Pencils, traditionally, have been associated with education and
enlightenment. However, some recent incidents have twisted the equation a bit.
For many right now, pencils signify death and decay, and something much
more-danger! Even as Mayapuri is being sanitized and declared safe, there is a
huge radioactive threat that is resting in our universities. The worst part
however is that no one even knows the size, the quantity or even the magnitude
of the threat.
Delhi University decided to scrap-off and sell an unused gamma irradiator
machine. The machine found its way into the West Delhi junkyard where scrap
dealers/workers dismantled it and in the process got exposed to radiation. This
resulted in one dead person and a few critical ones. And the possibility of
life-time impact on many people exposed to radiation. It took several days to
determine where the radioactive material originated from. At last, one of
India's most prestigious universities was found guilty.
Special Radioactive Team for CWG
Following the Cobalt-60 nightmare in Delhi, the government has alerted the
army about a Chemical Biological Radio and Nuclear (CBRN) threat ahead of
Commonwealth Games 2010.
Six battalions under Delhi-based 60 and 35 brigades are undergoing the CBRN
training in their respective formation and will also have a joint training
capsule with Delhi Police.
The army is constituting a quick reaction mobile team (QRMT), comprising a
nuclear, biological, chemical (NBC) platoon, a medical team and an infantry team
of 70-80 personnel, which be inducted and mobilized in no time.
The scary bit however is that many such monsters are lurking around, and if
we don't act now we might just be inhabitants of a radioactive city in the near
future. According to a university professor, who prefers to remain anonymous,
the machine that was disposed off had not been used by the labs since the year
1985. Why? Because, apparently, the person incharge of it retired and no one
else was recruited in his place. And when the machine was considered to be
nothing more than space consuming junk, it was decided that it should be sold
off. And although there is the ugly possibility of no one knowing that it
contained the radioactive Cobalt 60, the more real possibility seems to be that
people just assumed that since cobalt has a short life, it is no longer
The Big Threat
According to the experts, there is some radioactive material in almost all
fairly advanced science labs in educational institutes. According to rough
estimates, there are close to 25 such labs in Delhi alone and DU North campus
bought the machine somewhere in 1970s. South campus, since it came up only in
1985, purchased the gamma irradiator between 1985-90. Most of the older
universities including JNU and Jamia have supposedly purchased their gamma
irradiators before 1995.
Given the 50 year plus lifecycle of Cobalt, all of these machines should be
radioactive for several years to come.
The big question is- Where are they? Working or idle? and Have some been
What is the accountability process that these universities are following and
are they on some authorities radar?
Besides these universities, there are many other, newer universities that
have purchased machines in the last decade. But no one knows the exact number of
these machines, the number of cobalt 60 pencils that they contain and their
condition and working life. There are no disposal guidelines in place too.
Students and teachers are ill-trained to handle such radioactive materials.
And this assumption (or ignorance) ends up affecting numerous lives. Cobalt 60
has a half-life of 5.27 years. And the approximate life of a gamma irradiation
machine is around 40 years. But Cobalt 60 has 10 life cycles and that implies
that its total life span is 52.7 years. The chemistry department of Delhi
university imported the machine from Canada, and the make was of 1968. Add 52.7
years to that and a conservative estimate states that the Cobalt 60 that rests
in the device will be active till the year 2020.
The machine though was auctioned-off to scrap dealers on February 26, 2010.
According to BR Ambedkar Center for Bio-Medical Research, DU, Director, Ramesh
Chandra said, "Cobalt 60, which is a gamma ray source, is used for industrial
radiography, medico-radio therapy and various lab experiments. Initially, the
(gamma) irradiator had been loaded with 3,600 curies of radioactive cobalt.
Roughly, 14 curies of radioactivity remained in the shell when it was sold off
on February 26."
The strange thing is that Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) confirmed
that they did not have DU in their radar until after the Cobalt 60 incident
happened. The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) officials said they had
identified DU as the source of Cobalt-60 soon after the incident that took place
in the first week of April. What is being hided under the carpet is the fact
that though DU authorities always knew the chemistry labs to be a source of
radioactive cobalt, why did they choose to keep mum on the issue? Another valid
question that emerged is what is the veracity of Chandra's claims that some
radioactive material was buried by DU some 20 years back. Even if the allegation
cannot be proved, there is no denying of the fact that the awareness levels
needed to ensure responsible disposal of radioactive substances are extremely
low, if not non-existent. Although there are a set of guidelines to be followed
for procurement, its usage and disposal is almost entirely ungoverned. In fact,
there are no security officers assigned to the labs. Students and teachers
performing the experiments too don't go through any training modules, the likes
of which have been made mandatory by some universities abroad. The disposal bit
apart, there is a huge risk of even students getting exposed to radiation while
performing their experiments. And the worst bit is that such radioactive
materials might be lying in many labs scattered across the country and yet, no
one knows the amount or the source or even the exact labs. According to a
professor in Jamia, there is some sort of radioactive substance in each and
every lab they have. While that fact in itself is acceptable, what is troubling
is that this radioactive material is not recorded or accounted for. There is no
centralized repository to keep a track of such substances. The most urgent
thing, however, is the mapping that needs to be done of the sources of
radioactive materials across the education canvas. A consolidated database seems
like an apt solution. And there is already some noise around the need for having
a radio safety department or a regulatory watchdog that will frame guidelines on
procurement, use and disposal of hazardous substances by varsities. But all
noise is merely pollution unless translated into action.