Are Our Radioactive Devices Safe?
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10 May 2010
By Subodh Varma
With Over 12,000 Civilian Sources Using N-Material All Over India...
With all the cobalt–60 pencils now reported to be safe, the immediate threat of deadly radioactive material on the loose in appears to have receded. But the real question that the Delhi University episode raises is–how safe are the radioactive devices currently in use across the country?
Over 12,000 radioactive sources were in civilian use in 2009 all over the country, in at least 4,398 institutions, according to the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB). Not counted are X–ray units, which reportedly number a staggering 50,000. Use of radioactive sources in medical, industrial and research fields has become widespread in India as the number of nuclear reactors (from which radio–isotopes like cobalt–60 emerge) has increased.
Just five years ago, radioactive materials were being used in about 3,268 institutions and about 35,000 X–ray units. In some specific kinds of uses, the numbers are expanding dramatically. Gamma irradiators for agricultural uses have almost doubled from 8 in 2004 to 15 in 2009, while the number of nucleonic gauges has gone up six–fold from 1,365 to 7,850. Consumer products that use radioctive materials (smoke detectors, electron capture etc.) have increased from 85 to 851. Some of these do not have threatening levels of radioactivity.
Very detailed regulations, on par with global standards, exist for installing, operating, transporting or decommissioning such devices. Users are responsible for implementing these regulations and reporting to AERB.
So, the bottomline is: AERB is giving approvals to, supervising the functioning of and even monitoring closures of 5,000 medical, industrial and research units, and 50,000 Xray units. Their responsibility doesn’t end there. It also monitors 17 N–power plants, and is supervising construction of 6 others. It is also regulating 11 other related facilities like the heavy water units.
Even the country’s five uranium mines and two uranium mills are under AERB supervision. Transportation too has to be done under AERB supervision. AERB cleared an estimated 80,000 transportation applications in 2008. The Board of Radiation and Isotope Technology itself sent 52,000 consignments of isotopes to various users.
For this, AERB has just 170 scientific and technical staff, up from 112 in 2004. But even after expansion, it is impossible for 170 persons to monitor thousands of radioactive sources spread all over the country.
The sad truth is AERB regulatory work has largely become reduced to paperwork. Regulatory inspections by AERB are required prior to installation of any device, during its operation and when it is being decommissioned. In 2004, they carried out 662 regulatory inspections. In 2008–09 it was 110.
Atomic experts say manpower needs to be augmented. Others bat for decentralization of responsibility and training new personnel. Even for periodic inspections of X–ray units, only Kerala government has accepted responsibility.