Indian authorities trace radioactive waste to university

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April 30, 2010

4:28 PM

Authorities in New Delhi have traced the source of radioactive waste in a local scrapyard, which killed one and hospitalized six others, to the chemistry department of the University of Delhi.

A gamma irradiator, which had been used by the university for laboratory experiments and was kept in storage for 25 years, emitted the radioactive material Cobalt-60. The equipment was sold to a scrapyard earlier this month.

The machine, imported from Canada in 1968, was sold to the scrap dealer as part of a university auction of unused equipment.

According to Joint Commissioner of Police Ajay Kashyap, the irradiator was then taken to Mayapuri, where it was dismantled and sold to several other scrap shops in the area. The employees were not aware of the radioactive material.

Kashyap said that investigators are still inquiring into the details of the auction.

An employee of one of the scrapyards, who often slept in the shop and was most extensively exposed to the radiation, died earlier this week of multiple organ failure.

“Officials from the Atomic Energy Department are investigating the matter,” Delhi University Vice-Chancellor Deepak Pental said in a press conference. “The university is also doing its own investigation with help from the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre.”

Pental then apologized for the incident.

“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.”

A representative from the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board commented on possible repercussions for the incident.

“There are clear procedures laid down regarding disposal [of radioactive waste],” AERB secretary Om Pal Singh said. “The punishment will depend on their response and could involve suspending other projects in the department involving nuclear materials.”

Pental said that the university will work to raise money for the family of the man who died.

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