Chinks in the nuclear armour

Mayapuri leak highlights faultlines in management of nuclear facilities.

Last Updated: May 26, 2010, 10:13 AM IST

Grace Boyle

On 14th May 2010, Greenpeace radiation safety experts conducted a survey of the area near shop D-2/32 of Mayapuri scrap market, West Delhi. They found at least six ‘hotspots’ in which the radiation dose rate was between 200 and 500 micro sieverts per hour at ground level. Two of the hotspots gave a reading of 500 micro sieverts per hour: 5000 times the naturally-occurring background level.

An area near shop D-2/32 of about 40-60m wide was further identified as a contaminated zone, although the levels of gamma radiation here were lower. Analysis of the findings showed the source of the gamma radiation to be Cobalt-60.

The notion of harmful, radioactive Cobalt-60 loose in the midst of the densely-populated national capital has unfortunately become a not unfamiliar one in the last two months.

The first scrap shop worker was hospitalised in early April with blackened skin, withering nails and falling hair. After his symptoms were recognised to be those of Acute Radiation Syndrome, the story slowly began to unfurl: a gamma irradiator auctioned off by Delhi University for scrap, the nuclear safety authorities unaware of its existence; the near month it took for the authorities to recover ‘all’ of the missing radioactive metal while people continued to live and work in the area; the eventual death of one man and hospitalisation of several others.

The failure on the part of the authorities was two fold. The auctioning of radiological equipment such as a gamma irradiator for scrap establishes the failure of the regulatory body in the first, and the slow and ineffectual management of the disaster in the second.

The fact that the radiation levels were still so high on May 14th, more than a month after the incident came to light, further establishes the failure on the second count. The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), the nodal department in India’s nuclear affairs, had issued a press release on 9th April stating that ‘radiation in the entire area has come down to a normal background level’, and removed the cordoning which had previously been keeping the public from the contaminated zone. The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), the body charged with overseeing the safety of all nuclear operations in India, also issued a statement the following day proclaiming ‘natural background levels’ to be present and the area ‘safe’.

Yet on 13th April the DAE returned to remove more radioactive Co-60 contamination from the Mayapuri area, and on 16th April another press release from the AERB again confirmed the radiation to be at ‘safe background levels’.

It was nearly a month later that the Greenpeace survey identified spots in which the radiation was 5000 times higher than the background level.

The levels of radiation found remaining would not cause immediate effects such as death or Acute Radiation Syndrome and so, without this survey’s alert, the contamination could have gone unnoticed for a long time. But the levels were high enough for a person squatting next to the most radioactive hotspots to be exposed to the maximum permissible annual dose limit for radiation in India in a matter of just two hours.

The health consequences of this amount of radiation include significantly increased cancer risk in a number of years.

When presented with the Greenpeace results, the authorities immediately organised a decontamination effort on 16th May, while in their communication claiming they had already known of the radiation levels.

A Fault in the Structure

The AERB is the body charged with ensuring the safety of all of India’s civilian nuclear operations, including 19 nuclear power plants and over 52,000 radiological facilities. While the University of Delhi was unquestionably at fault in the Mayapuri case, the ultimate responsibility for society’s safety falls on the AERB, as far as nuclear matters go.

The Mayapuri accident cannot be seen as an exceptional occurrence. Rather, it serves to highlight the faultlines in India’s ability to govern its nuclear and radiological facilities with any acceptable degree of safety.

There have been 16 reported occurrences in which a radiation source has been lost, stolen or misplaced from a radiological facility in the last ten years alone. In 11 of these, the AERB was unable to recover the source. Stories of fires, leaks, and blunders in the country’s aging nuclear power plants are abound, but are saved from public examination by the excuse of security.

The Atomic Energy Act of 1962 has not kept pace with the recent political developments in the field of civilian nuclear technology, and there is no distinction between civilian and military nuclear operations. All nuclear affairs are ‘exempt from disclosure’ in the Right To Information Act of 2005. One of the motives for this secrecy is the fear that a nuclear installation could be attacked, and so we as Indians have accepted a level of secrecy in return for the assurance of our safety.

Yet, the Mayapuri accident indicates this trust has been abused.

The AERB as a regulatory body has failed on multiple fronts. It has denigrated itself in the eyes of the public, and the authorities can no longer hide their negligence under the garb of security.

Implications for Nuclear Industry

The Mayapuri accident shows India does not have emergency preparedness and management for radiation-related incidents. There are inadequacies in both the existing policy framework, and further, a dangerous gap between policy and reality.
The proposed expansion of nuclear industry to generate 20,000 MW of power by 2020 and 63,000 MW by 2032 is both foolish and dangerous without the proper institutions and regulations to vouch for the safety of Indian citizens.

There are implications too for the proposed Nuclear Liability Bill, which has been the subject of much heated debate and is currently deferred to the standing committee. The level of compensation awarded in what has been, thankfully, a relatively small scale of radiological accident would immediately dwarf the bill’s proposed Rs. 500 crore cap on liability if it were extended to anywhere near the amount of people who would be affected in the event of a large-scale nuclear disaster.

Yet industry and government will not even publish a full assessment of the risk of each operating nuclear power plant and other nuclear installations.

There needs to be a full and transparent debate on nuclear safety and the issue of liability in the case of a nuclear accident. It must include all those who stand to have their lives and livelihoods affected by such an accident. Only then will we be able to take an informed decision on whether we wish to follow the nuclear path (importing foreign nuclear reactors and technology) or choose a clean and sustainable energy future.

(The author works with Greenpeace India and these are the views of the organisation)