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Nuclear and Radiological Emergencies: Preparedness and Response by Dr M C Abani

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Author: Dr M C Abani

Hitherto Three Mile Island in the US and Chernobyl in Russia were the benchmarks for accidents in nuclear facilities and Hiroshima and Nagasaki for the deliberate use of nuclear weapons for mass destruction for strategic reasons. The “event” in Fukushima in Japan where the earthquake caused a chain reaction of tsunami and breakdown of emergency equipment at the plant the whole paradigm of CBRN disaster management has had to be revisited and revised.

India, which has a massive programme for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy as well as a strategic deterrence capability, is being pressurised by civil sector activists to learn and implement the lessons from Fukushima even to the extent of demanding that new nuclear projects be held in abeyance till a comprehensive review is completed. These are legitimate fears and government must respond with transparent acts and multi-level interventions to allay these fears and ensure that everything nuclear is controllable.

Around the world, nuclear energy is extensively used in the field of power generation, medicine, industry, agriculture and research and also for strategic applications. A nuclear or radiological emergency can arise during storage, transport or use of radioactive material in a nuclear facility or in public domain. Terrorist activity can also lead to such a situation. Since uncontrolled exposure to radiation can be detrimental to human health as well as to the environment, it is essential that proper plans to handle these emergencies are in place. Exposure during an emergency can be through different pathways. When large area of ground is contaminated, this will also affect both the water resources and food chain.

Emergency response centres

To handle an emergency the prime requirement is to have trained manpower, proper monitoring instruments and personal protective gear. In addition support from the various agencies viz. fire services, medical, police, civil defence, NGOs etc. will be vital. Infrastructure in the form of widespread monitoring network, roads, transport arrangements, health services, shelters, food, water etc. will also be of paramount importance. As a part of this programme, an Emergency Response Centre (ERC) is to be established from where all command and control will be executed. This article describes the various likely scenarios and preparedness in the form of capacity building, so that there is an effective response in case of an emergency.

India’s nuclear programme

For the last four decades India has been exploiting its nuclear energy programme for peaceful purposes and reaping its benefit to improve the quality of life for its vast population. It has a very ambitious nuclear energy programme for the future also. It is also a nuclear weapon State. Due to inherent safety culture, the best safety practices and standards followed and effective regulation by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), chance of a nuclear / radiological emergency arising in a nuclear facility in our country is very remote. However, nuclear / radiological accident leading to an emergency can still arise due to factors beyond the control of the operating agencies e.g., human error, system failure, sabotage, earthquake, cyclone, flood, tsunami, etc.

Natural disasters have been recurring phenomena in India, leading to extensive loss of life, livelihood and property. Of late, it has become equally vulnerable to various man-made disasters which can also lead to similar type of losses. Nuclear or radiological emergency is one facet of the man-made emergency.

Classification of emergencies

International atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) classifies the emergency scenarios under two broad categories of emergencies viz. nuclear and radiological. In both the situations resulting exposure to the personnel in the affected area is in excess of the exposure limit. It defines these as follows:

A nuclear emergency refers to a situation in which there is or is presumed to be a hazard due to the release of energy along with radiation from a nuclear chain reaction (or from the decay of the products of a chain reaction). This covers accidents in nuclear reactors, “criticality” in fuel cycle facilities, nuclear explosions, etc. Examples are the accidents at TMI in USA and Chernobyl in erstwhile USSR, recent happenings at Fukushima in Japan, etc.

All other emergency situations, which have the potential hazard of radiation exposure due to decay of radioisotopes are classified as radiological emergencies. Examples are the accidents that took place at Goiania in Brazil, San Salvador, Istanbul in Turkey, Panama and Mayapuri in New Delhi, etc.

Containment strategy

In spite of the best safety measures employed during handling of the radioactive material, an accident may take place. In addition, there are situations where by the deliberate use of the radioactive material, an emergency situation is created in public domain. Once such an emergency occurs, comprehensive measures would need to be taken to contain it. Immediate effect of an emergency situation may manifest in release of radioactivity. Given below is a list of various types of situations that can cause an emergency:1. Accidents including criticality accidents at nuclear facilities:

  • 1. Nuclear reactors (power, nuclear ship and research reactors).
    • Fuel cycle facilities viz. fuel fabrication facilities, reprocessing facilities, waste management facilities etc.
    • Spent fuel storage facilities.
    • Radiochemical laboratories.
  • 2. Accident at industrial facilities:
    • Large irradiation facilities (e.g., industrial irradiators).
    • Radiopharmaceutical manufacturing.
    • High strength sources used in industry, medicine etc. (e.g. used for radiography, teletherapy etc.).
  • 3. Accidents due to ‘orphan’ radioactive sources (a source lost, found, stolen or abandoned).
  • 4. A crash of a nuclear powered satellite.
  • 5. A mishap with a nuclear powered submarine.
  • 6. Accidents during transportation of nuclear material.
  • 7. Radioactive waste going into water resources.
  • 8. High explosives in combination with radioactive material.
  • 9. Terrorist activities, sabotage or acts using radioactive material to jeopardise national security.
  • 10. Illicit trafficking of the radioactive sources.
  • 11. Use of improvised nuclear devices.
  • 12. Nuclear attack / explosions.

These emergencies can happen at national territory or sometimes near national borders. Above list of emergences is not exhaustive.

A large-scale nuclear disaster, resulting from a nuclear weapon attack (as happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki) would lead to mass casualties and destruction of large area and property. This scenario is not covered in this article.

Radiological dispersal device

In an RDD (also known as dirty bomb) the conventional explosive such as dynamite is packaged with radioactive material that scatters when the bomb goes off. It is not a Weapon of Mass Destruction (WMD), at the most it can be called a Weapon of Mass Disruption. Explosion of an RDD would not result in fatalities due to radiation. The fatalities, if any, would primarily be due to the associated explosion. However, it may contaminate a large area, besides its main potential of causing panic and disruption.

Improvised nuclear device

Similarly, malicious use of special nuclear material (whose accessibility is not as widespread as that of radioisotopes), when used in the form of improvised nuclear device, is yet another issue that deserves attention. Successful explosion of an IND may have catastrophic effect similar to that of a nuclear weapon.

A radioactive source which is not under the regulatory control is termed as an orphan source. Such a source when found, lost, stolen or abandoned may lead to an emergency situation. There is no unique way to cope with the various emergency situations described above. Each scenario requires its own overall strategy, consisting of specific monitoring programme, interpretation of the monitored data, determining public protecting actions and controlling emergency workers’ doses and the various countermeasures that are to be taken to mitigate the situation. By taking proper counter measures in time, public at large can be saved to a great extent from the harmful effects of the radiation and overall disastrous effects can be minimised.

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