Nuclear negligence: Heads must roll

Posted by on May 6th, 2010 and filed under Health/Medicine, HEALTH/MEDICINE NEWS, Science/Tech. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

With a population of nearly 1.2 billion, human life has never been a premium in India. Thousands die every year due to easily avoidable causes such as stampedes at temples, wilful flouting of road safety rules particularly by state-run buses, people touching live electric wires left loose by government utilities and drowning in open manholes of sewage pipelines.

In April 2010, another unlikely ‘killer institution’ has been added to this list: One of India’s top educational institutions, Delhi University, which operates right under the noses of the ruling establishment.

The university’s dons in the Chemistry Department did not think twice before sending radioactive GammaCell Irradiator 220 lying unused for more than 25 years in a corner to a junk dealer in the heart of the capital. Ten academic experts who were part of the committee that approved disposal of this instrument — which had a Cobalt 60 source that could emit radiation for another billion seconds — without bothering about the stringent rules that govern such radioactive wastes.

Vice Chancellor Deepak Pental, himself another academic veteran, did not even bother to ask routine questions about the equipment, a GammaCell 220 Irradiator, manufactured by Atomic Energy Canada and bought by the university in 1970. The equipment had not been used since 1985 and Delhi University sold it for just of $3,500.

The equipment ended up in a scrap yard in the central Delhi area of Mayapuri and the workers ripped open its metallic seals to process the high quality steel. Eight people who came in contact were affected by radiation and one of them died. This made it the world’s worst case of radiation-related accident in the past two decades and hit worldwide headlines.

The vice chancellor and the university have got away mildly by saying ‘sorry’ and doling out approximately $18,000 from public funds to the victim’s family as compensation. An inquiry has been ordered but since it is a public university, almost all those who had been negligent in handling the radioactive source since 1970 may get away with barely a rap on their knuckles. For, this is a country which has given the ‘licence’ to anything run by the government to kill anyone at will.

Under current regulations, the university is supposed to have a designated ‘radiological safety officer’. Apparently, the university has flouted even this most basic regulatory requirement. If such a person had been there, he/she would have had the list of all radioactive materials within the campus and the experts committee would have at least been alerted about such equipment.

If a similar ‘nuclear negligence’ had been reported from a private institution, the head of the organisation would have put behind the bars at the first sign of trouble. And India’s self-righteous media anchors and myriad activist groups would have gone for the private institution’s jugular. The socialist mindset that still permeates India’s conscience still reveres anything that is run as a public institution and overlooks its repeated safety violations.

Just two examples suffice. The private bus services, called ‘Bluelines’ in Delhi, kill over 500 people a year in road accidents and their drivers are vilified every time there is a new accident. But the government-run Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corp (BMTC), which too sports blue colour, killed over 640 people in 2009 and yet has been hailed and feted for being a model public bus service because it makes tidy profits exploiting its monopoly position.

The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) is a toothless regulator, set up in 1985, used to producing some inane reports about minor safety violations by India’s publicly run nuclear power plants.

If some of the country’s technical experts in India’s top university are callous about disposing of a nuclear equipment, nothing much can be expected from a few hundred medical and research installations that continue to use similar facilities without any regard for human safety.

(06-05-2010- Narayanan Suresh is group editor of Technology Review India, CyberMedia. He can be reached at

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