DELHI: The security of radioactive waste in India is being questioned after it was revealed that one of the country’s elite research institutions sold equipment contaminated by deadly Cobalt-60 to a junkyard in the suburbs of Delhi.Rajender Pal, a 35-year-old scrap dealer, died from multiple organ failure caused by radiation poisoning after being exposed to the Cobalt-60 at Delhi’s Mayapuri scrap yard this month.Seven other scrap workers were treated for radiation sickness; two are reported to be seriously ill and require urgent bone-marrow transplants.The source of the deadly radiation was a machine called a gamma irradiator discarded by a chemistry laboratory at the University of Delhi. The junkyard had to be cordoned off last month while specialists retrieved the radioactive material.Rajender Pal, whose death is believed to be India’s first radiation fatality, dismantled the instrument. Hundreds of dealers have shops at Mayapuri scrap market which is surrounded by densely populated suburbs.It is possible more radioactive material from the lab has not yet been accounted for. Didier Louvat, a nuclear waste specialist with the International Atomic Energy Agency, told The New York Times the Mayapuri case was the most serious instance of radiation exposure anywhere in the world since 2006.The vice-chancellor of Delhi University, Deepak Pental, said the university was ”very apologetic” about what had happened and offered to pay compensation to the victims.He said there had been a miscalculation about the active life of the radioactive material in the machine which was imported from Canada in 1970 and had not been used since 1985.India’s Atomic Energy Regulatory Board has instructed the university to suspend all activities using radiation and has issued a ”show cause” notice that requires it to explain apparent violations of regulations governing the disposal of radioactive materials.The mishap raised questions about the oversight of radioactive waste in India at a time when the government is seeking to rapidly expand its nuclear industry, especially for electricity generation.Last year a historic nuclear co-operation deal between Delhi and Washington allowed India to participate in global nuclear commerce even though it is not a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.Ravi Agarwal, a founder of the environmental advocacy group Toxic Link, said the Mayapuri radiation incident showed the need for India to reassess the systems used to oversee nuclear materials.”It opens up a question of how good is the infrastructure for monitoring the movement of such waste,” he said.”It also shows the great lack of public awareness on this issue, even in high-risk areas like scrap markets.”
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