Last year, the Board of Radiation and Isotope Technology (BRIT), responsible for supplying much of the radioactive material that scientists use for experiments, delivered about 52,000 shipments of “isotope products” to about 100 research facilities in India and abroad.
The shipments included radiation therapy machines as well as sealed containers full of radioactive material, similar to the “pencils” full of Cobalt-60 that were accidentally auctioned off by Delhi University (DU) administrators several months ago.
How safe are these sources?
A radioactive “source” — in this case, an isotope that gives off gamma radiation — arrives at a laboratory either from Mumbai-based BRIT or abroad.
“Just because someone asks for a source doesn’t mean we will give it,” said Jain George, a manager and radiation safety officer at the BRIT.
Usually, a representative from Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) visits a lab before granting a permit.
“If we want to purchase radioactive material, we have to take multiple permissions from the AERB,” said S.P. Lochab, the radiation safety officer at the New Delhi-based Inter-University Accelerator Centre, a research facility under the University Grants Commission.
If BRIT can’t supply a particular isotope, then scientists are allowed to import it. In the case of very radioactive materials, they have to arrange for the supplier to dispose of it. In other words, they send the source back once they’re done with it.
Once a source is obtained, responsibility for handling it falls to a university’s radiation safety council, or trained radiation safety officers.
However, at the time of the leak, DU had no such officer.
Other institutes take the responsibility more seriously.
“We wear protective gloves, lab coats, monitosssring badges and we work under protective shields,” said Yamuna Krishnan, faculty coordinator for the radioactive lab at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore. Every three months, Krishnan’s lab sends their badges to the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Mumbai, to be checked for radiation levels.
So far, the badges have come back clean every time.