Deadly waste

April 22, 2010 11:37 pm | Updated November 28, 2021 08:43 pm IST

The discovery of radioactive Cobalt 60 sources stored as scrap in New Delhi's Mayapuri locality by the Department of Atomic Energy and the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board is a clear pointer to the need for a stronger mechanism to monitor such dangerous waste. At least one person has received a very high dose of radiation in the incident, while six others have been treated for exposure-related symptoms. It is a matter of concern that an inspection conducted after the first reported injury found eight sources of radioactive waste in the scrap yard, necessitating a comprehensive clean-up of the entire area. Radioactive material is covered not by the Hazardous Waste (Management, Handling and Transboundary Movement) Rules, 2008 but by the Atomic Energy Act, 1962. On paper, radioactive sources such as those used in radiotherapy machines in hospitals, industrial devices, and nucleonic gauges must be monitored from “cradle to grave,” and at the end of their useful life, be returned to the original supplier. Imports have to be shipped back to the source or handed over to the Waste Management Division of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre for disposal. The system of tracking and control of possession is obviously far from foolproof, although there is a lot of apprehension that these materials could be used by extremists to make “dirty bombs” (that can scatter radioactive materials). Many so-called sealed sources containing radioactive waste are going off the map and turning up in scrap yards, “orphaned.”

The Delhi incidents underscore the importance of conducting a coordinated search across the country to regain control of orphan radioactive sources. Besides reducing the danger of deadly radiation exposure to people, a clean-up can benefit industry. In 2007, the U.S. Customs regulators rejected several metal article shipments from India, as they were found to be contaminated with radioactive material. Germany, France, and Sweden have also detected Cobalt 60 in Indian steel. It is not surprising that the trail leads to metal scrap, including imported waste used in steel manufacture. The Government of India needs quickly to launch a clean-up act, with the participation of State governments. There is a strong case for designating areas in every city to handle recycling, and prohibit such activity in all other areas. A major effort is called for to train workers and raise capacity in the recycling industry. It is vital that all national ports are equipped to detect radiation in import and export. The safety protocol for waste-handlers, now being drafted by the National Disaster Response Force, needs to be implemented in right earnest to prevent accidents.

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