My latest column (Dev 360) in The Asian Age
April.27 : Cobalt may be a lovely colour in the paintbox. But “Cobalt 60”, the radioactive isotope that made it to a scrap dealer’s shop in Mayapuri, west Delhi, earlier this month, leaving nearly 10 persons seriously ill, is a sign of the insecure times we live in.
More than a fortnight after the incident, we are no wiser about the source of the radioactive scrap. Scientists investigating the presence of the radiation source say that the likelihood of the detected Cobalt 60 being of indigenous origin is pretty slim. They assert that it most probably came as part of the industrial waste imported from abroad. However, we don’t know, as of now, from where or who imported it. Nor do we have any details about its journey from its source to the Mayapuri scrap mart.
What we do know: swadeshi or videshi, the radioactive scrap wreaked havoc. If it is not local, as the scientists tell us, it made it through the customs. This means that one government agency is not to blame, but another is. The moot point: the condition of some of those suffering from exposure to the Cobalt 60 and admitted to the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) is worsening.
Today, Mayapuri, the industrial area dotted with hundreds of tiny scrap-metal shops, is shrouded in fear. Official investigations, using “tele-detectors”, have led to the detection of 11 sources of radioactive Cobalt 60 from the Mayapuri scrap yard. More shop-by-shop searches are on the cards. As a result, Cobalt 60 has blasted its way into public consciousness in India.
That the episode is a telling commentary on our glaringly inadequate mechanism to monitor the movement of such hazardous radioactive waste is obvious. But more than a fortnight after the first detection, it is time to highlight some key issues: when scrap metal is one of the most widely traded international commodities, a better monitoring apparatus in countries like India has to be complemented by better enforcement of export laws in the developed world where much of the hazardous stuff originates. An Indian trader importing scrap needs to obtain a certificate from the exporting country stating that the consignment is free from radioactive material. But since the exporting country is keen on getting rid of such stuff, the scrutiny is less than stringent. Also, there is a desperate need for not only an outraged but a better-informed public — both at home and in countries sending out radioactive scrap.
“Half Life, Radioactive Waste in India”, a report brought out by environmental NGO Toxics Link last year, provides useful context. In 2008, for example, France’s Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) found that the elevator buttons used by Otis Elevator Co. and supplied by French company Mafelec were using materials sourced from an Indian supplier. The buttons had traces of Cobalt 60. The incident came to light when 20 French workers who had handled these buttons were believed to have been exposed to radiation. The contamination posed no threat but ASN raised the alert level as a precautionary measure.
Subsequent investigations by India’s Atomic Energy Regulatory Board tracked the Indian companies which had supplied the products that had been contaminated with Cobalt 60. The contaminated radioactive scrap was tracked to a foundry in Maharashtra which recycles scrap purchased from dealers who import scrap from Europe and the United States and sell to various steel companies in India.
The Toxics Link report said the experts believed that Cobalt 60 could have come from different countries which supply scrap metal to Indian firms for recycling.
Despite such a precedent, and despite the continuing influx of scrap from abroad, India has had no real policy to deal with what is called “orphan radioactive sources”. These are radioactive sources that are outside regulatory control.
According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations nuclear watchdog, there are two main types of radioactive material that may be found in scrap metal. First, radioactively contaminated material that may have been lost from, or never was, under regulatory control. Second, material contaminated with radioactivity in a number of ways, the most likely being from the demolition or decommissioning of a nuclear installation or other facilities that had used radioactive material.
How to protect people from radioactive material that can end up at junk and scrap yards was the subject of discussion at an international conference on Control and Management of Inadvertent Radioactive Material in Scrap Metal in Spain last year. Expert recommendations included harmonising the world’s regulatory approaches to radiation safety, based on IAEA safety standards. Another suggestion was to provide better guidance to regulators, scrap dealers, and metal recycling industries on how to deal with problems when they occur.
In the last three years the IAEA is reported to have become aware of around 500 radiation incidents, about 150 of which were related to scrap metal or contaminated goods or materials.
It is vital that all Indian ports are equipped to detect radiation. But, side by side, there is an equal need to upgrade the capacity of workers in the recycling industry. The safety protocol for waste-handlers, now being drafted by the National Disaster Response Force, needs to be accorded top priority.
At a time when India and other developing countries are importing growing amounts of scrap metal, partly to help meet rising domestic demand for steel, the Mayapuri episode offers a valuable lesson. No matter how lucrative the trade is, strict enforcement of rules to keep out the dirty and dangerous stuff, like Cobalt 60, is a must. We need to know what exactly is coming in through our borders and we need to have the resources and equipment to keep out the stuff that puts lives at risk. Anything short of this will lead to more Mayapuris.
Patralekha Chatterjee writes on development issues in India and emerging economies and can be reached at email@example.com