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All's not well in India's junk metal capital

April 25, 2010 19:07 IST

Fearing presence of more radioactive sources in Delhi scrap yard Mayapuri, National Disaster Management Authority and Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) plan to carry out a multi-pronged approach survey in the area.

So far eight victims have suffered in this month after exposure of radioactive material in Mayapuri. All of them are still in a critical condition with dangerously low platelet counts and depleted bone marrows. Thousands of people in the area now live in fear.

AERB officials said, so far a joint team of NDMA, AERB and Bhabha Atomic Research Centre and Department of Atomic Energy crisis management has detected 11 sources of radioactive cobalt-60 from Mayapuri scrap yard using 'Tele-detectors'.

"But the scrap dealers and the people in the area have to cooperate with the authorities. We have to carry out thorough searches at the scrap yard, shop by shop, through close inspection and this is our proposal," a senior official of the team told PTI.

Mayapuri is a junk metal capital of India and giant containers of scrap imported from all over the world. So far, the BARC, which has the waste disposal plant, AERB and the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) or the NDMA had no control over such materials being shipped into the country, officials said, adding if India had a policy of checking the ports, the Mayapuri tragedy could have been averted.

Radioactive Cobalt-60 is a widely used radioisotope in industrial radiography, medical radiology, large food processing units and laboratories. The gamma rays emitted by it cause skin burns, cancer and death.

"The magnitude of risk to health depends on the quantity of Cobalt-60, length of exposure, distance from the source and whether the substance is inhaled or ingested," said a nuclear inspector of AERB adding that it takes nearly 5.27 years for it to lose radioactivity by even 50 per cent.

However, Home Ministry along with NDMA-AERB-BARC-DAE team have drawn a plan to install scanners at all major ports. Electronic Corporation of India will be supplying scanners.

Nearly 4000 tonnes of junk metal enter India every day. As per the revised Radiological Protection Rule of 2004 (first Radiological rule was made in 1971) under the Indian Atomic Energy Act of 1962, the punitive action on the guilty will be more severe now onwards, the official said.

"We agree that it is an international problem, but at least India should not become a dumping ground for radioactive material which if falls in wrong hands could be a disaster for the people of India," he cautioned.

The AERB-DAE team will providing a list of dos and don'ts to the scrap dealers in the country and also provide them with some instruments to carry out preliminary check up for any possible radioactivity and their men will also be trained for the same, he added.

Asked whether DAE has plans to train doctors to deal with radioactive injuries in future, its spokesperson S K Malhotra said, "We have a programme to train doctors across the country in radiation medicine. This could be extended to the general doctors in the hospital too."

Asked about whether the scrap dealers need to obtain certificate from the exporting country, AERB official said, "Yes, they have to. But additionally India has to be vigilant at its ports which will avoid Mayapuri type incidents."

India has a strict vigilant on radioactive material it supplies to its hospitals either from indigenous company (Board of Radiation and Isotope Technology) of DAE or imported.

Last week, 200 radiographers attended a meeting organised by AERB for all industry members who use radiography as part of the education and awareness programme.

Meanwhile, Delhi Police, investigating the Mayapuri incident, is to be clueless as there is no section in the IPC, which could be applied in such cases. A case under section 337 of IPC (endangering human life) has been registered.

When asked about the exact origin of source of Cobalt-60 found in Mayapuri scrap, AERB official said, the radioactive material will be brought to BARC where scientists could pin-point the source as there is a possibility of finding the company's name.

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