Frontline, June 4, 2010

by Praful Bidwai / Frontline Column: Beyond the Obvious

In India’s age of philistinism, in which the “god market” flourishes as never before, rank superstition gains new respectability among the country’s elite, vicious male-supremacism drives tsunamis of female foeticide, and obnoxiously casteist and incurably obscurantist khap panchayats order medieval-style lynching of young couples, one might be tempted to look for a modicum of rationalist illumination from our scientific community and the academic world.

There has been, after all, a history of spirited rationalist intervention in Indian society for more than a century—to explain what appeared to be miracles and supernatural phenomena through modern science, to debunk “godmen’s” claims to conjure up vibhuti (sacred ash) and Rolex wristwatches out of thin air, and to show that the “Ganesha-drinking-up-milk” episode had nothing to do with divinity blessing “Hindu India”, as the communalists concluded; it was caused by mundane physical phenomena of capillary action and surface tension.

However, the role of Indian scientists, in particular professors of science at Delhi University—one of our better-rated and relatively well-funded universities—in the cobalt-60 radiation exposure episode at the Mayapuri scrap market in Delhi has been utterly indefensible and egregious. In fact, they caused the exposure to happen in the first place by deciding in unseemly haste to auction off a machine called the gamma irradiator to the scrap trade even while it contained a large amount of radioactivity and posed a serious danger to human, animal and plant health. This deplorable act of self-appointed experts against the public interest raises serious questions about science, ethics and social responsibility. The scientists must be exemplarily prosecuted.

Consider the bare facts. The equipment in question was imported by the University’s chemistry department in 1968 from Atomic Energy Canada Ltd. for certain experiments. It initially contained a formidable 3,000 Curies of radioactivity, about three to four times more than most diagnostic X-ray machines. The Curie is a unit named after Marie Curie, which measures the rate of disintegration of unstable isotopes, releasing radiation. A Curie is 37 billion disintegrations per second.

The equipment was imported on the condition that it would be used in conformity with the rules and norms stipulated by the Department of Atomic Energy, and later, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board; after use, it would be handed over to the AERB for final disposal. There was no ambiguity about this. Under the Atomic Energy Act 1962, the AERB alone is mandated to collect and dispose of radioactive material used in numerous laboratories, hospitals, clinics, industries and other facilities in India, totalling more than 50,000.

The irradiator lay disused since 1985. Suddenly, early this year, the authorities got into a frenzy about getting rid of obsolete furniture and equipment from the science departments—presumably to claim more government grants and new equipment. A 10-member committee was set up under the head of the chemistry department, comprising senior science teachers and administrators to approve the disposal of the irradiator. In February, it unanimously agreed to auction it. Vice-Chancellor Deepak Paintal, himself a reputed scientist, quickly granted his final approval to the decision.

The machine, reportedly containing 16 cobalt-60 needles, which could be placed in 54 optional slots in the chamber, was sold on February 26. It found its way into the Mayapuri scrap market after it was sold, re-sold, melted and broken up into several pieces.

Had the University faculty bothered to read the textbooks it itself uses, it would have found that the half-life of cobalt-60 (period of decay to half its original mass) is 5.27 years, and that even after undergoing about a 250-fold mass loss after eight half-life cycles, the 42-year-old irradiator would still contain high amounts of radioactivity such as 10 to 20 Curies.

These quantities, any decent scientist should know, are unacceptably large. For instance, the United States Environmental Protection Agency sets the maximum permissible limit for drinking water at 8 to 20 trillionths of a Curie for different radiation emitters. Devices containing one-millionth of a Curie are considered too hazardous to be scrapped.

Pental later claimed: “It was calculated that the contents of the equipment … had outlived its radiation time… But the source was much stronger than we had thought.” This ludicrous claim is reminiscent of voodoo science. Either no such calculation was made or the science professors ignored the result and recklessly decided that equipment containing lethal amounts of radioactivity was ready for safe disposal. As for the source being “much stronger than we had thought”, well, that is unbecoming of a half-way rational being. It begs the question, on what basis was this thought other than established science?

It is not known if the University informed the AERB of the irradiator auction and if the AERB acted on the information by demanding an explanation. It would be surprising if either happened given the record of both the institutions. If the University was responsible for exposing poor and innocent scrap-workers to lethal and near-lethal does of radiation, the AERB has long been complicit in unsafe practices and of dereliction of the duty cast upon it to supervise the safe installation, working, maintenance and disposal of all radioactivity-related equipment and material in tens of thousands of institutions and facilities, ranging from hospitals to airports, biological laboratories to industrial radiography units, and from tiny smoke-detectors to big nuclear medicine and radiotherapy centres.

The cobalt exposure revealed itself when a scrap-trader was detected with severe radioactivity burns and hospitalised on April 4. It was not until three weeks later that the source was traced to Delhi University. Even the possibility of this happening had not occurred to the worthy scientists. The AERB played no real role in the tracking. It was the police, using well-established methods of interrogation of traders.

Logically, following this, the AERB should have done the “expert” job it, not the police, is meant to do: estimate the likely exposure from the irradiator between February 26 and late April as it went through various transactions between traders, including its reported transfer to Rewari in Haryana, where its lead cladding was melted, and removal and cutting of the 16 pencils. Each of these operations and phases would have entailed different radioactivity exposures to different groups, particularly after the removal of the cladding and direct exposure to the needles.

There is no evidence that the AERB has even collected the data—including dates of transportation and melting of the cladding, the location and duration of storage, movement and processing of various pieces, etc.—necessary to estimate the scope and intensity of exposure to ensure that no victim is left undetected and untreated. AERB personnel went about the job like clueless amateurs. They did not ask the right questions. They failed to interrogate the University authorities thoroughly. They had no information or advice to offer. They eventually tried to shirk their real responsibility by launching a “training programme” for scrap traders on radioactive waste handling.

The AERB, frankly put, is simply not equipped to handle the responsibility thrust on it, nor seems to have the culture or will to do so. Its 206 personnel, including 167 “scientific” staff, evidently cannot track, control, periodically inspect and monitor and otherwise regulate the 60,000-plus radioactive devices under its charge in non-DAE facilities, in addition to the scores of DAE installations, in respect of which too the AERB is the sole safety-related agency.

The AERB cannot do what nuclear regulatory agencies routinely do in developed countries: draw up thousands of norms and standards for the design, siting and construction of nuclear materials and reactors—down to minutiae like the strength of welded joints—; stipulate what passive and active control systems reactor operators may use; write protocols for recording/reporting routine radioactivity exposure and set permissible limits for it; monitor migratory radiation workers; ensure the safe separation, treatment and storage of wastes; and take punitive measures for non-compliance, including compulsory shutdowns, withdrawal of licences and criminal prosecution.

The AERB has evolved as a subordinate agency of the DAE, which imported designs wholesale from the US and Canada for the Tarapur and Rajasthan reactors respectively and assumed them to be safe and adequate, having no means of evaluating them independently. It has never had, nor sought, real functional autonomy from the DAE. The DAE has a poor safety record and controls the AERB through the Atomic Energy Commission, which the Department’s Secretary chairs.

The AERB has not inquired thoroughly into numerous accidents, mishaps and unsafe procedures in the DAE to analyse causes and suggest remedies. It is yet to offer a half-way credible explanation for last December’s tritium contamination at Kaiga. Its hypothesis, that tritiated water was deliberately introduced into a water-cooler by a saboteur, and its insistence that the plant’s surveillance and entry-restriction procedures were foolproof, make no sense.

The AERB has never explained the Narora turbine-blade failure and fire of 1993 and why the emergency procedures all broke down. The AERB has taken no steps for fire mitigation across DAE installations despite this grave accident and another fire at a Rajasthan reactor in 1985. Equally serious is its failure to tackle the issue of inoperative or dysfunctional safety systems. (For details, see MV Ramana and Ashwin Kumar, Economic and Political Weekly, February 13, and this Column, Jan 1).

Most important, the AERB has failed to enforce its own norms and regulations in non-DAE installations. Two important norms pertain to the safe installation of radiation-emitting equipment/devices, and their final disposal. The AERB is notorious for demanding huge amounts of information from applicants and then not inspecting them for compliance. Often, a bribe to the staff will earn its approval. Worse, the AERB does not track the installations under its charge to estimate the likely end of their economic life, and thus plan inspection and disposal procedures—which it alone is mandated to undertake.

Many scientists who handle radioactive material—and I have interviewed several from three institutes—complain that the AERB routinely ignores requests for guidance on storage and disposal. Often, inquirers are told to dump the material—“informally”, of course. When AERB personnel turn up for inspections or other operations from Mumbai, they often demand to be wined and dined, even bribed, say the scientists who insist on anonymity because they work in government laboratories The result is that a number of sealed sources are regularly dumped and turn up in scrapyards. Other manifestly unsafe practices prevail. Several Indian shipments of steel have been sent back from countries that detected radioactive contamination in them.

Nothing brings out the AERB’s ineffectiveness and dysfunctionality better than the number of inspections carried out on the 8,969 devices in the 3,362 institutions under its charge in 2004-05 and 10,373 devices in 4,133 institutions in 2008-09. (These figures exclude an estimated 35,000 X-ray machines for 2004-05 and 50,000 for 2008-09.) The AERB conducted a measly 127 inspections in 2004-05 in five categories of institutions (radiotherapy, nuclear medicine, industrial radiography, gamma irradiators and nucleonic gauges). The number fell to an even smaller 110 in 2008-09!

The AERB’s book-keeping is extraordinarily sloppy, with incomparable figures for different years. In its 2008-09 report, the number of radiotherapy institutions is mentioned in one table as 239, in another as 249. In 2004-05, the number of research institutions using radioactive material is mentioned as 535 (with just 3 inspections) and those conducting radioimmunoassay as 437 (0 inspections).

One would expect both these to have grown given that many more laboratories now use radioisotopes for chemical, biological, physical and agricultural research. But the numbers mentioned for 2008-09 are considerably lower, 350 and 400 respectively. These defy credulity.

Radiation, like nuclear facilities, is too risky a matter to be entrusted to an inept, careless and sloppy agency like the AERB. Yet, outrageously, the nuclear liability Bill solely authorises this very agency to determine if a nuclear accident (for which liability might arise) has occurred or not. Nothing could be more disastrous. One can only hope that the Parliamentary debate on the Bill leads, with a more thorough discussion on Mayapuri, to a critique of the AERB, and its replacement by a truly independent, well-staffed, competent and honest body. The public has a vital interest in this.—end--