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Radioactive cargo & steel

Written By Gopal Krishna on Friday, November 20, 2009 | 1:39 AM

MV Garlan, a Maltese-registered vessel is being checekd after reports that it could be carrying radioactive material, the Press Trust of India said this morning. The MV Garlan was on its way from Vishakapatnam and docked in the Chennai Port limits. "Experts from Kalpakkam nuclear plant are expected to make a thorough check to ascertain whether it is carrying radioactive material," officials were quoted as saying. Among other inquiries they would use the current version of the "Geiger counter" which is called the halogen counter. It measures ionizing radiation. Geiger counters can detect photons, alpha, beta, and gamma radiation, but not neutrons.

In India adequate safeguards have not been built against dangers of radiation poisoning, a form of damage to organ tissue due to excessive exposure to ionizing radiation. This can result in both acute and chronic problems. The clinical name for radiation sickness is acute radiation syndrome (ARS). The chronic radiation syndrome has been observed among workers across the globe. The radiation exposure is normally expressed as a committed effective dose equivalent (CEDE). It has been found in radiation biology experiments that if a group of cells are irradiated, then as the dose increases, the number of cells which survive decreases. It has also been found that if a population of cells is given a dose before being set aside (without being irradiated) for a length of time before being irradiated again, then the radiation causes less cell death. The human body contains many types of cells and a human can be killed by the loss of a single type of cells in a vital organ. For many short term radiation deaths (3 days to 30 days), the loss of cells forming blood cells (bone marrow) and the cells in the digestive system (microvilli which form part of the wall of the intestines are constantly being regenerated in a healthy human) causes death.

Radiation exposure can also increase the probability of contracting some other diseases, mainly cancer, tumours, and genetic damage. These are referred to as the stochastic effects of radiation, and are not included in the term radiation sickness.

The use of radionuclides in science and industry is strictly regulated in most countries (in the U.S. by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission). In the event of an accidental or deliberate release of radioactive material, either evacuation or sheltering in place are the recommended measures.

While investigations are on, it would be relevant to examine the phenomenon of radioactive steel. Most recently, the issue of radioactive material in the US ship named Platinum II (SS Oceanic, SS Independence) was recognized by the Union Environment Ministry but so far no prevent steps have been taken to avoid such cases in future.

Does any one know about the radioactive contaminated lift buttons from India making French workers suffer? And similar incidents being reported from Russia and Sweden.

Hazardous wastes case came up for final hearing for disposal on October 19, 2008 in the Supreme Court wherein I had raised the issue of radioactive materials in the shipbreaking industry. But the hearing did not proceed further.

Pollutants of all ilk are passengers without passports. Howsoever, the free trade fundamentalists may try, cost externalisation of pollution gets internalised in myriad ways.

Lift buttons made of scrap steel were being used by Otis elevators, which was being handled by a French firm. Some 30 workers of their suffered radioactive radiation. Radioactive steel gets produced when radioactive sources containing cobalt gets amalgamated with scrap steel such as the ones sourced from ship-breaking industry and other secondary steel production sources. French nuclear safety authority informed our Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) and all other
nuclear countries.

The buttons has been traced to factories near Pune. ERB has issued a letter asking all port agencies to use radioactive monitors but while French workers who suffered are identified, the Indian workers who suffered are yet to be traced. The lift button were contaminated with
Cobalt 60, a by product of nuclear reactors. The radiation was measured between 1 to 3 on a International Nuclear Event Scale (INES).

There are 7 levels on the INES scale; 3 incident-levels and 4 accident-levels.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) introduced INES in 1990 in order to enable prompt communication of safety significance information in case of nuclear accidents. The scale is inspired on the Richter scale for earthquakes, each increasing level representing an accident ten times more severe than the previous level. However, compared to earthquakes, where ground elevation is relatively easy to assert, the level of severity of a Man made disaster, such as a
nuclear accident, is more subject to interpretation, and often the INES level of an incident is only assigned well past the incident occurrence. Therefore the scale cannot aid immediate appropriate disaster-control deployment.

When the French ships such as radioactive material laden SS Blue Lady (SS France, SS Norway) and Danish ship RIKY got dumped purportedly for scrap metal in India, the European ship owners must have heaved a sigh of relief because they managed to escape decontamination cost. Little did they realize that the scarp metals would end up in their backyards as lift buttons made of the same contaminated steel.

The French France's Nuclear Safety Authority has detected that the steel lift buttons brought from India contained traces of radioactive Cobalt 60. It has alerted the Indian authorities about the radioactive buttons. 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.

Radioactive cobalt-60 was discovered in the late 1930's in the US. Gamma rays are produced following the decay of radioactive materials such as cobalt-60.

Because it decays by gamma radiation, external exposure to large sources of Co-60 can cause skin burns, acute radiation sickness, or death. Most Co-60 that is ingested is excreted in the feces; however, a small amount is absorbed by the liver, kidneys, and bones. Co-60 absorbed by the liver, kidneys, or bone tissue can cause cancer because of exposure to the gamma radiation. The magnitude of the health risk depends on the quantity of cobalt-60 involved and on exposure conditions such as length of exposure, distance from the source (for external exposure) and whether the cobalt-60 was ingested or inhaled. Medical test can determine exposure to cobalt-60 but it requires special laboratory equipment that are not routinely available in hospitals.

Radioactive Co-60 is produced commercially through linear acceleration for use in medicine and industry. It is also a byproduct of nuclear reactor operations, when metal structures, such as steel rods, are exposed to neutron radiation.

Otis Elevator Company. lifts in France has been traced to a foundry in Maharashtra. There is a foundry near Khopoli on the way to Pune from Mumbai called Vipras, which melted this scrap. French firm Mafelec delivered thousands of lift buttons to Otis. Otis has said it is now in the process of removing the buttons, after the Nuclear Safety Authority announced on Tuesday that 20 workers who handled the lift buttons had been exposed to excessive levels of radiation.

The components used by Mafelec were supplied by two Indian firms, which purchased the inputs from SKM Steels Ltd, which in turn worked with foundry Vipras Casting Foundry. Vipras was provided scarp by SKM Steels to convert into bars. Currently, it is not mandatory for Indian foundries to install radiation detectors to check scrap metals.

It may be remembered that although the factory explosions of October 2004 in the missile scrap metal imported without detection by the Bhushan Steel Ltd in Ghaziabad, UP had compelled governmental responses at the highest level both in the state and at the centre but it has been to no avail. No visible police action or remedial action was taken beyond routine posturing. In this case too in all likelihood it would meet the same fate.

Scrap metal and its contamination comes under the Hazardous Waste (Management, Handling and Transboundary Movement) Rules, 2008, but this incident and several others in the recent past illustrate that the Rules offers no resistance to transboundary movement of hazardous
and radioactive contaminated scrap materials. According to the Rules, it does not matter if contaminated "recyclable scarp metal"/hazardous waste comes without prior decontamination in the country of export although it is in manifest contempt of Supreme Court's directions in
its order dated 14 October, 2003 in Writ Petition (Civil) 657 of 1995.

Radioactive contamination is dealt under Radiation Atomic Energy (Safe Disposal of Radioactive Wastes) Rules, 1987 that deals with the radioactive waste, not with radioactive contaminated finished products. The 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 Ministry of
Environment & Forests 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 onsequences 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 there under. 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".
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