Forget Loose Nuclear Weapons, It’s Loose Nuclear Waste That is the Real Worry

While The New York Times was busy raising alarmist warnings about a new nuclear arms race in South Asia and the danger of Pakistani nuclear weapons falling into the arms of terrorists, it so far seems to have missed a story from the region about a far more immediate nuclear scare that broke over the weekend.

In New Delhi, a panicked neighborhood was cordoned off by authorities and swept with Geiger counters and portable spectrometers after five people became ill following contact with a “mysterious shiny metal object” in a local scrap dealer’s shop. The object turned out to be a bar of radioactive Cobalt-60, which is used in industrial radiography and in medical devices used in cancer treatment. The workers, one of whom is fighting for his life after suffering serious radiation burns (and the four others who probably have a significantly increased risk of cancer now), had bought the scrap material from another dealer in Faridabad, one’s Delhi’s sprawling exurbs. The original source of the Cobalt-60 has not yet been determined, but there is quite a bit of speculation, with some guessing that it likely came from one of India’s hospitals and others saying it may have been imported improperly from abroad as scrap or perhaps properly imported and then improperly dumped on the scrap metal market by someone looking to make a buck.

Either way, the case raises a host of troubling questions. For one thing, it highlights a common problem in India: the country has good laws on its books, including laws about how hazardous waste should be disposed of, and yet these laws are rarely enforced. And without enforcement, good laws are as good as useless. Hazardous waste will continue to sicken and kill innocent people. India has a rapidly expanding medical establishment, with more and more hospitals acquiring advanced equipment and yet the means of disposing of the radioactive material associated with some of these devices has not kept pace. This is true in general for all kinds of electronic waste, or “e-waste” — like discarded computers and mobile phones — many of which contain all kinds of hazardous materials.

As I have written about before in other venues, the Third World has become a dumping ground for hazardous waste from the First World. Often this waste is bought by unscrupulous dealers who claim they will recycle the waste or dispose of it properly, but who instead simply dump it places where it sickens people and pollutes the environment. (Or sometimes, the waste is, in fact, recycled but in a manner that is extremely hazardous the health of the poor people employed in the recycling operation.)

The Delhi case raises some other very troubling issues: how good is the city’s surveillance for radiation leaks? The Cobalt-60 at the scrap dealer’s shop was only discovered after several workers had reported to area hospitals complaining of mysterious symptoms, including the fact that their hair and nails were falling out. The owner of the shop — who is in most serious condition now — had to visit several different hospitals before he received an accurate diagnosis. It was only he showed up at a large private hospital with his skin turning black from radiation burns that a doctor made the right call and also alerted the country’s radioactive incident response teams. That was apparently about two weeks after this radioactive material was brought to the scrap dealer’s shop. That really gives me peace of mind.

Worse, after the material was discovered, the first responders did not have the right kind of equipment — like lead-lined containers — to properly shield the Cobalt-60 so it would not continue to expose people in the neighborhood to dangerous radiation. That equipment only arrived the next day! Instead, for the first 24 hours, they just tried to bury the Cobalt-60 deeper in a pile of other metal to minimize the radiation. Again, in the country’s capital, that does not seem very reassuring.

Also, the more of this kind of industrial radioactive material floating around scrap dealerships in the developing world, the more chance there is that a terrorist will get his hands on some to construct a dirty bomb. While the consequences of a terrorist getting a hold of a real nuclear weapon are potentially cataclysmic, stealing a nuclear bomb is, luckily, still not that easy. Building a dirty bomb, however, is by comparison a piece of cake.

So while the world is discussing nuclear security in Washington, perhaps it should also spend a bit of time thinking about the safe disposal of radioactive waste.

Jeremy Kahn is an independent journalist based in New Delhi, India, where he covers everything from politics and foreign affairs to business and the arts. In addition to The Faster Times, his work has ...read more

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