New Delhi: A day after the source of radioactive waste that killed a scrap dealer was traced to Delhi University’s (DU) chemistry department, the country’s atomic energy regulator sent it a show-cause notice and sought an explanation as to why directives on the disposal of such material hadn’t been followed.
“There are clear procedures laid down regarding disposal (of radioactive waste),” said Om Pal Singh, secretary, Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB). “The punishment will depend on their response and could involve suspending other projects in the department involving nuclear materials.”
Delhi University vice-chancellor Deepak Pental apologized for the laxity at a press conference.
“We made a mistake in that we didn’t realize this instrument was still so potentially lethal,” he said. “After all, none of the original users of the machine are around. But I own moral responsibility for this unfortunate incident.”
The toxic Cobalt-60, isolated from a research device called a gamma irradiator, was imported in 1968 from Canada with the permission of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, said Pental. The instrument has been unused since 1983.
“It was calculated that it had outlived its radioactive time... because it comes to half in every five years,” Pental explained.
The Delhi University has constituted a three-member committee, led by S.C. Pancholi, a retired professor and nuclear scientist, to investigate the issue.
“Our university has a very strong desire that it should be investigated. We must learn from this incident so that these things do not occur,” Pental said.
Rules regarding safe disposal of radioactive waste are laid out by AERB. Instruments with highly radioactive material are expected to be monitored monthly and a status report sent to the agency. If the radioactivity of a device falls below levels required for proper functioning, then such instruments are disposed of in pits and if needed under special monitoring.
Singh didn’t rule out legal action over the incident. The university has to reply to the show-cause notice in two weeks.