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Lessons to be learnt from Mayapuri

The incident of death from exposure to Cobalt 60 has raised questions about the chinks in radiation policy,from the absence of scanners at major ports to lack of exhaustive data on radioactive instruments....

Written by Kavitha Iyer |
May 2, 2010 10:44:45 pm

The Department of Atomic Energy believes the death of a Delhi scrap market employee after direct exposure to a radioactive source is the first radiation-related death of a common man,and the first death related to radiation from Cobalt 60 anyway,in the country. A former chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board says the Mayapuri incident would be the first incident in the country of several dozen people being exposed inadvertently to high doses of radiation. Clearly,if there is one thing that the Indian nuclear establishment agrees on about the Mayapuri tragedy,it is the lessons to be learnt. “It is an eye-opener for us,” says Swapnesh Kumar Malhotra,head of the DAE’s Public Awareness Division,“even if there was no particular fault of the regulatory body here. But the need to be proactive,to be vigilant is not lost on us.”

The rules regarding licensing,using and disposing radioactive material in India are laid out quite clearly,Malhotra says. In fact,from the handling of prescribed substances to safe disposal of radioactive waste,and from control of food irradiation facilities to general radiation protection,the AERB has clearly defined rules for pretty much any activity involving radioactive substances. And these mandate that the AERB does not permit the disposal of any such material,however old or even long past its half-life,in the public domain. “Even if its radioactivity is close to zero,the place for all such material is the DAE or the AERB,” says Malhotra,emphasising that it could have been plain ignorance that led to Delhi University officials choosing to auction an item that clearly had a shielded radioactive source.

The laboratory equipment in question,he says,was purchased in 1968,many years prior to the formation of the DAE. “Even assuming that they then had permissions from the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre,they were still mandated to contact the DAE regarding its disposal,” he says.

While the DAE and the AERB are in touch with several dozen institutes of higher learning that have some radioactive substances or consumable isotopes,there could be other equipment,not unlike the piece auctioned by DU’s Chemistry Department,purchased long before the DAE was formed,agrees A Gopalakrishnan,former chairman of the AERB. “The rules are properly set out,” he says. “Individual accountability and people’s involvement is what is missing.”

The list of bodies that may be in possession of radioactive material is a long one: Medical institutions including hospitals that own teletherapy machines for radiation oncology (almost universally using Cobalt 60),those offering brachytherapy,nuclear medicine in the form of radiopharmaceuticals (consumable,therefore not returnable to DAE),irradiators of medical products,some universities,industrial radiographers,gamma ray scanners,nucleonic guages for non-intrusive measurements,etc.

The licencing for these uses as well as regulatory procedures including periodic inspections are the responsibility of the DAE. But there are chinks,from the absence of radiation scanners at major ports to the lack of exhaustive data on instruments such as the one that led to the Mayapuri incident.

“Obviously,this equipment should have been handed back to BARC,” says

P K Iyengar,former chief of BARC,about the Mayapuri scrap market radiation. “Every radioactive source,whether made or imported,is registered with the AERB. Even a change in its location requires AERB permission.” He cites an example when,years ago,radon that had outlived its use in the brachytherapy division of the Tata Memorial Hospital was dealt with by BARC. “Even if the radioactivity of a source is significantly reduced over the years and ceases to be useful for the purpose it was serving,proper regulations and procedures are to be followed for its disposal,” says Iyengar. There is obvious lack of coordination in the university system,he says.

Malhotra recounts an incident a few years ago,when some South Mumbai fruit-sellers were spotted displaying their wares on crates that had the popularly recognised internation symbol for radiation,the trefoil. “I went along with the team—there was no radioactivity in the area. But the symbol created some panic,” he says. “So,awareness is the key and we hope to launch an initiative to educate people,especially those dealing in scrap,regarding radiation and its regulations.” The DAE awareness drive will start,in a couple of weeks’ time,from Mayapuri.

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