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Nuclear Waste Leaves Workers Near Death in India

A scrap metal dealer clings to life and five of his employees are seriously ill as a result of being exposed to Cobalt-60.

by
Annie Jacobsen

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April 16, 2010 - 12:00 am
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Earlier this week, as world leaders at the Nuclear Security Summit discussed President Obama’s plan for securing all nuclear materials around the world within four years, a real nuclear drama was unfolding half way across the world at the Indraprastha Apollo Hospital in New Delhi.

At least seven people are battling for their lives in India after being exposed to the deadly radioactive element Cobalt-60. In critical condition and near death is Deepak Jain, an Indian scrap metal dealer, in whose shop “eight bags” of radioactive wires and metal scraps were found. In late March, after cutting into a “mysterious shining object” that began to ooze white liquid, Jain was exposed to potentially lethal doses of Cobalt-60. His skin, severely burned, turned black as did his finger and toenails. By the time he reached the hospital, Jain had lost all his body hair according to the Hindustan Times. Five of the six other individuals exposed to the Cobalt-60, all workers in Jain’s shop, are in critical condition.

Indian officials with the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) cordoned off the area in West New Delhi, which is home to 14 million people. Calling it the “worst case of radiation poisoning in India,” officials armed with Geiger counters descended upon the junk shop and packed up radioactive materials.

To date, no one has been able to determine where the Cobalt-60 originally came from. “The material has been shielded in lead flasks and is being sent for examination. It was broken into many pieces and it was difficult to trace all of them. It constituted of Cobalt-60,” S.K. Malhotra, spokesman for the AERB, has been widely quoted as saying.

A spokesman for the Bhabha Atomic Research Center, India’s largest nuclear facility, says that anyone who visited Jain’s junk shop in the past 20 days should immediately go to the hospital to be tested for radiation poisoning.

Cobalt-60 is atomic waste, a radioactive by-product of nuclear reactors. It was co-discovered by Glenn T. Seaborg, who was also the co-discoverer of plutonium, which, along with uranium, is used to make nuclear bombs.

With only 60-70 doctors reportedly in all of India equipped to deal with the kind of radioactive disaster unfolding in West New Delhi, atomic energy officials in India are urging caution and calm despite a growing sense of panic among some locals. On April 14, nearly a week after the first source was discovered, a second Cobalt-60 source was found and isolated in a junk shop a few blocks from Deepak Jain’s. “The area is secure and there was no need to cordon off the area,” Delhi Police spokesman Rajan Bhagat told the Times of India.

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