Cobalt-60 is in Delhi

Authorities unsure how to check entry of radioactive material in scrap

By Jyotika Sood, Ruhi Kandhari
Published: Saturday 15 May 2010

radiation scientists recovered pieces of radioactive material, Cobalt-60, from the Mayapuri scrap market in Delhi early April after eight persons complained of radiation sickness. The victims suffered burn-like injuries and extreme low blood count, and were hospitalized in intensive care.

The Department of Atomic Energy (dae), which regulates entry of radioactive substances, has no idea where the scrap came from. Head of dae’s public awareness division, S K Malhotra, said since no industrial unit in India produces Cobalt-60 wires the waste could be from a country that supplies metal scrap to India.

dae’s statement pointed fingers at the commerce ministry which monitors the entry of metal scrap to India. A director in the ministry, on condition of anonymity, said import of radioactive material, legal or illegal, should be known to dae. Secretary of the Atomic Energy Regulation Board, Om Pal Singh, said radioactive waste enters India due to security lapses and lax enforcement of hazardous waste rules.

While dae and commerce ministry blame each other, junk traders asserted most imported metal scraps contain radioactive material. “Labourers working in the scrap industry are exposed to radioactive metals daily, right from the collection points at ports to recycling units,” said a junk trader who imports scrap through Alang port in Gujarat. He said there is no way to trace radioactive wastes at ports.

Responding to a question in Rajya Sabha on April 20, science and technology minister Prithviraj Chavan said of all the ports, only Nhava Shava in Mumbai has two scanners to detect radioactive material in containers.

Environmental activist Gopal Krishna said most hazardous waste including radioactive material is imported under the garb of scrap. The wastes are usually from decommissioned nuclear reactors and hospital radiation equipments. Ships that come to Indian ports for dismantling also contain radioactive waste. We don’t have stringent policies to tackle the situation, Krishna said.

A week before the radiation mishap, the environment ministry notified an amendment to the hazardous waste (management, handling and transboundary movement) rules saying metal scrap dealers should register with the state pollution control board. “The amendment decentralizes monitoring system,” said Ravi Aggarwal of non-profit Toxics Link. “But it does not specify who will monitor radioactive waste when it comes via scraps.”

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