Nuclear devices and radioactive materials are hazardous. These do not necessarily relate to military use but are used in laboratories, hospitals etc. It is expected that authorities that be are fully aware of the serious health hazards their careless handling can cause and therefore lay down meticulous procedures, checks and balances for handling them and also for storing and disposing them off. The subject requires a professional approach by well qualified people.
In India there is an elaborate structure which clearly lays down the responsibility and strict guidelines for handling radio active material. On top is Department of Atomic Energy. This department lays down Atomic Energy Regulations. It also has Crisis Management Group working under it. Then there is National Disaster Management Authority which has Emergency Response Centre. There is Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) which has the best brains in the field. One presumes that the role of DAE is proactive.
Yet in the first week of April 2010 an event occurred that may not be called a disaster but the exposed the hollowness of the system that should have prevented it from happening.
Some people working in a scrap yard in Mayapuri near New Delhi developed symptoms which were diagnosed as radiation sickness. One person died and 11 others were admitted to hospitals. Clearly there was a unacceptable level ( 5000 times more than normal) of radiation somewhere in that area. Fortunately the police and the DAE experts worked thereafter in exemplary manner and soon located the source using gamma spectrometers and gamma Dosimeters. The source of the radiation was cobal60 pencils which were removed from a shiny object called Irradiator. This equipment was sold as a scrap to the scrap dealers in February 2010 and the cobalt 60 pencils were taken out after dismantling the Irradiator for lead and other things. The workers or the scrap dealer had no idea that they were handing a radioactive material and all in the vicinity were affected. The panic spread and wide publicity enhanced it. Added to the confusion was that the irradiator had 16 slots for the pencils and four pencil out of possible 16 were unaccounted for.
Cobalt 60 is a radioactive isotope of cobalt and is a hard, lustrous gray metal used in fabrication work, wielding steel and radio therapy. Exposure to its radiation can cause hair loss, patches on the skin, loss of fingernails and cancer. The irradiator that housed the pencils was bought by the Chemistry Department of Delhi University way back in 1968. It was never used after 1985. After 25 years some one had a brilliant idea of disposing it off as a scrap. DU authorities kept quiet for a good two weeks when the origin of the radio active pencils was being discussed widely. The university acknowledged the origin from its Chemistry department but only after painstaking efforts of police and other investigating agencies finally pointed a finger at them. Then, without losing any time, they apologized and said that a thorough investigation has been ordered etc etc.
Finally by 5th May 2010 all the pencils were recovered and taken to Narona Atomic Power station for storage. However Greenpace Nuclear Energy Campaign declared that the radiation level in the capital is well above acceptable limits, and came from 85 spots. The claim has not been supported by any other agency. The DAE has said further that this was not an isolated case of careless handling radio active material and is one of the 16 cases that it has on record during the past decade. Some material has been recovered but some is still unaccounted for. The DAE did not name any institution or person. It also says that there are about 1800 places in India where radioactive material is being used.
Needless to add that it is a case of criminal and irresponsible behavior by Delhi University. If people manning hot seats are not aware of their responsibility and the relevant rules and regulations, to whom will people look up to? And what about DAE itself? How do they make sure that all the procedures are followed and also all the radio active material is accounted for. After all 1800 places are not too many to be kept track of. Monitoring the status of every material becomes essential when the safe period for which such things are to be stored is not in centuries but in millions of years.