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Lurking danger, no one to check

The Mayapuri radiation incident has for the first time exposed the lack of control on the usage of radioactive material and raised fears whether the government is really standing guard against toxic radiation.

delhi Updated: Apr 09, 2010 23:48 IST
Avishek G. Dastidar

The Mayapuri radiation incident has for the first time exposed the lack of control on the usage of radioactive material and raised fears whether the government is really standing guard against toxic radiation.

This is because of the presence of Cobalt 60 and other highly dangerous radioactive isotopes that are used widely in industrial radiography, medical radiology, large food processing units and even laboratories.

And sitting in Mumbai, the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) and the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), who are supposed to “strictly control” all matters related to radioactive material across India, are mere paper tigers.

The Board relies on users such as hospitals, industrial units etc, to self-regulate by keeping a Radiation Safety Officer in their premises. Through this officer, the BARC expects the institutions to send them yearly reports on the use of radioactive material.

But here’s the catch.

The Radiation Safety Officer is someone recruited and paid by the institutions themselves and is merely trained and approved by the BARC.

The AERB’s rather weak defence is the claim that it has the sources of procuring the radioactive material covered.

“In India, one cannot get these isotopes from anywhere other than the government-controlled Board of Radiation and Isotope Technology (BRIT),” said SS Bajaj, head of AERB. “Those who import, too, need our certificate. So we have it all covered.”

But Bajaj could not remember when was the last time the AERB either penalised or even inspected any institute directly. “Mishandled X-ray machines are the most common source of radiation in everyday lives,” said Deepak Arora, a Delhi based certified radiation physicist. “It’s a huge task to bring in all the X-ray machines under the regulatory net.”

Let alone control, the regulators have not been able to put in place basic infrastructure to detect pilferage.

No city has gamma zone monitors to catch movement of radioactive material. No checkpost has any gamma ray detector to nab inter-state pilferage..”

“It is a tinderbox situation,” said Ravi Agarwal, director of NGO Toxics Link, the publisher of Half Life, the only publicly available research material on India’s disposal of radioactive waste last year. “We are sitting on a dump of potential radioactive waste, and the only mechanism supposed to protect us from exposure is a set of weak guidelines with glaring loopholes.”

In Delhi there are three to four large scrap yards processing hundreds of tonnes of metal/miscellaneous scrap brought from multiple sources.

There are also 25 large radioactive machines running in 16 hospitals alone.

Then, there are industries and food processing units.

Still, Delhi does not have a State Directorate for Radiation Activities, as some states such as Kerala and Madhya Pradesh have come up to keep a tab on the matter themselves.