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Row over radioactive steel exports erupts again

Written By Gopal Krishna on Wednesday, March 04, 2009 | 12:03 AM

Indian steel exporters are worried about its adverse consequences

With the publication of an alarmist article in the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, the controversy over radioactive steel exports from India has erupted once again and Indian steel exporters are worried about adverse consequences on the industry, particularly at a time of falling demand. Several Indian companies have been specifically named not just by the German Ministry of Environment and Nuclear Safety but also by the French Nuclear Safety Agency and authorities in Sweden. These include Vipras Castings, Bunts, Lakshmi Steel, Pradeep Metals and SKM Steels.

The uproar over Indian steel contaminated with Cobalt 60, a radioactive isotope of cobalt used in nuclear medicine, coincided with an international conference in Spain that called for the setting up of International standards in radiation safety. Currently there is no internationally accepted definition of what levels of radiation are acceptable and safe. International experts at the meeting said that further steps are needed to protect people from radioactive materials that can end up at junk and scrap yards. Scrap dealers and metal recycling industries need better guidance on how to deal with problems when they occur, with harmonised, internationally accepted, regulatory approaches to radiation safety based on IAEA safety standards already in place. Key elements include creating a register of ascribed companies, monitoring material at the entrance of facilities as well as the final products and waste, and establishing actions to be taken when radioactivity is detected.
Recurring problem

The presence of inadvertent radioactive materials in metal scrap is a recurring worldwide problem for the metal recycling industry, experts noted in presentations at the conference in Tarragona, Spain. The materials can pose potentially severe health, environmental, and financial consequences for industry and the public alike.

“In the last three years the IAEA has become aware of around 500 events involving uncontrolled ionizing radiation sources, about 150 of which were related to sources found in scrap metal or contaminated goods or materials. This is clearly a global problem that requires the application of a harmonised approach throughout the different regions of the world involving all stakeholders,” said Eliana Amaral, Director of the IAEA’s Division of Radiation, Transport and Waste Safety.

Much of the contaminated radio active material in the steel exports comes from what the IAEA describes as “inadvertent radioactive material in scrap metal” which is thrown into furnaces during the smelting process. India has not been vigilant enough in testing the industrial waste that comes into the country for disposal and the Indian steel industry, especially secondary manufacturers, appears to be paying the price.

Several international protocols already exist prohibiting the export of toxic waste from the developed world to the poorer nations of this planet. These include The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal and the Spanish Protocol for Radiological Surveillance of Metal Recycling.

The Basel Convention which came into force in 1992 is a collaboration of government and industry and is the most comprehensive global environmental agreement which aims to protect human health and the environment against the adverse effects resulting from the generation, management, transboundary movements and disposal of hazardous and other wastes. However, the Basel Convention does not deal with radioactive waste.

The scope of the 1999 Spanish Protocol involves the detection and monitoring of radioactivity in storage facilities and industries where scrap metal is collected and handled. The Protocol is a voluntary agreement which defines the radiological surveillance of scrap metal and its products and the duties and rights of the signatories. A harmonised regulatory approach to the issue of inadvertent radioactive material in scrap metal would also have the benefit of facilitating trade, especially of materials originating from the demolition or decommissioning of nuclear installations or other facilities.

It is unclear as to how many industry players in India have signed up to the Protocol or whether Indian authorities have taken adequate measures to control the import and movement of scrap or ensure worker safety in India.

In the article published by Der Spiegel, journalist Christian Schwaergerl asserts that approximately 150 tons of contaminated steel has been seized in various parts of Germany. Some of this has been sent back to India. “The rest is being stored by the companies that discovered the radioactivity, pending a decision on how safely to dispose of the material.”

There are two main types of radioactive material that may be found in scrap metal. The first type is orphan sources or radioactively contaminated material that may have been lost from, or never were, under regulatory control.

The second one is radioactively contaminated material, which may occur in a number of ways, the most likely being from the demolition or decommissioning of a nuclear installation or other facilities that has used radioactive material.

Chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) S.K. Sharma was quoted as saying that the Board had in fact detected the presence of radioactive material in steel scrap at Vipras Casting, a Mumbai-based company. But he was unclear about the exact nature of the radioactive source saying only that the contamination detected in the consignment which was sent back from the German port of Hamburg could have come about because of a disused radioactive source.

“The German Environment Ministry memo referring to the consignment sent back from Hamburg speaks of ‘metal pieces.’ The consignment was on its way to Russia and the radiation levels it emitted were very high — 71 microsieverts per hour. The disconcerting aspect of the whole thing is that most of the material found (now standing at more than 200 tons) was actually small pieces left after processing. So authorities are now following leads as to where the actual material was used. If you assume 10 per cent waste in production the actual amount of steel we talk about could be closer to 2000 tons. But that’s just my assumption. In one case in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the steel actually ended up in a food processing machine — the owner of the company in charge said food would be safer with this machine due to radiation, but I guess this was a joke,” Christian Schwaegerl, the author of the Der Spiegel article told The Hindu.

Mr. Sharma evidently tried to downplay the extent of the problem. Referring to another incident in France last October, involving contaminated elevator buttons manufactured in by a French company called Mafelec for their client Otis Elevators, Mr. Sharma was reported to have said the findings showed zero levels of radiation on the INES scale.

The Hindu spoke to Mr. David Landier, Director for Industry and Transport at the French Nuclear Safety Agency (ASN) who denied there was zero radiation saying his agency decided to reclassify the incident from I to 2 on the INES level (the classification goes from 1- 7 in an ascending order) since more than ten workers were exposed to radiation. “There were 20 persons who received between 1 and 3 mSv (millisieverts) of radiation (compared to the maximum of 1mSv/year for the public and workers in the non-nuclear sector) and the incident was classified as second level on the INES scale,” Mr. Landier said.

In a report submitted to the French public Prosecutor’s office ASN cited Mafelec as being responsible for several offences relating, in particular, to the Public Health Code. When this reporter phoned Mafelec for details concerning the case, she and the entire journalistic community was roundly insulted by an irate telephone operator who refused to put the call through to the company’s Press office. The company, the operator said, had been inundated by calls from “horrible” journalists following the October 2008 incident and there was no question entertaining any more press enquiries.

Malefec was obliged to recall 30,000 elevator buttons. ”One per cent of those were found to be contaminated and had to be replaced,” Mr. Landier told The Hindu. The Indian embassy in Paris had no knowledge of the incident. Several officials of the embassy contacted by this reporter denied having heard of such an incident or that the embassy had been contacted. It is likely the ASN contacted the AERB directly for replies.

In a written reply to telephonic queries the Indian Embassy in Berlin said: “The Federal Ministry of Environment in Germany has brought this to our notice which we have conveyed to the concerned authorities in India to investigate and take remedial action. (sic) We have also requested the German government to provide us with the results of their tests and the reply is awaited.”

The Embassy also pointed to news reports in German papers quoting Federal and State environment ministers as stating that “they see no danger for health caused by steel imported from India that was polluted when melted with traces of the Cobalt 60 isotope.” The Rhineland Palatinate Environment Ministry also said that the radiation is much lower than the radiation set free by taking an X-ray picture. The steel has not been used for consumer goods but as pre product for makers of machinery and tools.

In his report Christian Schwaegerl writes that although ministers have tried to strike a reassuring note, “behind closed doors authorities are deeply unsettled.” He says many more companies in Germany are to take radiation measurements which will likely result in more unpleasant finds. Calling it the downside of globalisation Der Spiegel concludes that “cheaper is not always better.”

The scare over contaminated steel from India has adversely affected exports from India to Europe, a reported 30 per cent fall. Indian exporters have alleged that European governments might be using incidents to erect non-tariff barriers against steel imports from India.

In an article published in Business Line, Manu P. Toms reported that Indian exporters feel European importers are using stray incidents such as those occurring on August 2008 in France and Germany to slap non-tariff barriers on the import of Indian steel. “Germany has practically stopped import of engineering goods from India and the trend is spreading to the rest of Europe. In January, exports to Europe came down by about 33 per cent. This month it could be 50 per cent,” said Mr. Pankaj Chadha, Deputy Regional Chairman, Western Region, Engineering Export Promotion Council (EEPC) India.
‘Unfair punishment’

The exporters feel they are being unfairly punished because the radioactive materials originate outside India and enter the country in the form of scrap and other waste which is indiscriminately and sometimes illegally of sent to India by Westerners for disposal.

“The problem did not originate in India. It originated from the scrap imported to India from other countries. We import scrap from other countries including the U.S. Our ports should have radioactive detecting mechanisms in place. We currently do not have them except one in Mumbai port,” said Mr. Suranjan Gupta, Senior Joint Director of the EEPC India. Engineering goods exporters in India too have begun installing monitors to detect radioactive materials in imported steel scraps.

“Many poor countries accept toxic waste from abroad, such as old computers, rusted ships and pesticides, in a short sighted bid to lift themselves out of poverty, despite the dangers to human health and the environment”, Okechukwu Ibeanu, Special rapporteur of the U.N. Human Rights Council said in a recent interview. “Many developing countries do so despite sometimes knowing the dangers of the waste. Is it worth the short term monetary gain? Is it worth people falling sick ... precious water sources contaminated permanently?” he asked. “I believe that we need to think of a better solution to generate income and development.”

Western nations have been indiscriminately exporting their polluted waste to emerging countries since disposal is both hazardous and expensive. Indian waste disposal firms have tended not to look too closely into the kind of junk they were taking off western hands. The Hindu’s successful campaign to prevent the French aircraft carrier the Clemceau from being dismantled in India was an attempt to stem such traffic. But soon after the Clemenceau was turned back, the Supreme Court allowed another toxic ship, the former cruise liner France, into the port of Alang for dismantling. For every battle won, there are several that are lost.

The whole world is a loser when that happens. In this particular case, indiscriminate waste disposal has resulted in radioactive contamination of steel. The radioactive materials initially sent to India from the West returned there via cheap finished steel and caused a radiation scare. In turn these events have affected India’s steel exports.

Could this be a case of the biter bit? But then, who is the biter and who is the bit?

Vaiju Naravane
March, 2 2008
The Hindu
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