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12th April 2023 (7 Topics)

Emerging hazards of radioactive contamination


As per the latest data, radioactive materials or contaminated devices are entering the booming scraps recycling chain, posing a grave health hazard.

About the data:

  • Released by: The annual data on the illicit trafficking of nuclear and other radioactive material released by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
  • For this database, participating members report three groups of incidents.
  • According to IAEA,
  • Group I includes incidents that are or are likely to be, connected with trafficking or malicious use;
  • Group II covers incidents of undetermined intent; and
  • Group III accounts for incidents that are not, or are unlikely to be, connected with trafficking or malicious use.
  • The most common source of such contamination is the feed material (in most cases, metal) from which the product had been manufactured.

Radioactive waste and Pollution:

  • Water and air contamination caused by radioactive elements is known as radioactive pollution. It can produce dangerous pollution if radioactive waste is not disposed of properly.
  • Radioactive elements are naturally found in the earth’s crust.
  • Uranium, thorium and actinium are three NORM (Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials) series that contaminate water resources.
  • A small amount of radiation is found in all types of water but the extended amount of radiation is harmful to human health.

Note: Radioactivity in drinking water can be determined by a gross alpha test.

  • Radioactivity is measured in Becquerel (SI unit) or in Curie. The unit Sievert measures the quantity of radiation absorbed by human tissues.

Sources of Radioactive waste generation:

  • Atmospheric Deposition of Cosmogenic Radionuclides:
    • Atmospheric deposition (both dry and wet) of cosmogenic radionuclides adds radioactive nuclei in the surface water.
    • Cosmogenic radionuclides are radioactive isotopes which are produced by natural processes and distributed within the Earth system.
  • Nuclear Reactors and Warheads:
    • Nuclear reactors and nuclear warhead experiments are the key sources of human-induced radionuclides discharge.
    • Nuclear reactors produce radioisotopes (Cobalt-60, Iridium-192, etc.) that hand out as sources of gamma radiation in radiotherapy and numerous industrial appliances.
    • Nuclear power plants placed in coastal regions add to the radiological contaminants in marine water by releasing atomic wastes.
  • Dumping of Radioactive Waste:
    • The application of radioactive elements in nuclear weapons, X-rays, MRI and other medical equipment causes their exposure to human beings. Dumping of these radioactive wastes in surface water bodies causes water pollution.
  • Mining:
  • Mining activities of radioactive elements like uranium and thorium also pollute surface and groundwater.

Health Impacts and Concerns:

  • Radiation Syndrome:
    • Human tissues absorb radiation through polluted water and foodstuff, which can cause serious health risks. High doses of radiation can cause acute radiation syndrome or dermal radiation injury.
  • Disorders in Human Physiology:
    • Exposure to radiation causes various disorders in human physiology, including cancer, leukaemia, genetic mutations, cataracts, etc.
  • Mutation and Structural Alteration:
    • Genetic effects ionizing radiation induces mutations in germ cells(male sperm cells and female egg cells), resulting in structural alteration in germ cell DNA that are passed on to offsprings.
    • Hereditary disorders can lead to premature death and severe mental illness.

The Atomic Energy Act, 1962:

  • The Act articulates India’s resolve to pursue the development, control and use of atomic energy1 for the welfare of the people of India and for other peaceful purposes and for matters connected therewith.
  • This Act confers on the Government of India, the powers and responsibilities for framing of Rules and issuance of notifications for implementing the provisions of the Act.
  • The powers and responsibilities include those for:
    • Production, development, use and disposal of atomic energy / radioactive substances;
    • Control over radioactive substances or radiation-generating plants in order to prevent radiation hazards, secure public safety and safety of persons handling radioactive substances or radiation-generating plant and ensure safe disposal of radioactive wastes.

In accordance with these mandates, the Central Government has promulgated the;

  • Atomic Energy (Radiation Protection) Rules, 2004,
  • the Atomic Energy (Working of the Mines Minerals and Handling of the Prescribed Substances) Rules, 1984,
  • the Atomic Energy (Safe Disposal of Radioactive Wastes) Rules, 1987,
  • the Atomic Energy (Factories) Rules, 1996 and the Atomic Energy (Radiation Processing of Food and Allied Products) Rules, 2012

These laws formulate the policy and regulatory framework for control of activities and for ensuring safety in the activities relating to use of atomic energy.

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