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Scrap Scare

Living with   The Lethal Left Over  

Are nuclear deals just the business of world leaders? Ask the hapless scrap dealer and his men who earned their living from collecting waste in Mayapuri, New Delhi, Asia’s largest scarp market, and who have now been scarred for life after handling sealed containers which landed in their shop as hospital waste, and I am sure they would disagree.

    Here’s why   

They were not aware that the lethal packet contained Cobalt-60, a highly radioactive material used for medical and industrial purposes. Though cobalt radiation is not as fatal as that from high-end nuclear material, it is one of the most serious cases of radioactive radiation exposure in India till date. So you see, world leaders and our Indian netas may pat each other’s back for zeroing in on nuclear energy — the‘cleanest’ option available to the energy-starved Indians, there are some questions that need to be answered first. Here is a sample.

Do we really know how to dispose of nuclear waste ‘safely’?. And should we plunge into the business of energy production before we know enough?. But first things first. Cobalt:60. It is used for medical purposes, industrial radiography for testing and in the food processing industry for irradiation purposes. Like other radioactive material with industrial applications, the isotope is normally housed in a sealed container with lead shielding, within whatever equipment it forms a part of.

   Can we be exposed to Cobalt-60?    

While scientists are investigating the presence of the radiation source in public, all possibilities of the detected cobalt 60 originating indigenously have been ruled out. It is believed to have entered the country after a custom lapse, as part of the imported industrial waste.

“Since we are the sole suppliers of Cobalt-60, it is highly unlikely that the source under study came from indigenous industrial waste,”

Dr SK Malhotra of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre , part of the team investigating Cobalt-60’s presence in Delhi, has been quoted as saying. The Department of Atomic Energy (DoAE) is the sole supplier of Cobalt-60 and other radiation sources for use by indigenous industry or hospitals. The Board of Radiation and Isotope Technology under the DoAE is the principal supplier of such materials and is supposed to follow a strict supplying, monitoring, and retrieving mechanism to ensure safe use and disposal of adioactive waste.

In India, buying and disposing of cobalt 60 and radioactive sources is regulated by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), Mumbai, which implements the Atomic Energy (Radiation Protection) Rules, 2004. The AERB is meant to maintain a ‘cradle to grave' system to keep track of such equipment, including thorough onsite inspections. Every handler of radioactive material must have a radiation safety officer, who becomes the custodian of such material. Any lapse in the disposal invites cancellation of the licence to handle the material by the AERB.

   What form is it in?   

Cobalt-60 occurs as a solid material and might appear as small metal disks or in a tube, enclosed at both ends, that holds the small disks. It can occur as a powder if the solid sources have been ground or damaged.

   What does it look like?    

Cobalt-60 is a hard, gray-blue metal. It resembles iron or nickel.

   How can it hurt me?   

Because it decays by gamma radiation, external exposure to large sources of Co-60 can cause skin burns, acute radiation sickness, or death. Most Co-60 that is ingested is excreted.. However, a small amount is absorbed by the liver, kidneys, and bones, and this can cause cancer because of exposure to the gamma radiation.

   Global Centre for Nuclear Energy Partnership: A step towards energy security? What’s in store for us?   

“We have decided to set up a Global Centre for Nuclear Energy Partnership in India. We visualize this to be a state of the art facility based on international participa - tion from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and other interested foreign partners. The Centre will consist of four Schools dealing with Advanced Nuclear Energy System Studies, Nuclear Security, Radiation Safety, and the application of Radioisotopes and Radiation Technology in the areas of healthcare, agriculture and food.The Centre will conduct research and development of design systems that are intrinsically safe, secure, proliferation resistant and sustainable. We would welcome participation in this venture by your countries, the IAEA and the world to make this Centre’s work a success.” Prime Minister, Manmonhan Singh at the Nuclear Security Summit, in Washington DC.

India more than made its presence felt at the nuclear high table, after being invited on an equal footing with the ‘official’ P5 nuclear powers — China, France, Russia, the UK and the US.

With an energy deficit of about 12 percent, India is struggling to power its economic growth. And nuclear energy is being touted as the most sustainable way for the world's fourth biggest emitter to curb fossil fuel emissions.

But is nuclear technology a viable option? Certainly not until one vital issue has been dealt with. The issue of safe disposal of nuclear waste, which lurks as a spectre, haunting the global nuclear party. The fact is — there is no tested, safe way of storing radioactive waste, which remains hazardous for thousands of years.

    Is it worth the trouble?    

What about the economic viability of nuclear energy? According to experts, Nuclear power represents the greatest industrial failure in world history. According to the US-based energy expert Amory Lovins, a whopping US $1 trillion globally has already been ‘blown up’ in this business. The US, once the world’s leading nuclear power nation, has not ordered a single new reactor since 1973. Nuclear power’s contribution to global electricity generation is stagnant, while safe, non-polluting solar and wind energy are growing at 20 percent-plus annually. According to experts, nuclear energy is going to constitute only eight percent of our energy mix by the year 2020 and 20 percent by 2050.

Obviously, the high cost of fuel and production and the money spent on the maintenance of nuclear reactors will be passed on to the consumer who will use this energy!

Nuclear Developments you ought to keep track of: The Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill: What’s the Controversy?

To what extent will the energy producers be held responsible in case of a disaster? This is what the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill is all about. This is rucial for the foreign companies to tap into energy-starved India’s emerging nuclear power market, says the government. But it was slammed by critics last month, forcing the government to postpone its introduction in Parliament. The Bill seeks to limit the liability of nuclear plant operators and equipment suppliers in case there is an accident involving a nuclear plant.

India and the United States have concluded a nuclear fuel reprocessing agreement that will enable Indian reprocessing of US-supplied nuclear material under safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Since a 2008 US deal ended India’s nuclear isolation of more than three decades, firms from the US, Russia, France, Canada and Britain have been scrambling for a foothold here. Government officials say India's nuclear energy ambitions cannot be realised without this legislation as foreign players will hesitate to establish plants without such safeguards.

And now, folks, the last question we need to ask before we launch the nuclear mission; Can we ever forget Bhopal?

      India experienced the world's worst industrial disasters in 1984, when a gas leak in a Union Carbide pesticide factory in Bhopal killed around 8,000 people.

     Activists claim thousands more have died of illnesses related to gas exposure in the years that followed - bringing the death toll to 25,000 over the past 26 years.

     A further 100,000 people who were exposed to the gas continue to suffer chronic health problems such as cancer, respiratory difficulties, immunity and neurological disorders, and birth defects among children born to affected women, say health workers.

     Social activists in Bhopal say the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill proves that no lessons have been learned.

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Living with the lethal leftover