The radiation poisoning of five people in Mayapuri from a piece of scrap left lying about in a shop is an indicator of how poorly regulated the disposal of nuclear waste in Delhi is.
Hospitals in the capital and and some of its industrial units use radioactive material for perfectly legitimate purposes. But while the rules on disposal are in place, no one really monitors if they are actually followed.
The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), the sole authority controlling radioactive material in India, is based in Mumbai and has no system in place for keeping a watch on users of radioactive material.
The law requires users themselves to employ a Radiation Safety Officer whose job it is to send the AERB regular reports. “This means the person who is supposed to catch the wrongdoing is an employee of the wrongdoer,” said Ravi Agarwal, director of NGO Toxics Link, which published India’s only publicly available research material on India’s nuclear waste disposal last year.
In Mayapuri, scientists from the department of atomic energy, who are investigating the matter, found radioactive material containing fair amounts of Cobalt 60, amid the scrap.
It gave off a moderately-to-highly radioactive frequency. “After working here for two days, our teams have declared the area safe,” said S.K. Malhotra, DAE spokesman.
How this material got there is anyone’s guess.Experts doubted if medical equipment was the source. “Radiology machines found in hospitals use very little of radioactive isotopes. Nuclear medicine nowadays is also moving on from Cobalt 60 to something called linear acceleration technology,” said Deepak Arora, a Delhi-based certified radiation physicist for the past 25 years.
But it is the lack of direct control that makes Delhi or any other city vulnerable to everyday radioactivity.
In developed countries, scrap dealers are supposed to have gamma zone scanners to detect if scrap material has mistakenly carried a radioactive source.
Check-posts are supposed to have gamma ray detectors to check illegal movement of such material. Indian cities do not have any such facilities.