Nuclear Responsibility: Security Failures Across the Border

It is surprising that neither the media nor the government nor non-governmental organizations in Pakistan or elsewhere have taken note of the recent radiation exposure accident in New Delhi: it resulted in one fatality and radiation injuries to at least ten members of the general public. The accident, with obvious nuclear security connotations, has provisionally been classified as a level four event on the INES (International Nuclear Event Scale) – similar to the Tokaimura criticality accident in Japan (1999) and just one level lower than the Windscale Reactor Accident in UK (1957) , the Three Mile Island reactor accident in USA (1979) and Goi?nia accident in Brazil (1987) all of which were grade five nuclear accidents.

In hindsight, the most significant aspect of the event is not only that the general public has been affected, or its INES classification, but rather the incompetence and irresponsibility displayed by the Delhi University, the AERB (Atomic Energy Regulating Board) and the DAE (Department of Atomic Energy) of India. Their approach in this affair has been unbelievably out of norm, particularly in the context of present day standards. Even though three months have elapsed since the occurrence of the accident, neither the outcome of any in-depth formal inquiry nor the assignment of responsibility by the government of India has surfaced. IAEA was not initially informed; it came to know of the accident on its own through sketchy media reports.

Accident Background

In order to understand the seriousness of the event it is necessary that some of its details be described. The Chemistry Department of Delhi University acquired a gamma irradiator from Canada in 1970. The irradiator had in-built Cobalt-60 (Co-60) radioactive sources. There were 16 capsules each of which had 7 pellets of Co-60. The university was given authorization to acquire the large source and utilize it for the intended purpose(s) by the then Directorate of Radiation Protection of India.

Pawned Off to the Ignorant

The facility ceased to be used in 1985 and was placed in storage in the department until March 2010 when it was callously auctioned to a scrap dealer and finally disposed off.

Completely unaware of the hazardous radioactivity, the dealer was only interested in the heavy metallic structure of the irradiator. Accordingly, he removed its outer lead shield and dismantled the section containing Cobalt-60 sources at his Mayapuri workshop located in the suburbs of Delhi. The exposure to dangerous radiation and the resulting after-effects came to light on April 7, 2010 from report of a patient (who happened to be the dealer himself) with suspected radiation symptoms having been admitted to a hospital in New Delhi. In the following days six more people with symptoms of radiation exposure were admitted to hospital. The original patient died on 26 April due to multiple organ failure.

The average radiation field around radioactive sources in the Mayapuri dealer?s shop with sources buried under the rubble was found to be at a high of 500 R (Roentgen) per hour ? a dose which will result in certain death with only a few hours of exposure. A typical dose of normal background radiation for human beings is just 0.2 R per year.

In spite of a vigorous cleaning operation, even a full month later on 14 May several ?hotspots? were identified in Mayapuri where doses far exceeded the allowed annual dose limit.

The episode is not yet over as the spread of contamination is yet to be fully ascertained. The AERB, in trying to treat the accident in a hush-hush manner, has announced the affected Mayapuri area to be clean several times, only to be proved wrong later. The spread of contamination is far and wide. The lead radiation shield has yet to be recovered. It is believed to have been melted and resold. This again is a matter of considerable concern and
anxiety.

Who’s Responsible?

Delhi University should either have returned the Gamma Cell to the original supplier country (Canada) else handed it over to the DAE or AERB for its proper disposal. In clear disregard of the rule of conduct, it chose to auction it to the people who were quite evidently unaware of the danger associated with it. Besides Delhi University, AERB is also culpable because apparently it never bothered to inspect the irradiation facility, at least after it ceased to be used. It would have been a more serious violation of IAEA Code of Conduct, if, to begin with, the source was not listed in the inventory register.

Easy Prey for Nuclear Miscreants

A frightening aspect of this episode is that, had the radioactive source fallen into the hands of terrorists, it could have been used in a terror weapon by incorporating it in an explodable device, a so-called “dirty bomb”. According to present day norms and standards of nuclear security, of which the Government of India is fully aware, it is an unpardonable offense to transfer a high strength lethal radiation source to the open market. This highly irresponsible behaviour of the Delhi University, in complicity with the AERB and DAE, must not be ignored.

The Mayapuri Radiation Accident, as it has come to be known, originated in our neighboring country, India, which was in the forefront of drafting the IAEA Code of Conduct for secu-rity and safety of nuclear sources. Not only that, it has also been very active in raising doubts and apprehensions about the security of our nuclear assets. And to add further irony, the incident occurred on the eve of the Nuclear Security Summit (Washington D.C, April 12-13, 2010) convened by the American President and attended by 46 countries including India and Pakistan. It is thus even more surprising that this event was not mentioned in the Conference convened precisely to discuss ways to prevent such episodes. The Indian Prime Minister must have come out of it a very relieved man in having avoided all accountability for it on the international stage. Based on past experience, it couldn?t possibly have been treated as such an insignificant event had it taken place in a country like ours!

This is not the first time that accidents involving inappropriate handling of radioactive material have emanated from India. Almost two years back, Germany reported finding radioactive steel coming from India. The French followed with reports of radio-active buttons in elevators originating from radioactive steel, again from India. It is amazing that even after this, the government of India and its agencies took no step regarding the prevention of such incidents. The Delhi University case also shows that AERB needs to strengthen its monitoring and tracking of all radioactive sources. Sadly, the response from AERB and DAE does not show an increased awareness on this front at all.

This incident also needs to be seriously discussed and analyzed within our own relevant institutions, and appropriate lessons learnt from it. The Government of Pakistan may ask the IAEA to ensure a transparent inquiry into the accident with full participation of independent observers from IAEA Member States.

It is disappointing to note that the IAEA has not yet detailed a team of its own to visit the Mayapuri site and interview the irrespon-sible people in Delhi University, and also to examine the control mechanisms exercised by the AERB and DAE. This it must do without loss of time in the interest of all States.

    Author Information

    Iqbal Ahmed, is a former Chief Scientist and Director of Institute for Nuclear Power (INUP); and former Director and Advisor to the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) on Nuclear Power. He has served as a research scientist at Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Science & Technology (PINSTECH) and as a Plant Physicist at the Karachi Nuclear Power Plant (KANUPP). He has taught at KANUPP Institute of Nuclear Power Engineering (KINPOE) affilia-ted with NED University He has also been a visiting scientist to RIS (Denmark), ICTP (Trieste-Italy), Beijing Institute of Nuclear Engineering (BINE), AECL/OH (Toronto ? Canada) and Josef Stefan's Institute, Ljublana, Slovenia. In June 2009, Mr. Ahmed completed work on the development of the 'Master Plan for Sustainable Nuclear Power Development (SNPDMAP)'. He has authored numerous international publications.

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