Delhi University's auctioning of a gamma irradiator containing Cobalt-60 without following procedures is the latest among 16 cases of radioactive material being stolen, lost or misplaced in the country in the past ten years.
The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), the apex radiation safety regulator of the country, said it has initiated investigation into at least 16 such incidents between 2000 and 2009.
One of the cases in 2004 was similar to that of the DU. An institution, name of which was not revealed by AERB, sold an "unused instrument with Cobalt-60" to a scrap dealer, who cut open the device leading to contamination of the premises. It was not mentioned whether anyone was injured in that incident.
According to the regulator, there have been only three recoveries, while the lost radioactive material in other incidents are yet to be traced.
In one of the cases, an employee with a Chennai-based company (Wens Quality Assurance Pvt Ltd) stole a radioactive source and threw it out in January 2009.
Fortunately, the source was recovered and taken back into safe custody and the company was issued a show-cause notice for the violations of AERB norms.
In August 2009, an industrial radiography device of a company reportedly fell from a vehicle during transportation from Pune to Mumbai by road at Pimpri. However, it was found intact from a village the next day.
In September 2008, a technician about to board a train at Hazrat Nizamuddin railway station here lost his suitcase containing an Industrial Gamma Radiography Exposure Device (IGRED). Despite extensive search by officials from AERB, the device could not be traced.
A "50 Ci Ir-192" industrial radiography source contained in Gammarid Radiography camera was stolen from the storage pit at Indo Gulf Fertiliser Ltd (IGFL) site in Jagadishpur, Uttar Pradesh in April 2007. Another such incident was reported by an institution in Jamshedpur three months later.
The sources in both the cases "could not be recovered despite extensive searches using high-sensitivity radiation survey instruments", says the AERB.
In 2006, in another city, a trainee radiographer and his assistant forgot a fairly high activity IGRED device inside an autorickshaw while carrying it from its storage facility. This has also not been traced yet.
Another IGRED model Techops-660 was reported stolen by a radiography agency the same year and has not been recovered yet. However, no radiation injury has been reported.
In 2005, two instances of radioactive source theft were recorded. In May, two Ir-192 sources of moderate activity were stolen from an industrial unit and there is no trace of it, while an industrial radiography agency in Navi Mumbai reported that a fairly strong Ir-192 source was stolen in August.
Investigations revealed 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 2004, AERB officials recovered an industrial radiography exposure device from a scrap dealer. It was stolen from the pit room of one of the radiography institute.
The same year, an incident similar to the latest case of Delhi University, has also been reported.
Without naming the city or the institution, AERB in its 2004 annual report has mentioned that an institution had sold an "unused instrument with Cobalt-60" to a scrap dealer, who cut open the device leading to contamination of his premises. However, AERB did not mention whether anyone was injured in that incident.
"The incident occurred mainly because the user institute failed in monitoring the safe storage and security arrangement provided to nucleonic device awaiting for safe disposal," the report says.
In 2003, three-level gauges containing Cobalt-60 radioactive sources were stolen from the R&D department of TISCO, Jamshedpur. Police investigations found that those were sold to a scrap dealer in Delhi, but could not be found.
Similarly, between 2000 and 2002, there have been at least three such incidents of loss, theft or misplacement of radioactive sources by institutions.
Besides, there were several instances of non-compliance by institutions with regulatory requirements during transport of such material.
According to an inventory maintained by AERB, there are over 1,500 radiography cameras, 7,850 nucleonic gauges (both are used in industrial inspections), 12 accelerators, 15 gamma irradiators among all have been scattered in over 1,800 institutions across the country.