Shaken by the discovery of Cobalt-60, a radioactive isotope, in a densely populated west Delhi neighbourhood and ensuing panic, the government is considering installing a network of special radiation sensors in metropolitan areas.
“We are planning to install area radiation monitors at strategic locations,” said SA Hussain, head of the radiological safety division at the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, the government body that monitors radioactive waste disposal in the country. As per the still under-discussion plan, a network of radiation monitors spanning major metros would be set up and connected to a central control room.
Radiation monitors are small boxes that can detect gamma rays, radioactive waves emitted by radioactive isotopes like Cobalt-60, Cesium-137 and Iridium-192. Such sensors can monitor a wide area, cost about 1 lakh each, and are already used at nuclear power plants.
“We will need to install these boxes in the cities because that’s where our industries are,” said Hussain. “India’s population density in the cities is very high.”
Hussain’s remarks come after union science and technology minister Prithviraj Chavan said Thursday that the government is planning to institute special safety measures in the scrap metal industry.
Experts doubt if radiation sensors will solve the problem that led to the radiation leak: poor enforcement of existing rules for disposal of radioactive waste.
“In India we have better laws than most countries, but the laws are not enforced,” said R.G. Pillay, professor, department of nuclear and atomic physics at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai.
As per UN standards that are in place in India, hospitals that use radiation machines must be inspected regularly by the AERB. The people operate these machines should be trained in radiation safety.
It would be even more worrying if the contaminated waste had come from abroad, as some sources have suggested. As per Indian law, all imported scrap material sold on the open market must be evaluated. This can include a radioactivity test, as it is fairly easy to perform.
Imported scrap should have documentation showing its origin, although the radioactive material in West Delhi had no such documentation.
“Customs agents have the wherewithal to conduct the checks,” said Pillay.
The Environment Ministry monitors all hazardous wastes except radioactive waste, a source at the environment ministry told HT.
Although AERB monitors radioactive waste, in practice the burden falls upon the National Disaster Management Authority to handle radiation leakages, even though it does not specialize in radioactive waste handling. If the central radiation monitoring network were put into effect, it would fall under NDMA.