No more Mayapuri accidents

Published : Jan 14, 2011 00:00 IST

THE first radiation death in India at Mayapuri, Delhi, opened the eyes of everyone including the regulators. The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) must have zero tolerance for laxity from anyone. We cannot have other Mayapuri accidents. The AERB must be made a statutory organisation.

Praful Bidwai judged the AERB very harshly (Yawning nuclear gap, June 4, 2010). The AERB needs to be replaced with a truly independent, well-staffed, competent body, he suggested. The AERB has 165 professionally trained officers. Many of them are M.Tech degree holders from the Indian Institutes of Technology. It is not easy to replace them.

Bidwai's conceptual misunderstanding is evident. About the radiation equipment at Delhi University, he said: It initially contained a formidable 3,000 curies (Ci) of radioactivity, about three to four times more than most diagnostic X-ray machines. To show the AERB is not equipped to handle its regulatory responsibility, Bidwai added all radiation installations including X-ray units and devices containing radioactive materials to get a large number of items (of over 60,000), assuming wrongly that the regulatory measures for each of them would be similar.

The AERB does not keep track of when the X-ray units reach their use-by dates, Bidwai wrote in Rediff News (May 7, 2010). He believes that X-ray units, like packed food and medicines, have an expiry date!

Contrary to Bidwai's understanding, the AERB does not collect radioactive sources from the users. Users must hand them over to agencies authorised by the AERB. The board enforces the relevant rules in letter and spirit.

The AERB played no real role in tracking the sources at Mayapuri.... It was the police who traced the radioactive material using well-established methods of interrogation of traders, Bidwai said. The inputs collected from the victims by Rajoo Kumar, an AERB scientist, helped identify the origin of the source. Truth will not make good copy.

The AERB sent two officers to Mayapuri shortly after receiving the news about the accident. They identified the shops where the radiation levels were high, prepared improvised shields using steel plates, etc., reduced the dose levels and cordoned off the area. Then the Department of Atomic Energy's Crisis Management Group took over as per the standard operating procedure. During April 8-15, 2010, scientists from the AERB and other DAE units and officials from the National Disaster Response Force recovered the sources.

Bidwai asserted that there was no evidence that the AERB had collected relevant data to estimate dose. Such estimates based mostly on victims' memory are unreliable. Scientists used the internationally accepted biodosimetry method to estimate doses to the victims. Bidwai alleged that the AERB personnel did not ask the right questions. I had access to the reports filed by the AERB staff. The investigation was thorough. The police complemented the AERB's efforts.

According to Bidwai, the AERB staff eventually tried to shirk their real responsibility by launching a training programme. Offering safety-related information is the AERB's duty. Had scrap dealers implemented the AERB's earlier suggestions, this accident would not have happened. Bidwai never lost an opportunity to highlight the AERB's alleged dependence on the DAE. I participated in or was a witness to the developments in the AERB over the first 20 years. I am not aware of a single instance in which the DAE or anyone else put any pressure on the board.

Contrary to Bidwai's statement, the AERB explained the Narora fire incident and the remedial measures taken in its annual report of 1993-94: In a special Board Meeting held on July 6, 1993, the Board decided to sequentially shut down as a matter of abundant caution, all PHWR-based nuclear power reactors to inspect the turbines and generators and their associated components. The Nuclear Power Corporation implemented all AERB recommendations.

When there was chronic power scarcity across the nation, it was not a pleasant decision to shut down power stations. But the AERB never shirked its responsibility when the need arose. In 2007, the AERB withdrew the construction licence of Units 5 & 6 of the Rajasthan Atomic Power Project when it found poor industrial safety status. It lifted the hold only after NPCIL ensured enhanced safety arrangements.

From the annual reports of AERB, I counted over 50 regulatory actions which the AERB took against DAE units. Though the losses ran to several million rupees, the NPCIL implemented AERB directives without preferring appeals. The AERB enjoys functional autonomy.

Bidwai's allegation that the AERB demands huge amounts of information from applicants is not true. The AERB collects information as listed in the rules and mandatory procedures.

While constructive criticism is essential, one should not go overboard just because one delinquent licencee grossly violated fundamental safety provisions.

Dr. K.S. Parthasarathy Former Secretary, AERB, Mumbai

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