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Delhi university probed over radioactive waste

delhi Updated: Apr 30, 2010 19:18 IST

AFP
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India's atomic energy regulator said on Friday that it was investigating claims that Delhi University (DU) buried radioactive material on its campus, amidst an escalating scandal over its handling of toxic waste.

Police on Thursday blamed DU for dumping an irradiation machine containing radioactive Cobalt-60, which ended up in scrapyard in New Delhi, where it killed a 35-year-old worker and put seven others in hospital.

The incident has highlighted the lax enforcement of waste disposal laws in India and raised fears of further contamination from the university, the city's biggest institute with 300,000 students spread over two sites.

The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) said Friday it had suspended the licence to handle radioactive material of the chemistry laboratory responsible for throwing out the irradiation machine.

"University authorities and students cannot use the laboratory until we give them clearance," Ompal Singh, secretary of AERB, said.

Ramesh Chandra, a professor in the chemistry department, said on Friday that his counterparts in the physics faculty had buried 20 kilograms of low-grade radioactive waste in a pit on campus 20 years ago.

"Instead of handing over the hazardous material...for proper disposal, they just buried it," he said. "Though it's been 20 years the buried isotopes of substances like uranium could still be active."

Singh said the regulator was looking into waste management by the university and will scrutinise the new allegations by Chandra.

"We will verify the professor's claims. If toxic waste is found, then we will take strict action against the university," Singh said.

Delhi University declined to comment on the issue.

The gamma irradiation machine found in the Delhi scrapyard earlier this month was imported by the university in 1980, but had not been used since 1985. It was sold to scrap dealers at auction in February.

Vice-chancellor Deepak Pental said on Thursday that the university "takes moral responsibility and was apologetic for the damages caused."

He said the "mistake" was underestimating the radioactivity of the machine. A three-member committee has been set up to investigate.

Search teams from the police and an atomic research centre found Cobalt-60 in 15 different shops in the scrap market.

Last week, India's Shipping Ministry ordered 12 ports to install detectors for radioactive material, fearing other hazardous materials could slip into the country.