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India: Radioactive Quandary – OpEd

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Health, commercial, agriculture, and research applications all make significant use of radiological sources. While the positive effects of radiological resources are well-known, there is widespread fear that terrorists would use these materials to assemble a Dirty Bomb or ‘Radiological Dispersal Device (RDD)’. RDDs can also be used for making Radiation Emission Devices (REDs), which can induce radiation exposure to a wide number of people in a confined area. These radiological materials are readily available due to their widespread use in the civilian field. Established civilian applications include sterilisation and nutritional irradiation, teletherapy single and multi-beam therapy, commercial x-rays, brachytherapy high or low dosage, irradiation and blood research, level and transporter gauges, thermo isotope generators.

The threats are heightened by the lack of effective implementation of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s regulatory framework that covers nuclear sources ‘from cradle to grave’. For instance, 36 States recorded 189 cases, including the trafficking and malicious use in nuclear or other radioactive material in 2019, according to IAEA Incident and Trafficking Database (ITDB) 2020 Fact Sheet. Around 1993 and 2019, there were 3,686 accidents and cases. 

Case of India

On May 06, 2021, the Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) detained and registered a First Information Report (FIR) two people including Jagar Jayesh Pandya and Abu Tahir Afzal Hussain Choudhry in Nagpada, Maharashtra, India, for attempting to export seven kilograms and 100 grams of highly radioactive uranium (from a scrap market) for a price of about Rs. 21 crores. In 2016, Thane (Maharashtra, India) police detained two people when they were attempting to sell eight to nine kilograms of depleted uranium for Rs. 24 crores.

According to Anil Kakodar, former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, “factories using uranium as a counterweight in their machines are mandated to contact the Atomic Energy agencies and return uranium to them. They, however, resort to short cuts and sell the entire machine with uranium in scrap.” In 2013, the communist guerrillas in northeast India illegally collected uranium ore from a government-run milling facility and locked into high explosives to make a dirty bomb prior to the police arrest. In April 2010, nuclear contamination in a scrap market in led to the death of a worker and the injury of several others was a startling reminder of weak nuclear material regulation in India. In 2009, a nuclear reactor employee in southwest India killed hundreds of his coworkers with a radioactive isotope, taking advantage of various security flaws at the site.

In 2008, a criminal group was arrested in an attempt to traffic low-grade uranium in a rudder device used in one of India’s state-owned mines across the borders to Nepal. In Bangladesh, in the same year, another gang was supported by an employee in the Indian Nuclear Minerals Division, who controls the extraction and processing of uranium. On February 25, 2004, international media reported that India confirmed 25 cases of lost or stolen radioactive material from its laboratories to the IAEA, wherein 52 per cent of these incidents were due to ‘theft’, while 48 per cent were attributed to the ‘missing mystery’. Then, in 2003, members of the Jamaat-ul- Mujahideen party were arrested with an allegedly illegally produced 225 gramme of milling uranium from a mining company to use explosives in a village near the border of Bangladesh. Indian authorities initially said it originated from Kazakhstan, but later concluded that it originated in the Jadugoda, Eastern India uranium mining complex. The Nuclear Security Index’ global rankings have also given India a poor assessment.

Challenges and Way Forward for India

The “orphan” materials are one of the main obstacles for Indian Nuclear Safety such as Cobalt-60 case in 2010 in India. This is not special to India, and several significant events have occurred worldwide as well. Indian case, however, demonstrated a severe deficiency in the country’s nuclear safety and security system. The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) of India and the University Grants Committee have sought to deal with the problem since the Mayapuri incident in 2010, and have introduced further guidelines for handling radiological resources.

In May 2010, the AERB organised an awareness camp on the protection, the legal and the legislative aspects during the handling and disposal of radioactive materials for the Mayapuri scrap dealers. In a brief publication, Nuclear Safety in India, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) of India also pointed out that after the incident in 2010 it “reinforced the AERB guidance on the use of radioisotope-based scientific equipmen”.

However, these ‘camps of awareness’ and seminars do not seem to take place often. They must, in terms of the numbers of States and stakeholders, also be extended. It is not known if there has been a substantial increase in awareness regarding handling radiological materials since the Mayapuri event. In addition to awareness camps, nuclear energy agencies in Mayapuri have reportedly mounted radiation sensors which have been withdrawn in 2013. Whilst the nuclear energy agencies reaffirm and emphasise enhanced strategies and procedures for radiologic security, much depends on the enforcement and application with revised regulations. The AERB says that its inventory has been upgraded and its compliance inspections of radiation systems have been improved.

Another problem is the inventory control for India. It reveals the availability of orphan radioactive materials. With the widespread use of radioactive materials in both the medical and business markets, State’s full authority over all sources for radioactive use is of utmost necessity. The challenge of monitoring these channels 24/7 seems unmanageable but that does not mean that India should abandon nuclear safety and security protocols. In view of the latest incident in Nagpada, Maharashtra, India should consider a 24/7 monitoring mechanism on an electronic database system. The future incidents may be avoided by an automated national surveillance system.

In December 2013, the 2013-2014 report by the Public Accounts Committee on AERB operations brought some of these questions to the Parliament of India. As many of the diagnostic facilities are not registered with AERB, there is a doubt about the effectiveness of the regulatory framework. The President of AERB, for example, acknowledged the negligence of the AERB to the Public Accounts Committee on a particular question on the registration and review of these facilities thereafter. “The central agency with 300 engineers and scientists cannot control 50 odd thousand x-ray machines,” he said.

In this regard, inventory control regulatory activities can be strengthened by a more decentralised framework of administrative frameworks such as the Radiation Safety Directorate. The lack of a separate, centralised database incorporating information or radiological event notifications, like sabotage, fraud, unintentional abuse or unlawful trade, would be a related problem. Probable solution includes criminal prosecutions and inquiries, but the review process should also be expanded with respect to the administrative activities of India. Therefore, India should strive to streamline and synchronise the mechanism in accordance with international policies and practices.

*Adeel Mukhtar and Atif Aziz, Islamabad Policy Research Institute

One thought on “India: Radioactive Quandary – OpEd

  • May 21, 2021 at 4:13 pm
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    Uranium is totally unsuitable for an RDD and I wonder what this RED is! You seem to be jumping on the false crisis that Senator Malik has created in the Daily Times. Here is what I posted there.

    Uranium is not highly radioactive. The Uranium has been described by the Indian authorities as Uranium metal and it is not enriched Uranium, but the natural Uranium metal which is 99.3% Uranium-238 which is one of the least radioactive natural elemental isotopes with its half-life of 4.5 billion years (the age of the Earth). Uranium-235 is only 0.07% of natural Uranium and it is a bit more radioactive with a half-life of 700 million years. Highly radioactive applies to isotopes that have short half-lives. Polonium-210 which was used to kill Alexander Litvenko in London has a half-life of 138 days. Cobalt-60 has a half-life of 5.27 years. Cesium-134 has a half-life of 2.06 years and Cesium-137 another volatile fission product has a much longer half-life of 30.2 years. These are all substantially more radioactive than even Uranium-235 with its 700 million year half-life.

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