Warning! Radiation risk

The recent case of improper disposal of radioactive waste in New Delhi has highlighted the need to be careful in handling such materials, says Roopinder Singh

We are all afraid of radioactivity, yet it plays a vital role in our lives. It is terrible when things go wrong, like they did on April 27, 1986 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, which is considered the worst nuclear power plant accident in history. The plant was located in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, part of the former Soviet Union. Reactor number four at the Chernobyl plant, had a meltdown, which resulted in a fire that caused radioactive fallout into the atmosphere.

Not only was the nearest town, Pripyat, effected, so were large parts of the western Soviet Union, eastern Europe, western Europe, and northern Europe. There have been other disasters, yet nuclear energy is sought as a major resource for the energy-deficient world.

How does a nuclear reactor work? Nuclear power stations use uranium in fission reactions as a fuel to produce energy. They use the heat released during the fission process to generate steam, which turns a turbine to produce electric energy. Of course, the whole process is complex, and operators have to be constantly on the guard to ensure that safety standards are strictly adhered to.

Even though it should always be treated with respect, there are many practical applications of radioactivity or radiation. Radioactive materials are involved in the study living organisms, diagnosing and treating diseases, in testing all kinds of industrial objects, including aircraft and ships, and in sterilising medical instruments and food, etc.

Radioactive Iodine-131 is used to study the function of the thyroid gland by doctors. It is a tracer, i.e. a radioactive element whose pathway through which a chemical reaction can be followed. Similarly, there are other applications for medical usage.

Some universities are also allowed to use radioactive materials, and it was one of these that was the cause of all the trouble in Delhi. A gamma irradiation machine was imported from Canada in the 1970s for use in experiments by chemistry students. It was built by Atomic Energy of Canada Limited. in 1968, had been in disuse since 1985. The machine was auctioned away to scrap dealers on February 26 this year.

The scrap went to the Mayapuri, where workers, unaware of its lethal contents, set about dismantling it by removing the protective lead cover, and thus exposing themselves to the radioactive Cobalt-60 isotopes inside it. Although decaying, the radioactive substance was of high intensity and thus the people directly involved in handling the pieces were exposed to high doses of radiation. Severe radiation poisoning was seen in seven persons, one of whom died recently. The other six are also in various hospitals.

Initial media speculation centred around a foreign source of the material, a highly likely scenario since 4,000 tonnes of junk metal is imported as scrap in India every day. Later, the police found that the machine had come from the chemistry department of Delhi University.

The company that supplied the machine apparently responded to the query with great efficiency and supplied the details of the transaction within a few hours. Officials of the AERB and the National Disaster Management Authority surveyed the largest junk market in India and located the radioactive sources and secured them. Thus ended the latest crisis, which had resulted the in the first the first radiation death in the country.

We need to learn our lessons. There is no doubt that a casual attitude towards the disposal of radioactive waste from sources other than nuclear plants has seriously exposed Indians to hazards.

The fact is that thousands of tonnes of scrap metals and waste materials are imported into Indian every day and there is a possibility of radioactive material slipping through the ports. Scanners and other safeguards are absolutely necessary to ensure that such hazardous materials are not allowed to slip into our shores.

Caution has to be the byword while dealing with materials that can be of immense use on the one hand, and harbingers of death, in case, they are misused.

This article was published in the Science and Technology section of The Tribune.

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