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What the radiation leak in Delhi means

May 07, 2010 16:11 IST
The Department of Atomic Energy is easily the worst-functioning department of the Indian government, says Praful Bidwai.

Three weeks after a scrap dealer from Mayapuri in Delhi was hospitalised with acute radiation sickness caused by exposure to cobalt-60, the authorities finally traced the source of the radioisotope to a laboratory in the chemistry department of Delhi University. Meanwhile, one of the 11 people who were seriously exposed to the source died. And the condition of another two is reportedly grave, with platelet counts way below normal and falling. Doctors can do little to help the victims except give them repeated transfusions.

That highlights the poignancy of the suffering of poor and innocent scrap-workers on account of utterly irresponsible conduct on the part of several agencies, including Delhi University, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board and the Government of India. The tragedy also underscores the infuriatingly poor capacity of this society and its regulatory agencies to cope with mishaps, in particular, damage caused by ionising radiation, a poison that's especially insidious because it's invisible, intangible and poorly understood.

The cobalt-60 poisoning was revealed six weeks after the apparatus containing it, a gamma irradiator imported in 1968, was prematurely auctioned to a scrap dealer in February by Delhi University. A university committee certified it would be safe to get rid of the entire 300 kg assembly, including cobalt pencils and lead containers.

It's extraordinary that a committee of science professors cavalierly assumed that the cobalt-60, a powerful source with 3,000 Curies (a unit of radioactivity measuring the rate of disintegration of unstable isotopes), had already ceased to be hazardous.

The half-life of this radioisotope -- the time during which it decays to reach half its original mass -- is 5.27 years. This means that about 10 to 20 Curies would still remain even after 8 half-lives had elapsed over four decades. 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 trillionth of a Curie per litre for water. All this information is available in the public domain.

The university committee's decision to auction the irradiator was deplorably unscientific and indefensible. Its members must be severely punished for endangering the lives of innocent poor scrap workers. But the other authorities haven't conducted themselves exemplarily either.

The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board took its own time to track all the 16 cobalt needles reportedly contained in the irradiator. It wasn't the AERB's 'scientists' -- in reality technicians, trained to handle simple instruments, much like electricity meter-readers -- but the police, who tracked the source to Delhi University.

The police, for their part, haven't yet uncovered the whole chain and timing of the irradiator transactions, apparently involving three other scrap traders. Nobody has estimated the different durations for which groups of workers were exposed at different intensity to the cobalt isotope. Unless this is done, it will be impossible to calculate the number exposed, and the extent of exposure, so they can be properly treated, carefully monitored, and tracked over a long period. That's what good, responsible science is about.

Another crucial issue remains unexplained. The irradiator assembly was reportedly sent in March 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 the radiation would come into play. Everyone who handled, cut, transported or stored the needles would have been exposed. They must all be tracked down.

However, instead of following such a methodical approach, the authorities are going about the whole business amateurishly, groping and jumping about without trying to construct a map or model of exposure related to the transactions and processes through which the irradiator went.

The AERB hasn't used a scientific modelling approach to make half-way intelligent estimates of the overall exposure, or of the radiation doses received by the seriously injured, long-hospitalised seven survivors -- despite the prompt help it got from the Canadian exporter of the irradiator.

This is of a piece with the AERB's style of functioning and the extremely sloppy, inefficient, and unsafe mode of operation of its parent, the Department of Atomic Energy. The DAE is easily the worst-functioning department of the Indian government, which 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 from indulgent governments --, it should have installed 43,500 MW of nuclear power by 2000 and over 50,000 MW by now.

The current installed nuclear capacity is 4,100 MW -- just 3 percent of India's total electricity capacity. This too was achieved at the cost of the health and safety of thousands of employees and the public living near nuclear facilities, including uranium mines, fuel fabrication plants, heavy-water factories, nuclear reactors, and reprocessing and waste-storage plants.

A great component of the price India has paid for the DAE's existence lies in the lack of accountability and poor safety culture in an organisation that's crucial to public well-being. The AERB has inherited and fully imbibed this culture.

Instead of fighting for functional autonomy, it has become a lapdog of the DAE, the very agency whose installations it's meant to regulate for safety! The AERB has no independent personnel, equipment or budget, nor even the will, to gain autonomy within the DAE.

Outside the DAE too, in its assigned function as the regulator of all radiation-related equipment and activities, the AERB's performance has been unspeakably shoddy and irresponsible. The DAE was set up in 1983, so it has no record of radiation-emitting equipment or activities for the first 36 years of Independence. But even more appalling, its current records are sloppy and its reports incomplete.

The AERB is meant to keep track of all the 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 all of India's public and private laboratories, hospitals and other facilities.

Under the Atomic Energy Act 1962, it alone is authorised to finally dispose of all radioactive material. It doesn't perform all or most of these functions. It only rarely monitors whether its regulations are enforced. It doesn't order labs, as it is empowered to do, to hand over to it material for final disposal.

The AERB doesn't keep track of when the X-ray units reach their 'use-by' dates. It doesn't have the personnel, will or culture to do so. Under the Atomic Energy (Safe Disposal of Radioactive Waste) Rules 1987, any venture using radioactive material must appoint a radiological safety officer. This doesn't happen in the overwhelming majority of cases, but the AERB doesn't bother to enforce the rules or punish their violation.

Last year, it conducted a paltry 110 inspections in the 62,110 installations it's supposed to regularly inspect, in 3,210 institutions. Of the 16 cases of theft or loss of radiation-related devices reported in India since 2000, it succeeded in recovering only three.

I have personally talked to scientists in three Delhi-based institutes, who complain that requests sent to the AERB to help with final radioactivity disposal go unanswered. Sometimes, AERB personnel themselves 'informally' encourage persistent inquirers to dump the waste. On the rare occasion when they do visit an institution/lab, they expect to be wined and dined or bribed outright. They never provide technological support or guidance.

The AERB has failed to install radiation monitors at all major ports and airports and refused to monitor a site particularly vulnerable to radioactive waste-dumping -- Alang, the world's ship-breaking capital, itself a big disaster. Now it wants to shake off its responsibility by training scrap dealers in waste handling. So when Minister of State Prithviraj Chavan vehemently says the AERB is a highly efficient agency which can account for 'every gramme' of radioactive material in India, and hence that the Mayapuri cobalt must have been 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 it was found to be contaminated, including 67 shipments sent to the US since 2003. Shockingly, the nuclear liability Bill solely empowers this appallingly reckless agency to declare whether or not a nuclear mishap has happened, for which the public may be compensated.

It's time we brought the AERB to book or, better, replaced it with a truly independent, competent agency answerable to Parliament, the public, and the Right to Information Act. What we need is a body that strictly licenses all nuclear- and radiation-related activities and establishments for safety, regularly monitors each of them for their radioactive material stocks, safety practices and precautionary approaches, places its representatives in all major cities, and actively takes charge of safe radioisotope disposal.

The only way to ensure the agency does what it's meant to do is to verify and monitor its work and make it accountable to Parliamentary and public oversight -- beginning right now. Or else, we'll have more Mayapuris on a horrendous scale.

Praful Bidwai