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Radioactive steel scrap incident in Delhi
Radioactive steel scrap incident in Delhi is just the tip of the iceberg

Indian media has been abuzz for last 15 days with death of 1 person and 7-8 persons fighting for their lives due to contamination of steel scrap with radioactive substance and government efforts to locate the source of contamination. The cause has now been identified as radioactive cobalt 60 sources that were mixed up in the scrap.

But this incident highlights the ground realities in India and the dangers it poses to common man in terms of their chances of exposure to radioactive materials used in construction as smaller and medium construction sector in India thrives upon cheap rebars produced by secondary scrap and sponge iron based steel makers as end users fail to differentiate substandard steel due to ignorance. For them steel is steel and cheaper it is better it is.

Although scrap based steel making in developed world is quite popular for making high end steel products, both flats and longs, it is based on EAF route where the chemistry is controlled appropriately. In fact the control starts from their scrap yards, which are equipped with equipments to monitor presence of any hazardous substances including radioactive isotopes.

On the other hand, the secondary steel making in India is at the opposite end with induction furnaces having hardly any control on chemistry. The problem is compounded by non existent facilities to monitor quality of steel scrap.

Radioactive isotopes are used in many applications in medical equipments as well in industrial applications. Almost all factories have some kind of measuring instruments based on radioactive isotopes. Imagine a situation when a factory remains unused for 5 years to 10 years, or may be more, and is being dismantled. As the warning signs on radioactive isotope based equipments become invisible and could become part of steel scrap easily.

The contaminated scrap, after melting normally takes shape of rebars, which are used in construction exposing common people to a great danger which by far remains undetected but takes it toll by inducing cancer among them.

It is in fact very difficult to detect such cases and only by chance they have been reported in past. In an unfortunate incident a whole building complex in Taiwan was found to have been contaminated with radioactivity due to such rebars and caused cancer to score of people living there. Some more incidents of contaminated steel products have been reported in past but unfortunately they were all discovered by chance only.

In India, the situation is even worse as there is absolutely no control on the quality of scrap being used in steel making because not only there is no awareness but any investment in this direction would make the steel maker uncompetitive. Small amounts of radioactive substance can always go un noticed and contaminate rebars used in general construction of houses and other structures exposing common man to unknown dangers of cancer.

In August 2008, a container from India containing bars of steel to be sent forward to Russia was detected by port authorities in Hamburg to have very high radioactivity levels. In one day, the radioactivity level was equal to what is a safe dosage for a year. Neither was this an isolated incident. According the Spiegel Online International (Finds of Radioactive Steel on the Rise in Germany, Christian Schwägerl, 02/16/2009), “For months, similar cases have been found across Germany, all involving bits of metal contaminated with radioactive cobalt. And most of them come from the same source: three steelworks in India, in particular a company called Vipras Casting, based in Mumbai”. Later reports indicated that apart from Vipras Casting, there were another five companies involved. They were Bunts, Laxmi Steels, SMK Steels, Pradeep Metals, Goradia Special Steels Ltd.

In 2004, an industrial radiography source with a relatively high activity of 2.5 Curies (Ci) of Iridium-192 was stolen from the pit room of a radiography institute. AERB experts, with the help of the police, tracked it down to a scrap dealer and, fortunately, recovered it intact. A failure of the search could have resulted in a significant radiological accident. The same year, a nucleonic gauge (meant to measure thickness) containing about 190 mCi of Co-60 (a much weaker source) that was lying unattended for long was inadvertently sold to a scrap dealer in an auction. The dealer cut it open with a gas cutter, resulting in damage to the source capsule. This led to widespread radioactive contamination of the dealer's premises. Fortunately it was a weak source and did not cause serious harm to people or the environment. The Delhi University-Mayapuri case was a similar one, but the source was much stronger and the consequences were severe.

In August 2003, three spare level gauges, each containing a Co-60 source, though of mild activity, were stolen from the radioisotope storage room of the R&D department of Tata Steel in Jamshedpur. On investigation, the police concluded that they had been pilfered two months earlier by scrap thieves by boring the storage room wall. The stuff reached scrap dealers in Delhi via Kolkata. Search operations both in Delhi and Kolkata could not, however, recover the gauges with the sources. Other reported incidents have included the following, some which border on the hilarious:

On the night of August 26, 2009, an industrial radiography device of a company fell from a vehicle during transportation from Pune to Mumbai by road at Pimpri. AERB officials, with the help of the police, found that it had been picked up by a group of youngsters and taken to a village. From there it was recovered the next evening, fortunately intact.

On January 22, 2009, a Chennai-based firm reported the loss of an industrial source. The AERB found that an employee had stolen the device and thrown it out. The AERB located it.

On September 9, 2008, a 2 Ci Ir-192 industrial radiography exposure device belonging to a Delhi-based company was apparently stolen from the Hazrat Nizamuddin railway station while the radiographer was boarding the train. Despite extensive efforts, it could not be located.

In 2007, two instances of theft of radiography Ir-192 sources of fairly high strength from the source storage pit were reported: one from a fertilizer unit at Jagadishpur near Lucknow, and another from Tata Steel, Jamshedpur. Despite extensive search at many locations, including of scrap dealers, the devices could not be traced.

In 2006, a fairly high activity Ir-192 radiography source was lost while being transported in an autorickshaw. Despite an extensive search operation the device could not be located. If it ended up in a scrap market, there is the danger of exposure to the environment.

In May 2005, two Ir-192 sources of moderate activity were stolen from an industrial unit, but neither the AERB nor the police could locate them. In August 2005, an industrial radiography agency in Navi Mumbai reported a fairly strong Ir-192 source, along with the flexible ‘pigtail' attached to manoeuvre the source, was stolen. The AERB, with police assistance, found that a person working for another agency had stolen the source and thrown it into the Vashi Creek. Search operations with the help of the Navy were carried out, but the source could not be located.

In July 2002, a radiography camera with Ir-192 source of fairly high activity, kept in a locked briefcase, was lost in a public bus in which the radiography personnel of an agency were travelling. The AERB officials and the police searched the entire length of the highway they had travelled, in vain. The baggage was either stolen or had slipped out of the rear luggage hold, the AERB concluded.

The issue is clear. Radioactive material is mixed up in scrap – either imported or local -- and finding its way into steel making. Obviously, iron and steel scrap is used extensively in India and elsewhere for making steel. This steel is not only exported but also finds its way into domestically manufactured engineering goods. This is the danger – such “hot” steel is circulating in India already and the Government is taking no steps regarding such danger to its people. If more than 150 tonnes of steel have been reported to have such radioactive contamination, how much is circulating here? It would be foolish to think that only exported steel has been contaminated and not domestic manufacture.

We need to see that what measures Indian government would take in wake of the recent discovery of radioactive isotopes in steel scrap in New Delhi. As there are just about 1200 steel makers in India enforcement of a rule to install radioactivity detectors at their premises is not a tough call and can be done if the government so desires in public interest.

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