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Letter to Hon'ble Prime Minister on Radioactive Contamination & Fate of Workers

Written By Krishna on Monday, September 17, 2012 | 3:02 AM

ToxicsWatch Alliance (TWA)


Dr Manmohan Singh
Prime Minister
Government of India
New Delhi

September 17, 2012

Subject-Ban production, trade in products contaminated with radioactive element & hazardous waste


This is with reference to detection of consignment of stainless steel and aluminum products contaminated with an artificial radioactive element at the Colombo harbor in the cargo which was imported from India as per the report of September 16, 2012 published in the Official Government News Portal of Sri Lanka‎. (Source:http://www.news.lk/news/sri-lanka/3149-radioactive-contaminated-cargo-detected)

I submit that the report has extremely relevance for the Indian workers who are/were involved in processing and manufacturing these stainless steel and aluminum products whose distribution has been halted in Sri Lanka.

I submit that the contaminated cargo is currently held at Sri Lanka Ports Authority and Sri Lanka Atomic Energy Authority (SLAEA) has stopped the release and distribution of the contaminated products. It has come to light that the cargo, imported from India contained about 125 units stainless steel and aluminum products contaminated with cobalt 60 – a radioactive element.

I submit that Sri Lanka Customs is all set to return the consignment to India and to inform the Atomic Energy Commission of India and the International Atomic Energy Agency concerning the products. When this consignment comes back, the government must ensure complete transparency about what is done with these consignments. It must reveal how the company and the regulators have been made accountable for exposing unsuspecting Indian workers who were betrayed by both the company and the government they trust.

I submit that it is not the first time that Indian products have been found to be contaminated with radioactive steel.

I submit that since you also hold the Environment Ministry cabinet portfolio and are in charge of the Department of Atomic Energy, there is a logical compulsion for you to acknowledge this serious lapse and constitute a Independent Trans Disciplinary High Power Expert Committee to investigate metal scrap units, foundries and every yard of the ship-breaking industry in order to trace the workers and communities who have been exposed to radioactive radiation within India while handling these products throughout its life cycle from processing to manufacturing to packaging these radioactive contaminated steel and aluminum products.

I submit that if the finished products have radioactive hazards, one can visualize the fate of raw scrap and the workers who process the scrap. Only a bare minimum of these finished products are exported. The major portion of the recycled scrap is used in India.

I submit that there has been a news report about the incident of exposure of workers from radioactive contaminated metal scrap in the past as well. It is an open secret that huge amount of hazardous wastes, end of life products and scrap metal is coming to India in the name of it being a recyclable material. It is apprehended these are contaminated with radioactive wastes etc.

I submit that in 2009, Scrap News, a journal reported that more than 50% of the total 123 shipments of contaminated steel is from India. The 67 shipments from India were denied entry into European and US ports because of contamination of Cobalt-60 in the finished products. There were unconfirmed reports that the highly radioactive Chernobyl scrap was shipped to Asia but there isn’t any substantial evidence on that.

I submit that radioactive Co-60 is also a byproduct of nuclear reactor operations, when metal structures, such as steel rods, are exposed to neutron radiation. A tale of radioactive radiation, hazardous substances and toxic trade has consistently been brushed under the carpet in the name of secrecy.

I submit that a Hazardous waste case has been going on in the Supreme Court since 1995 because of non-cooperation from the concerned ministries. In the matter of radioactive contaminated scrap metal lack of coordination among Commerce Ministry, Steel Ministry, Environment Ministry and Department of Atomic Energy is quite manifest. Huge amount of hazardous radioactive scrap metal is imported into India considering the cheap rates. Indian harbors and ports do not have a proper regulation on hazardous materials and are admittedly, ill-equipped to detect radioactive materials.

I submit that even earlier in 2009 lift buttons made of scrap steel which were being used by Otis elevators, that was being handled by a French firm were found to be contaminated with radioactive radiation from Indian products. Some 30 workers of theirs suffered radioactive radiation. French nuclear safety authority informed Indian Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) and all other nuclear countries. There have been complaints from Russia and Sweden too.

I submit that the buttons has been traced to factories near Pune. AERB 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. These lift buttons were contaminated with Cobalt 60, a byproduct of nuclear reactors. The radiation was measured between 1 and 3 on an International Nuclear Event Scale (INES). There are 7 levels on the INES scale; 3 incident-levels and 4 accident-levels.

I submit that the French France's Nuclear Safety Authority detected that the steel lift buttons brought from India contained traces of radioactive Cobalt 60. It had also alerted the Indian authorities about the radioactive buttons. The original complaint was from Otis firm, a French subsidiary of the US company.

I submit that the factory belonging to Mafelec company, which delivers the buttons to Otis noticed in early October, 2009. 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 (INES). It said that of 30 workers exposed, 20 had been exposed to doses of between one mSv (milli-Sievert) and three mSv.

I submit that the maximum permitted dose for workers in the non-nuclear sector is one mSv. Otis Elevator Company's lifts in France were 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 that 20 workers who handled the lift buttons had been exposed to excessive levels of radiation.

I submit that 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 scrap by SKM Steels to convert into bars. Currently, it is not mandatory for Indian foundries to install radiation detectors to check scrap metals. It is noteworthy 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 of no avail. No visible punitive action or remedial action was taken beyond routine posturing. In this case too in all likelihood it would meet the same fate.

I submit that 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 scrap 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.

I submit that 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.

I submit that 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 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 there under. Consequently, Atomic Energy (Safe Disposal of Radioactive Wastes) Rules, 1987 apply to it.

I submit that 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 radio-nuclides in quantities or concentrations as prescribed by the competent authority by notification in the official gazette".

I submit that 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.

I submit that neither the environment ministry nor the atomic energy ministry provides for Radiological Safety Officer in the scrap metal factories and ship breaking yards.

I submit that the labor ministries do not seem to have any role in ensuring worker's safety although International Labor Organization provides guideline to be followed. As per the Radioactive Waste Rules, 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.

I submit that there is an urgent need to rewrite the present Rules that is more concerned about human health than hazardous waste trade. Officials who draft such Rules must be made accountable. The issue must be dealt with at a much higher level than is case now.

I submit that CAG should be requested to do an audit of radioactive radiation exposure detection preparedness at all the ports and airports. When different government complained to Government of India, the government had announced that it is putting in place radiation monitors at ports to check cargo. It merits inquiry as to whether this has indeed been done.

I submit that it is an act of grave omission on the part of Environment Ministry and its loophole ridden Rules that allow import of hazardous wastes in the name of recycling. It is also a result of an exercise in linguistic corruption while drafting the Rules that redefines hazardous waste as a recyclable metal scarp.

I submit that while unsatisfactory governmental response in matters of environmental health and workers occupational health is nothing new, what is alarming is that even the alerts by different foreign countries has failed to hammer the frozen passivity of the government. What else can justify the ongoing dismantling of end of life ships by migrant, casual workers of UP, Bihar, Jharkhand and Orissa that is evidently and admittedly contaminated with radioactive material and killer asbestos fibers.

I submit that each time such incidents occur, Radiological safety division of India's Atomic Energy Regulatory Board announces investigation into the concerns raised but either such inquiries remain incomplete or the outcome of such exercises are never made public.

The million dollar question is: Has AERB's lackadaisical approach as revealed in the Supreme Court in September 2007 in dealing with radioactive material in ships changed? It has chosen to become oblivious of for instance 1088 radioactive material containing equipments onboard Blue Lady, a contaminated ship under demolition in Alang, Bhavnagar, Gujarat.

I submit that under the new Rules from the Ministry of Environment, hazardous waste gets classified as hazardous material meant for recycling, and it would fall in the category of second hand materials. The commerce ministry allows even hazardous waste since as per the new notification a waste would be deemed as non-waste. In this way toxic waste will reincarnate itself as a reusable or recyclable product.

I submit that it is high time the government revised its existing Hazardous Waste and Radioactive Waste Rules.

I submit that the Supreme Court had taken cognizance of this problem in the hazardous wastes case wherein the role of Atomic Energy Regulatory Board was also specified. The issue of radioactive material has also been raised in the matter of the ship breaking activity on Alang beach.

I submit that earlier, when the French ships such as radioactive material laden SS Blue Lady (SS France, SS Norway) and RIKY, the Danish ship got dumped purportedly for scrap metal in India, the ship owners from developed heave a sigh of relief because they manage to escape decontamination cost but they do realize that the scrap metals would end up in their backyards as lift buttons and other steel products are made of the same contaminated secondary steel.

I submit that even the Division Bench of Justice Dr Arijit Pasayat and Justice S H Kapadia overlooked the admittedly known dangers of radioactive material in their order that gave a go ahead to dismantling of the Blue Lady, a dead French ship.

I submit that the bench granted permission for the dismantling based on the submission by Gopal Subramaniam, the then Additional Solicitor General, to the effect that the ship does not have any more radioactive material and beaching is irreversible. But contrary to the recommendations of the Technical Experts Committee on Hazardous Wastes relating to Ship-breaking, Gujarat Pollution Control Board, Gujarat Enviro Protection and Infrastructure Ltd, (GEPIL) and the ship's current owner Priya Blue Shipping Pvt Ltd., the ship does contain radioactive substances at thousands of places.

In the order passed the apex court merely states, "There was also an apprehension rightly expressed by the petitioner regarding radioactive material on board the vessel Blue Lady. Therefore, an immediate inspection of the said vessel beached at Alang since 16.8.2006 was undertaken by Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) and by Gujarat Maritime Board (GMB). The apprehension expressed by the petitioner was right. However, as the matter stands today, AERB and GMB have certified that the said vessel Blue Lady beached in Alang no more contains any radioactive material on board the ship." I was the applicant.

I submit that a perusal of the report of the inspection undertaken on 14 August 2007 showed that the entire inspection of 16 floors of 315 meter long ship seems to have been completed within a period of 4 hours (a commendable task no doubt) and the report states that they could detect only 12 smoke detectors containing Americium 241. Having found these 12 smoke detectors containing radioactive materials, the report concludes that the ship "now, does not contain any radioactive material on board".

In a petition to the Supreme Court, a letter sent by one Tom Haugen (who had been the Project Manager for Engineering, Delivery, Installation, Commissioning and later services and upgrades as regards Fire Detection Installation Systems on-board the Blue Lady) was brought on record. Haugen had written to Chairman of the Technical Experts Committee (by virtue of being the Secretary at the Ministry of Environment) that the fire detection system on the Blue Lady contained 5500 detection points which included 1100 ion smoke detectors that use radioactive elements composed of Americium 241.

I submit that in a separate letter to you dated 19 September 2007, Haugen has reiterated the fact about the enormity of radioactive material on the ship given that he himself supervised its installation. Countering the AERB-GMB report that that ship did not contain any radioactive material after their inspection, Haugen wrote that in most cases, the fire detection systems are not labeled or indicated in any way, as they are typically 'buried' out of sight. According to Haugen, due to the risk of hazardous radioactive exposure, they should only be handled by professionals or certified technicians. "The system and its detectors are very subtly placed and virtually completely hidden in most parts, so it is totally understandable that a non-expert team might miss it during a broader inspection of the vessel," wrote Haugen.

I submit that even though the technical experts committee had put in its 2006 report that there was no radioactive material on the ship, one of the Committee's members Dr Virendra Misra of the Industrial Toxicology Research Centre, Lucknow, had disagreed with the findings. He wrote that, "Presence of radioactive materials should be ascertained well in advance. Though it is mentioned in the report that radioactive material is not available, in my opinion there is possibility of the presence of radioactive materials due to existence of liquid level indicators and smoke detectors on the ship." This was ignored by TEC's then chairman, Prodipto Ghosh, the then Secretary, Union Ministry of Environment & Forests. Not surprisingly, the final report of the Technical Committee was signed by only Mr Ghosh. All of this is in the records of the Supreme Court.

It is clear that exposures from radioactive radiation be it in the scrap metal or hazardous trade or from nuclear plants do not get treated by paying lip-service to environmental and occupational health and safety concerns. It can be brushed under the carpet within the country but repeated incidents and complaints from countries ranging from Sri Lanka, Europe, Russia to US reveals that skeletons in the cupboards cannot be hidden for long.

I submit that the IAEA is aware that the international community has been confronting a new security threat: the risk of the malicious use of nuclear or other radioactive material, an area in which the IAEA has unique expertise. Much of its work focuses on trying to ensure that this does not happen in the first place. But within India, thus far Department of Atomic Energy appears to have failed to stop indiscriminate entry of radioactive materials or radioactive contaminated products and wastes and to take preventive steps.

I submit that so far even IAEA does not appear to be pro-active in the matter of radioactive steel that 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.

In view of the above mentioned facts, it is high time you, the government and IAEA gave up its Ostrich policy in this regard.

Thanking You
Yours Sincerely
Gopal Krishna
ToxicsWatch Alliance (TWA)
New Delhi
Mb: 9818089660
Web: toxiscwatch.blogspot.com

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