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Greenpeace survey finds radiation 5000 times background levels in Delhi market [May. 14th, 2010|05:01 pm]
Rainspotting in Bangalore


Greenpeace radiation experts survey the Mayapuri scrap market in West DelhiA survey has today uncovered levels of radioactivity up to 5000 times background levels in Mayapuri scrap market, West Delhi, after the area was previously surveyed and declared safe by government authorities.  

"The distance between the contamination 'hot spots' that have been discovered today and the people who live and work in Mayapuri is very small, so there is concern as to the effect on their health" said Karuna Raina, nuclear campaigner with Greenpeace India.

The survey found dose rate levels of 200-500 micro-Sv/h in certain areas, meaning that the maximum legal dose for a person in a year could be reached after just two to five hours close to these 'hot spots', Greenpeace said.  The level of dose in the residential area was close to normal.  

The survey was conducted by Greenpeace radiation experts following the discovery of a cobalt-60 source in the Mayapuri area in early April.  The radioactive metal had later been traced to a gamma irradiator in the chemistry department of the University of Delhi, disused since 1985 and auctioned off for scrap in February of this year.  Authorities were notified when a scrap worker was admitted to Delhi hospital with symptoms indicating exposure to radiation, including a blackening of the skin and withering of hair and nails.  He was the first of eight victims to be admitted to hospital, including one 35-year old scrap worker who later died of multiple organ failure.

The accident has been rated as a Level 4 on the International Atomic Energy Agency's International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale, and declared the worst global radiation accident since 2006. 

The source of the radioactive metal was later traced to a gamma irradiator at the University of Delhi, imported in 1968 by the Department of Chemistry for use in research.  The machine had been out of use since 1985, but still contained cobalt-60 and was stored safely on the premises.  In February the university auctioned the machine off for scrap, after which it passed through the hands of several dealers before coming to Mayapuri junk yard.  There workers cut into the gamma cell of the machine, unwittingly releasing the radioactive material into the environment.  There are over 200 scrap shops in Mayapuri, with networks extending far out of the capital, and the extent of the contamination is now a subject of concern.  

On 9th April, eight  sources of radiation were removed from the area by authorities and the area declared safe by the Department of Atomic Energy, the nodal authority for radiological affairs.  However, officers returned four days later to remove another two sources of Co-60, and a third was collected from the wallet of another scrap shop worker admitted to hospital.  By the 5th of May, 16 cobalt 'pencils' had been recovered, and the search again declared over. 

"These findings demonstrate the Government's complacency in conducting their radiation surveys," said Raina.  "The decontamination process is actually fairly simple, so there is no excuse they can give for not cleaning up the zone properly, and jeopardising the health of the people who live and work in this area."

Cobalt-60 is an artificially-made radioisotope of cobalt with a half-life of 5.27 years.  It decays by emission of beta particles and gamma radiation.  It is used for industrial and commercial applications including sterilisation of food and spices, and also in radiotherapy in hospitals.  Exposure to Co-60 can cause nausea, acute radiation sickness and/or death.  If ingested, most cobalt-60 is removed from the body in the faeces, but a small amount is absorbed by the liver, kidneys and bones.  Greenpeace say the levels of radiation found today are not high enough to cause radiation sickness, but could cause cancer to develop over a number of years.  By that point, it will be impossible to trace the causes back to Co-60 exposure.  

The findings are expected to come as a further blow to the proposed Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill, which
seeks to place a cap on the financial compensation  that can be claimed in the case of a nuclear accident.  Liability is one of the final hurdles to private US nuclear suppliers, who are keen to be part of India's multi-billion dollar nuclear industry following the Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement.    

IMAGE: Sudhanshu Malhotra/Greenpeace