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Where are the Indian workers suffering from radioactive radiation?

Written By Gopal Krishna on Monday, October 27, 2008 | 7:48 AM

Radioactive Contamination Scandal in India & France

France's Nuclear Safety Authority has alerted the Indian authorities about the radioactive buttons. It said, the lift buttons contained traces of radioactive Cobalt 60. Radiological safety division of India's Atomic Energy Regulatory Board is investigating the concerns raised by France's Nuclear Safety Authority. The original complain was from Otis firm, a French subsidiary of the US company. The factory belonging to Mafelec company, which delivers the buttons to Otis noticed in early October. Nuclear Safety Authority classed the incident at a factory of the Mafelec firm in the east-central town of Chimilin at level two on the seven-level International Nuclear Event Scale. It said that of 30 workers exposed, 20 had been exposed to doses of between one mSv (milli-Sievert) and three mSv. The maximum permitted dose for workers in the non-nuclear sector is one mSv.

The Hazardous Waste (Management, Handling and Transboundary Movement) Rules, 2008 is a declaration to the hazardous waste traders that the Indian Government offers no resistance to transboundary movement of hazardous and radioactive materials. It does not matter if it comes without prior decontamination in the country of export in manifest contempt of Supreme Court's directions in its order dated 14 October, 2003 in Writ Petition (Civil) 657 of 1995.

Atomic Energy (Safe Disposal of Radioactive Wastes) Rules, 1987 deals with the radioactive waste. There framers of both the Rules were oblivious to a situation where hazardous waste (recyclable metal scrap, according to Environment Ministry) and the products made out of it would be contaminated with radioactive materials.

Hazardous Waste Rules lays down the procedure for import of hazardous waste and how it would facilitate the same by providing administrative mechanism to ensure that even Port and Customs authorities ensure compliance when hazardous waste is imported by paying lip service seeking "safe handling". After creating the loophole it says, Custom authorities would take samples as per Customs Act 1962 prior to clearing the assignments. Technical Review Committee of MoEF as noted in the Rules should now show its sense of purpose by finding out where did the radioactive materials come from in the lift buttons made of scrap steel.

The case illustrates how even the new Rules remain full of loopholes. One would have been surprised, had it not been so because the Ministry defines hazardous waste as recyclable metal...and then asks agencies Customs and Atomic Energy Regulatory Board to probe the consequences of the flawed Rules. The Hazardous Waste Rules do not apply to radioactive waste as covered under the Atomic Energy Act, 1962 (33 of 1962)and rules made thereunder. Consequently, Atomic Energy (Safe Disposal of Radioactive Wastes) Rules, 1987 apply to it.

But neither the Hazardous Waste Rules nor the Safe Disposal of Radioactive Wastes Rules seem to have foreseen a situation where metal scrap products are found to be contaminated with radioactive materials although while providing the definition, the Radioactive waste Rules, it says, “radioactive waste” means any waste material containing radionuclides in quantities or concentrations as prescribed by the competent authority by notification in the official gazette".

Safe Disposal of Radioactive Wastes Rules also provides for a “Radiological Safety Officer” who can advise the employer regarding the safe handling and disposal of radioactive wastes and on the steps necessary to ensure that the operational limits are not exceeded; to instruct the radiation workers engaged in waste disposal on the hazards of radiation and on suitable safety measures and work practices aimed at minimising exposures to radiation and contamination, and to ensure that adequate radiation surveillance is provided for all radiation workers and the environment.

Neither Environment Ministry, Labour Ministry nor the Atomic Energy Ministry provides for Radiological Safety Officer in the scarp metal yards. Radiological Safety Officer has to carry out such tests on conditioned radioactive wastes, as specified by the competent authority;to ensure that all buildings, laboratories and plants wherein radioactive wastes will be or are likely to be handled/produced, conditioned or stored or discharged from, are designed to provide adequate safety for safe handling and disposal of radioactive waste. He has to help investigate and initiate prompt and suitable remedial measures in respect of any situation that could lead to radiation hazards; and ...to ensure that the provisions of the Radiation Protection Rules, 1971 are followed properly.

In France, the 20 workers who suffered the radioactive radiation has been found and are being treated (if there is a treatment), our Environment Ministry, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) and Labour Ministry must now trace the Indian workers who suffered due to radiation while working with the metal scrap (from the scrap yard, re-rolling mills to the lift steel button manufacturing) that was contaminated with radioactive material. The failure of the Ministries concerned is too stark to remain unnoticed. There is an urgent need to rewrite the present Rules that is more concerned about human health than hazardous waste trade. Likes of R K Vaish who drafted the Rules must be made accountable. The issue must be dealt with at a much higher level than is case now. There is no quick fix solution.

In such a situation, is buying radioactive monitors as has been suggested by the AERB sufficient?
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