicians are competent; they are conversant with appropriate treatment methods to help radiation scarred patients.

Bidwai claims that the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board took its own time to track the sources. What are the facts?

At 12.45 hours on April 7, 2010, the AERB received a message from the Indraprastha Apollo Hospital, Delhi that a patient has been admitted there with radiation burns. The Board directed two officers who were already in New Delhi on other work to go to the hospital for follow-up.

After gathering vital information, they visited Mayapuri within a few hours and identified the shops where the radiation levels were high. They prepared improvised shields using steel plates etc, reduced the dose levels and cordoned off the area. They alerted AERB headquarters which in turn informed the Deparment of Atomic Energy's crisis management group as per standard operating procedure.

On April 8, 2010, a team of scientists from the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, AERB, Narora Atomic Power Station and the local response team from the Atomic Mineral Directorate for Exploration and Research arrived with a variety of radiation monitoring instruments, lead flask and other equipment.

They located, identified and recovered many sources from the shops. Systematic searches followed. They recovered more sources on April 13 and another on April 15. After verifying the records and closely observing the sources remotely, they declared that all sources were collected.

The scrap shops contained metal sheets, heaps of condemned equipment, endless coils of wire, tonnes of other objects of all sizes and shapes spread randomly. Many radioactive sources were inaccessible.

The dose levels were high; the operation needed meticulous planning. It was a difficult job. They recovered the sources by judicious use of time, distance, shielding and deployment of well-trained volunteers each wearing personal dosimeters. Their doses were well within limits.

The inestimable expertise of scientists became very useful in the hour of need. BARC has been training various dedicated groups (for example, 1,200 men from the National Disaster Response Force) in handling radiation emergencies.

According to my sources, at least 22 scientists (Scientific officers of H(1), G(2), F(3), E(7),D(9) grades ) participated in the operation. Ten of them were from AERB. (In AERB and the Department of Atomic Energy, scientists at the entry level have grade C. They are Group A officers and are promoted to higher grades D, E, F, G, H etc based on merit and seniority.)

The leader of the team, Dr K S Pradeepkumar, SO (H), has 29 years of experience. He and some others with vast experience assist the International Atomic Energy Agency as radiation safety specialists. As Bidwai alleged, they are not 'technicians'

The team from Narora developed tools at short notice. Local police rose to the occasion. AERB must invite Bidwai to meet the DAE/AERB 'technicians'; maybe he may then change his mind.

Bidwai's bias against the 'technicians', trained to handle simple instruments like like 'electricity meter readers', is evident. During the 1965 war with Pakistan, BARC camouflaged the dome of the CIRUS reactor by spraying cow dung over it; the idea came from a BARC 'tradesman' and not from a scientist or a journalist!

Bidwai says it was not the AERB's 'technicians' but the police who tracked the source to Delhi University. The inputs collected from the victims by an AERB scientist gave vital clues which helped to identify the origin of the source. Bidwai knows this truth will not make good copy!

Bidwai believes that 'good, responsible science' involves estimation of the different durations for which groups of workers were exposed; he assumed that nobody did it in the present case.

Such estimates are unreliable, because of recall bias. Wrong recollection of distance from the source introduces humongous errors. For instance, radiation dose from a point source at 10 centimetres is one hundred times than at one metre.

Bidwai declares that 'the authorities are going about the whole business amateurishly, groping and jumping'. He feels the AERB scientists have not used a 'scientific modelling approach'. Never mind the fact that the scientists used the internationally accepted biodosimetry method which gave estimates of doses to the victims. AERB staff vividly know the details.

Bidwai calls the AERB a lapdog of the Department of Atomic Energy. From the annual reports of AERB, I counted over 50 regulatory actions AERB took against DAE installations. These included shutting down nuclear power plants, reducing the power level of some of them and directing plant modifications.

Though the losses ran to several million rupees, DAE implemented AERB directives without preferring appeals.

When needed, the 'lapdog' seems to use its sharp teeth! Bidwai may be satisfied only if AERB shuts down all nuclear power plants permanently!

I participated in or was a witness to the developments in AERB over the first 20 years. I am not aware of a single instance in which any pressure was put on the Board by the DAE.

The AERB has its own budget, two independent buildings; right from its inception, AERB has many independent specialists from premier research and academic institutions in its decision-making committees.

It does not mean that AERB does not need any strengthening. The Board has more members from outside the DAE family and it reports directly to the Atomic Energy Commission (which has the status of the central government) and not to an individual. These arguments may sound convincing.

However, a robust regulatory system cannot rely on good intentions alone for its independent and effective functioning. It certainly requires a stronger legal base which may be provided by amending the Atomic Energy Act to make AERB a statutory organisation.

AERB is an agency of the central government. Unlike Bidwai's mistaken notion, AERB is answerable to Parliament and to the public. The Right to Information Act applies to AERB. Please read the contents of www.aerb.gov.in

As any other anti-nuclear activist, Bidwai also claims that radiation is a poison 'that is especially insidious because it's invisible, intangible and poorly understood'.

Dedicated instruments can detect and measure the 'invisible' radiation accurately and reliably at minute levels. Invisibility of radiation does not come in the way of harnessing it for the benefit of mankind.

Scientists have studied ionising radiation most extensively and intensively. For instance, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation alone has published 16 reports providing authentic information on radiation related topics.

The UNSCEAR will publish two more reports this year. Other national and international agencies carry out dedicated research in the field. Current knowledge about it is adequate to use it safely without any unacceptable damage.

The Atomic Energy (Radiation Protection) Rules 2004 established a graded approach to regulatory control of radiation sources: licence, authorisation, registration and approval in decreasing order of hazard potential.

To show the AERB as non-functional, Bidwai added all radiation installations and devices to get a large number, 62,110 and bemoans the fact that AERB carried out a paltry 110 inspections.

Mercifully he did not add colour televisions, smoke detectors and thorium containing gas mantles. Apart from inspection, safety can be assessed from periodic safety reports, radiation dose records of workers etc.

'AERB does not keep track of when the X-ray units reach their use-by dates'. Bidwai believes that X-ray units, like packed food and medicines, have an expiry date! X-ray units, 'type approved' by AERB, fulfills safety requirements. If installed properly, they are safe to use for many years. They need periodic quality assurance check to verify their performance.

The Mayapuri accident shows that AERB's message on multi-layer checking for orphan sources did not reach everyone.

Every scrap dealer must use appropriate radiation monitors. The process of erecting portal monitors at ports is getting delayed apparently because many agencies are involved. The effectiveness of the measures to prevent import or export of contaminated steel must be verified.

AERB must seek legal opinion on banning import of scrap, if portal monitors are not operational by a date assigned by it.

Bidwai did not do his homework well. He wrongly says that 11 were exposed seriously. Only seven suffered seriously. He says the DAE was set up in 1983; it was AERB that was set up in 1983. He says that the gamma cell including cobalt pencils and lead containers weighed 300 kg; the actual weight of the device was about 3742 kg. His conceptual fallacies and colossal ignorance of AERB and its activities eclipse these minor mistakes.

Readers may find it hard to sift facts from fiction from his articles on nuclear and radiation related subjects.

Dr K S Parthasarathy is a former secretary, Atomic Energy Regulatory Board. He has a PhD in medical physics from the University of Leeds, United Kingdom.

Dr K S Parthasarathy