Radioactive material lies unclaimed for five years at Chennai airport

CHENNAI: An unidentified radioactive material has been lying unattended in a corner of Chennai airport’s cargo hold for more than five years. While clearing unclaimed cargo, airport officials stumbled upon two boxes marked ‘radioactive material’. Experts from the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) inspected the consignments and found one to be radioactive and the other inert.

It is unclear why the boxes were not claimed by the addressee. Airports Authority of India (AAI) is taking steps to re-export the material, which arrived from the US in 2008. The boxes contain non-fissile material classified as grade III, which means it is highly radioactive.

A senior official of AAI said the consignment was brought using a ‘special form’ as per rules governed by International Air Transport Association (IATA) and Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA). “It was kept in a secluded spot designated for such materials till consignees claimed it. However, it was not claimed and remained there for some reason,” he said.

As the airport is seeing an increase in the import of radioactive materials by hospitals for cancer care and use in research laboratories in recent years, AAI called experts from the radiological safety division of Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) in Kalpakkam and held a training session last Monday. More than 65 employees, including AAI officers, airline staff and other cargo workers, took part. “We held the training session to create awareness among workers about safe handling of radioactive consignments,” he said.

Radioactive materials are imported through big airports in small and large quantities. They are classified into four categories according to the amount of radiation it emits through the packaging. The categories are radioactive white I (very small amount of radiation), radioactive yellow II (some radiation), radioactive yellow III (radiation outside is greater than II and I) and white fissile.

An AERB brochure says that “radioactive materials are safe to handle in normal conditions” and “safe work practice prevents the possibility of exposure to any hazardous materials including radiation to handlers”. It also says that the amount of radiation a person gets depends on the time and proximity to the package.

Though workers keep such consignments in a secluded area as per DGCA rules, many may not be aware that they should not walk around it unnecessarily. Cargo employees often hang around in the place where parcels and crates are kept. AAI is trying to educate its employees to identify the grade of radioactive materials, handle them safely and keep a safe distance.

AAI will also install posters about safe handling of radioactive materials around the cargo complex and is planning to procure handheld gadgets to screen packages for radiation.


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