THREE weeks after a Delhi scrap dealer was exposed to cobalt-60 and developed acute radiation sickness, the radioisotope was finally traced to a Delhi University chemistry laboratory.
Radiation is an especially insidious poison, being invisible. One of the 11 exposed scrap-workers died. Others are, reportedly, gravely sick.
This exposes the irresponsibility of Delhi University and the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board and the incapacity of Indian agencies to cope with mishaps. In February, the university prematurely auctioned a gamma irradiator to a scrap dealer. The apparatus, containing cobalt-60, was imported in 1968.
A university committee certified that disposing of the entire 300 kg assembly, including cobalt pencils and lead containers, would be safe. The poisoning was revealed six weeks afterwards.
It's extraordinary that a committee of science professors assumed that the cobalt-60 irradiator, a powerful source with 3,000 Curies (a unit of radiation), had ceased to be hazardous.
The half-life of this radioisotope -- the time during which it naturally decays to half its original mass -- is 5.27 years. This means that about 10-20 Curies would still remain even after 42 years. Even one-billionth of a Curie is harmful. The US Environmental Protection Agency sets a limit of 8 to 20 trillionths of a Curie per litre for water.
The university committee's indefensible decision to auction the irradiator endangered the lives of innocent scrap-workers. Its members must be severely punished.
The other authorities haven't conducted themselves exemplarily either. The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board was slow to find the irradiator's 16 cobalt needles It couldn't track the source of the cobalt-60 -- the police did.
Three other scrap traders were involved, and groups of workers were exposed to the cobalt-60 at different intensities for different durations. Also, the irradiator assembly was reportedly sent from Delhi to Rewari in Haryana, to be melted in a furnace. Everyone who handled, transported or stored the needles would have been exposed.
It's imperative to scientifically establish the whole chain of transactions, detect every case of radiation injury and extent of exposure and treat it over long periods.
However, the AERB hasn't done this -- despite help from the Canadian exporter of the irradiator. This is how the AERB and its parent, the Department of Atomic Energy, function.
The DAE has never met a target or completed a major project within budget or on time --despite generous subsidies. By its own projections, it should have installed over 50,000 MW by now. The current installed nuclear capacity of 4,100 MW -- 3 percent of India's total electricity capacity -- has cost thousands of people their health and safety.
Shielded by the Atomic Energy Act, the DAE isn't accountable to the public. It has a poor safety culture. The AERB, set up to regulate the DAE's installations for safety, has no independent personnel, equipment or budget, nor even the will, to gain functional autonomy within the DAE. Instead, it has imbibed the DAE's callousness.
The AERB's performance as the regulator of all non-DAE radiation-related equipment and activities has been equally irresponsible, shoddy and corrupt.
The AERB -- created in 1983 -- has no full record of radiation-emitting activities going back to the 1950s. Its current records are also sloppy and its reports incomplete.
There are 50,000 X-ray machines, 735 radiotherapy units, 1,754 industrial radiography units, and thousands of apparatuses and radio-chemicals used in physical, biological, chemical and agricultural experiments in India's public and private laboratories and other facilities.
The AERB is meant to track all these. Under the Atomic Energy Act 1962, it alone is authorised to finally dispose of all radioactive material, which it's legally mandated to collect.
It only rarely monitors regulation enforcement. It doesn't order labs to hand over to it material for final disposal. It doesn't have the personnel, will or culture to track "use-by" dates of X-ray units.
Under the Atomic Energy (Safe Disposal of Radioactive Waste) Rules 1987, any venture using radioactive material must appoint a radiological safety officer. This happens rarely, but the AERB doesn't enforce the rule.
The AERB is supposed to regularly inspect 62,110 installations in 3,210 institutions. It conducted only 110 inspections last year. Of the 16 cases of theft or loss of radiation-related devices reported since 2000, it solved only three.
Scientists in three Delhi-based institutes complain that the AERB never provides technological support or guidance and ignores requests for help with radioactivity disposal. Sometimes, AERB personnel "informally" encourage persistent inquirers to dump the waste. On their rare visits to an institution/lab, they expect to be wined and dined or bribed outright.
The AERB hasn't installed radiation monitors at all major ports and airports. It refuses to monitor radioactive waste-dumping at Alang, the world's ship-breaking capital, itself a big disaster. Now it wants to transfer its responsibility for handling radioactive waste to scrap dealers, whom it proposes to train.
So when Minister of State Prithviraj Chauhan claims that the AERB is efficient and can account for "every gramme" of radioactive material in India, and hence the Delhi cobalt-60 was illegally imported, he talks through his hat.
The AERB's failure has allowed metallic products recycled in India to be contaminated with radioactivity. Many countries have recently refused shipments of Indian-made steel after they were found contaminated, including 67 shipments to the US since 2003.
Shockingly, the controversial nuclear liability Bill solely empowers this very AERB to declare that a nuclear mishap has happened, for which the public may be compensated.
The AERB must be made answerable or, better, replaced with a competent and independent agency accountable to Parliament, the public and the Right to Information Act. It should strictly license all nuclear and radiation-related activities and establishments for safety; monitor their radioactive material stocks, safety practices and precautionary approaches; and secure the safe disposal of radioisotopes.
The only way to ensure that the agency does its job is to make it accountable to parliamentary and public oversight -- beginning now. Or else, we'll have more radiation disasters on a horrendous scale.
Praful Bidwai is an eminent Indian columnist.