AERB, India And Some Of Its Earlier Activities: Interview With Dr Jack Valentin
I joined the newly established Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) in November 1984 after spending just over 20 years in the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC). While at BARC, I specialized in radiation safety in the applications of ionizing radiation in medical, industrial and research fields
I was among the handful of officers deputed to AERB. DAE delegated to AERB the responsibility to enforce radiation safety in the country and to administer the provisions of the Factories Act 1948 in the Units of DAE.
From August 1987 till retirement on January 31, 2004 I served AERB as its Secretary. One of the functions of AERB as per its constitution order is to “take such steps as necessary to keep the public informed on major issues of radiological safety significance”,
AERB started publishing a newsletter to fulfil a part of its public information plan. While I served as the Editor of AERB Newsletter from its inception 1985 to 2004, I had opportunity to interact with many specialists in different disciplines. The research and development on the biological effects of ionizing radiation is a very interesting and continuing activity. Though experts on the topic claim that ionizing radiation is the most widely studied physical agent, there are several gaps in knowledge. Dedicated R &D in several disciplines such as radiation (biology, physics, chemistry, genetics etc) helped safe application of radiation.
Interviews with specialists
AERB, like most of the other national radiation-safety-regulatory-agencies uses for guidance the recommendations of the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) for enforcing radiation safety. I interviewed Professor Roger Clarke, the then Chairman of ICRP in November 1998 . Eurasia Review published extracts from the interview as a part of an article on April 23 2022.
There is raging controversy on radiation protection-related matters since December 1895 when Professor Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen discovered x rays. The mission of ICRP is to “advance for the public benefit the science of radiological protection by providing recommendations and guidance on all aspects of protection against ionizing radiation.” The specialists in ICRP have been fulfilling this mission with dedication and commitment.
My interview of Dr Jack Valentin
During 2000, I interviewed Dr Jack Valentin, the then Scientific Secretary, ICRP (ICRP, 1997-2008) at BARC while he was on a visit to Mumbai. He is a Ph.D in genetics. He held various positions in research, teaching and forensic laboratory work. The Swedish Radiation Protection Institute (a licensing authority) appointed him in 1983 as one of its Deputy Directors. There, he was first responsible for non-nuclear activities, turning then in 1989 to nuclear energy supervision. In February 1997, he took up his current post as Scientific Secretary of ICRP He has authored about 100 publications and has held various commissions of trust within the area of radiation protection, including an assignment as a member of the Executive Council of IRPA (the International Radiation Protection Association).
We started our interview after paying tributes to the pioneers such as Dr Rolf Sievert and Prof Hultquist from Sweden and Prof F W Spiers, my mentor and Research Guide from England. Rolf Sievert designed and fabricated pressurized ion chambers to measure radioactivity in man
Prof. Hultquist measured radon levels in Swedish dwellings during late fifties. Measurement of radon levels to study its impact on the dose to man became fashionable and important in the late seventies in several countries. Presently, “Radon Week” is celebrated in the USA to highlight the role of radon decay products as a carcinogen.
Dr Valentin acknowledged that some of the earlier papers of Hultquist were written very well. He recollected that there were newspaper clippings stating that the radon levels in some houses are dangerous.
KSP: When the instruments were crude, those who handled them had special expertise. All the care is taken so that measurements made are reliable. Nowadays in view of the availability of computer guided instrumentation, the persons who handle them do not get the insight and understanding of the problems. Prof. Hultquist used very primitive instruments to make very reliable measurement of radon levels. Do you think that sophisticated instruments may come in the way of gaining insight about the true nature of physical phenomena?
Dr. Valentin: I can see your point, and it applies to other areas of science as well, but after all better equipment does permit better science. The important thing is to remember that the demand on brains remains at least as tough as, before, even if modern equipment simplifies some of the manual work.
KSP: I understand you are a geneticist by profession. How did you become a radiation protection specialist? How did you choose this area of specialty?
Dr.Valentin: After graduating in genetics at a department in the University of Stockholm which had interest in the effect of radiation on genes, I began teaching at the University of Gothenborg. Then I wanted to get back to Stockholm as my wife was there. At that point of time, a vacant post was advertised in Stockholm. They wanted a person with radiation protection experience. I applied and got the job. Actually, that, is the way I chose radiation protection for a career.
KSP: How long were you associated with the International Commission on Radiological Protection?
Dr. Valentin: I was elected to the International Commission on Radio- logical Protection in 1989. Before that also I was in contact with ICRP.
Today’s safe limit becomes unsafe tomorrow!
KSP: Historically, In 1934, an exposure rate limit for ionizing radiation was recommended to ensure protection of persons. This corresponded to about 500 mSv/year. In 1950, the ICRP recommendations lowered the permissible exposure rate to 150 mSv/ year. Currently, ICRP recommends a dose limit of 100 mSv averaged over 5 years, in effect, 20 mSv/year. Yesterday’s safe dose limit becomes unsafe today. How will you explain this to public?
Dr.Valentin: That is an interesting question. It is a major problem. In 1934 and 1950, the objective of radiation protection was still limited to protecting radiation workers from deterministic harm. It was not dealing with public safety. Protection of public was not envisaged.
KSP: The information available then was skin damage suffered by those who handled x-ray units carelessly.
Dr.Valentin: That is right. The atmospheric weapon testing during the fifties lead to increased awareness. In 1956, a dose limit of 50mSv per year for workers was introduced. For the first time, a dose limit to public of 5mSv/year was recommended. These recommendations were aimed at protection against stochastic harm. These recommendations recognized the possibility of a linear, non-threshold dose-response relationship. They did not conclude that the doses should be reduced even below the dose limit.- In 1965, ICRP retained the 1956 dose limits, but stated that the doses ought to be reduced if this was readily achievable. In 1977, ICRP observed that the dose limits are not a means to keep doses low but these are values that should not be exceeded. The concept of optimization to keep doses as low as reasonably achievable was put forward.
KSP: The evolution of the philosophy of radiation protection is very interesting indeed. The specialist may fully appreciate the consistency and cogency of the concepts. But public may not follow these nuances. As a matter of fact, public is sensitized about the lowering of dose limits. They may be disturbed by the fact that yesterday’s safe limit becomes unsafe today. How are we sure that today’s safe limit will not be unsafe tomorrow? I used to draw the example of aircraft. Modern jet aircraft is safer than propeller driven aircraft. Notwithstanding this, propeller driven aircraft is still in use. As technology improved, better and safer airplanes were manufactured. Propeller- driven airplanes have their own limitations. Since they are still used, -they are accepted to be safe.
Dr.Valentin: I think that it is a good example. We have increased safety in every field Radiological protection is no exception. It is a fact that society demands more safety in every field of activity.
KSP: But public perception of radiation risk is admittedly disproportionate with any measurable harm. How can we help to improve public perception? Does ICRP add to the confusion?
Dr.Valentin: I agree, at times we add to the confusion! But it is not certainly intentional. I feel that it is better not to trivialize the risk but to evaluate the risk from the practice. There are so many practices. We have to judge them on merit. We accept large risk because of large benefit.
Resources must be spent wisely
KSP: Recently, I saw a report that the Federal Legislation regarding radiation workers in a European country recommends a cytogenetic examination as a part of the routine medical check up. I also noticed a comment that this sounds like the ultimate job-creation scheme for unemployed cytogeneticists!! Do you have any views on the practices?
Dr.Valentin: It is a waste of effort. It is better to spend resources differently.
KSP: The field of radiation protection is unique. Probably in no other field such exacting and very often expensive epidemiological studies of millions of people in dozens of investigations were carried out to establish harmful effect, if any, of an agent. For instance, the study of the survivors of the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki started in during late forties and continues to- date. The Radiation Effects Research Foundation (RERF) continues to publish their important findings.
Dr. Valentin: These are very important studies and must be continued.
KSP: Some of the newer lines of study in radiobiology emerged from unexpected observations. For instance, let us take the example of what is currently called genomic instability.
Dr. Valentin: There are experimental results which appeared to be strange in some ways. They could not be explained according to conventional hypotheses.
KSP: The hypothesis that cells which were exposed to ionizing radiation may transmit some chromosomal instability to daughter cells was exciting enough. I vividly remember the early studies of the irradiation of stem cells by alpha particles. The National Radiological Protection Board has asserted that the estimates of radiation- induced cancer risk in humans have been derived directly from epidemiological observations and are, therefore, independent of the potential contribution from any novel cellular mechanism. Do you think that genomic instability will have any impact on ICRP recommendations?
Dr. Valentin: At present, I find that unlikely, but it would seem wise to avoid being categorical. Genomic instability is an interesting phenomenon. We must investigate it thoroughly. ICRP is interested in all radiation related phenomena.
KSP: Currently the Commission believes that the standards of environmental control needed to protect man to the degree currently thought desirable will ensure that other species are not put at risk. How is it that ICRP made such an assumption? Is there any evidence?’
Dr.Valentin: This is a very timely question. ICRP plans to set up a Task Group to make sure that our next set of basic recommendations provides a rather more convincing section on protection of the natural environment. The present statement is not necessarily wrong, but at the very least it needs to be corroborated by proper references to pertinent research. The rare exceptions that we know of today should be mentioned and evaluated. Perhaps we should even change the vantage point – it may be more in line with regulation of other dangers to say, if possible, that proper protection of the environment will be sufficient to also protect man. We do not currently envisage any significant change to authorized release limits, but we need to argue and express this much more cogently. (Note: this branch received due importance later)
KSP: DNA molecule may have some molecules of radioactive carbon or H3 associated with it. What will be the impact of radioactive decay and transmutation of the element to another element? ICRP is ignoring such events.
Dr.Valentin: I would not say that we are ignoring such events. As a matter of fact, we do not know what the effects are. There have been, similarly, the effects of Auger electrons. For want of adequate information, we are unable to comment on them.
KSP: Any comment on the on-going linear non-threshold controversy on dose response.
Dr.Valentin: LNT concept is simple and practical. Recent studies have shown that there is a statistically significant response at dose levels as low as 5OmSv. There is reasonably acceptable evidence that children x- rayed while they are in their mother’s womb have increased incidence of leukemia. Certainly there are wide uncertainties in the response of any organism to low doses.
KSP: What will be the direction in which the ICRP will proceed in the next ten years?
Dr.Valentin: You have certainly touched on two of the major things: New fundamental recommendations are to be expected around 2005, and protection of the natural environment will be addressed more ambitiously. The new recommendations will, as usual, require detailed guidance which will occupy us later in the ten-year period. Another aspect, which we haven’t talked about, is that ICRP is keen to increase its transparency and make processes and persons involved known. Our ideal is to be well known, well understood and well respected not only among health physics experts but also by environmentalists, users of radiation, and any other persons interested in radiation and in protection against radiation harm. ( Note: these developments took place later)
Dr K S Parthasarathy is a former Secretary of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board. He is available at [email protected]
One thought on “AERB, India And Some Of Its Earlier Activities: Interview With Dr Jack Valentin”
very informative. Such things should be published again if u have more of it. Nowadays we see lot of unwanted things which r of no use to the general public in the facebook.Let these sort of things be an eyeopener to them. Anxiously waiting for more articles.