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Saturday, May 8, 2010
Radiation death sparks Indian safety enquiry
University of Delhi sold off a radioactive source for scrap.
K. S. Jayaraman
The Indian government is scrambling to tighten rules on scientists' use of radioactive materials, following the death of a metal dealer who handled a radioactive source that had been sold for scrap by the University of Delhi.
The incident has highlighted the poor enforcement of waste-disposal laws in India at a time when the country is aiming to expand its nuclear-power programme, and when the prospect of nuclear terrorism continues to be a concern.
“It was a mistake. We ought to have been far more careful.”
The radioactive cell, containing cobalt-60, had been imported from Atomic Energy Canada in 1968 by the university's chemistry department, and had not been used since 1985. Cobalt-60 is a γ-ray source that is used for industrial radiography, medical radiotherapy and in various laboratory experiments.
"Initially [the cell] had been loaded with 3,600 curies of radioactive cobalt," says Kallikattu S. Parthasarathy, who during 1987–2004 was secretary of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), India's nuclear regulator, which is based in Mumbai. He calculates that roughly 14 curies (518 gigabecquerels) of radioactivity remained when the cell was sold on 26 February. "I am angry and shocked that Delhi University, of all the institutions, sold it as scrap," Parthasarathy says.
Scrap workers tried to recover the steel and lead cladding by prying open and melting the radioactive cell. One has already died; another six have been ill since early April, after being exposed to the radiation.
The University of Delhi's vice-chancellor, Deepak Pental, told Nature: "It was a mistake. We ought to have been far more careful."
"The unfortunate incident is a manifestation of our weakness that we are not well organized, although we are one of the top universities in India," he added.
The AERB said in a statement on 28 April that what the university did was a "serious violation" of rules that forbid decommissioning a radiation installation without approval from the AERB. It has asked the university to stop further research involving radiation sources until it receives an explanation of how the incident occurred.
Indian education minister Kapil Sibal has ordered an inquiry, and directed his ministry to immediately come up with new guidelines for the procurement, transport, storage and disposal of all hazardous material, including chemicals and radioactive substances, used by university researchers. Science minister Prithviraj Chavan told the Indian parliament on 20 April that container scanners would be installed at 12 major ports to prevent undocumented imports and exports of radioactive material.
The incident is the latest of several problems involving radioactive sources in India. In August 2009, for example, an industrial radiography device containing 2.6 curies of radioactive material fell off a vehicle near Pune as it was being transported. Children who picked up the device and took it to their village were unable to open it, and the AERB recovered it intact.
In another instance in 2009, steel products exported from India to the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain and Turkey were subsequently found to be radioactive; they had all originated "from a single steel foundry-cum-exporter in Maharashtra", according to an AERB report.
Despite the problems, Parthasarathy says that he has "full confidence in our system of licensing and registration of radioactive installations for research, industry and hospitals". But he notes that there is a problem with 'orphan' radioactive sources in universities; for example, where their original users have left the university and no one has been assigned as being responsible for the device.
"Under our rules, retired radioactive sources are required to be sent back to the original suppliers for safe disposal," says Kondapuram Raghavan, a member of the AERB board. The Delhi incident was due to non-compliance rather than to any inadequacy in the AERB's regulatory system, he says.
The problem of orphan radioactive sources is a global issue, Parthasarathy points out. He estimates that about 140 high-dose γ-sources are scattered around India, but notes that the AERB does not have enough manpower to track them all down.
Raghavan adds: "The most worrying issue before the AERB is the prospect of highly radioactive sources getting into the hands of terrorists."