That Delhi University’s laboratories were the source of the cobalt-60 that led to the recent radioactivity poisoning cases in Mayapuri, a scrap market in the Capital, show how ramshackle the regulation of civilian nuclear use in India is. While there can be no excuses for the university’s negligence, the truth is that this could have happened at any of the country’s 200-300 hospitals and universities that use low-level radioactive devices. Monitoring the use and disposal of civilian radioactive substances is non-existent. After the initial purchase, which requires the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board’s (AERB) nod, the fate of such potentially dangerous material is left to the gods. Combine this with the less than optimal administration of most universities and hospitals, and it’s a surprise that more such radiation poisoning cases haven’t taken place.
India likes to talk about being a responsible nuclear power. It can make a reasonable case for this when it comes to its atomic arsenal. However, equally important is it having in place a tightly-run system of handling civilian nuclear material. As Mayapuri has shown, such material endangers the health of the average Indian and can also be secured by terrorists. So-called ‘dirty bombs’ — where nuclear material is mixed with conventional explosives to spread radioactivity — require almost no technology or serious planning. India will experience a rapid increase in the use of such nuclear equipment. There is a natural increase in the number of high-end hospitals and universities. One can expect a rapid expansion in the sort of industries, like chemicals and precision manufacturing, where nuclear equipment is widely used.
The AERB is busy issuing showcause notices to the university today. But it should spend more time working out how to prevent a repetition of Mayapuri. The Indian atomic energy establishment seems to be hazy about the fate of almost all the nuclear equipment imported over a four-decade period. It needs to start putting such a record together. There is confusion among users about the procedure to dispose of nuclear material, even among university boffins. The policies regarding this should be laid out, publicised and designed to accommodate a future surge in the use of such materials. Allowing universities and hospitals to self-regulate their usage of these devices is common across the world. But frequent inspections by the AERB and insistence on the hiring of radiation safety personnel would be a sensible precaution. India likes to talk nuclear. It now needs to walk the same way.