Sunday, April 11, 2010

What the radioactive trash found in a West Delhi scrap market says about Nuclear Security

The news that at least 6 people are in critical condition from exposure to the pieces of radioactive Cobalt 60 that wound up in a West Delhi scrap market has to be an embarrassment to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as he prepares to leave for the Nuclear Security Summit being held next week in the US.  Of course, if it turns out that the radioactive material came from in an illegal shipment of trash sent to India from abroad, then other countries may also find themselves with some explaining to do.  Early reports suggest this is likely, because the radioactive material came in a form not manufactured in India.

There are so many ways in which this is disturbing.  The symptoms of radiation poisoning are horrifying: hair loss, burns, blackened skin, damage to bone marrow and organs, etc.  And for those who survive initial exposure, the long term consequences of radiation exposure can fatal as well.  The "good news" is that you can't make an atomic bomb with Cobalt 60, and it has a relatively short half life of just over 5 years.  Of course, that only means half of it will break down in 5 years; it will take much longer for the radiation to dissipate completely. Still, it could be worse; the half-life of uranium-235 is 700 million years.  

Of course, the much-reported bad news is that it is possible to make a conventional "dirty bomb" with Cobalt 60, and that could contaminate a large area with radioactive poison.  Nuclear terrorism is what the Americans plan to talk about at next week's Nuclear Security Summit.  But after what happened in West Delhi last week, perhaps the PM should seek to broaden the scope of the talks to include more than just dirty bombs. Shipments of trash containing radioactive material can kill people, bomb or no bomb.

If you think about it, this incident is also disturbing because of what it says about how we handle hazardous waste generally.  Radiation poisoning is dramatic, but too much exposure to more mundane things, like the mercury in CFL light bulbs, can be just as deadly in the long run.  Rather than write a long essay on the subject, here are a few numbers that may help put things in perspective:

Green Light Toxic Trash Index:
Minimum number of people in critical condition as a result of West Delhi radiation leak: 6
Number of shops that showed "high levels" of radiation on Friday: 5

Number of Indian institutions with "nucleonic gauges": 1,485
Total number of nucleonic gauges in those institutions: 7,850
Number of inspections of these institutions carried out by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) during the 2008-2009 year: 16
Number of industrial radiography units in the country: 505
Inspections of those units done by the AERB during the 2008-2009 year : 39
Number of Delhi hospitals that currently follow safety guidelines set out by the National Disaster Management Authority for dealing with patients exposed to radioactive materials: 1

Minimum number of radioactive sources the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has reported losing track of since 1996: 1,500 
Fraction of those sources that were found to be "untraceable": more than half.

Metric tonnes of waste paper imported by India during 2005-2006 year, according to a recent story in Telhelka: 1,680,000
Number of metric tonnes of hazardous waste that a recycling plant in Roorkie was recently given permission to import from the US and UK: 8,000 
Estimated number of tonnes of hazardous waste produced in India annually: 6,000,000

For reports on the Independent People's Tribunal, go to the Indian Youth Climate Network's blog.  The most recent post is here.  You can find more reports on the blog's home page. If you are reading this on Sunday, you can try watching a live web cast of the proceedings here.  There will be a press conference today (Sunday) at 4 p.m. at the Constitution Club, Delhi.  For more information contact: Sherbanu (9953466107); Purnima 971178868

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