The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Toxic camera on the loose
A file picture of an industrial X-ray camera

New Delhi, July 5: A lost industrial camera containing enough radioactive iridium to endanger people within a half-kilometre radius has the country’s nuclear regulators on tenterhooks.

The camera, reported stolen from a factory in Amethi, is a health risk only if cut or broken open. Fragments of the gadget found in a nearby forest suggest the thieves may have done just this.

The industrial X-ray camera, used to check for metal cracks in petrochemical pipelines, has a core of iridium 192, derived from depleted uranium 235. If exposed, the 2.8mm x 2.1mm core can give off 2,500 milliroentgen of radiation, enough to cause cancer in anyone who rips the protective shell in which it is encased.

A mere 100-150 milliroentgen of radiation can cause a miscarriage, experts say. A 2,500-milliroentgen radiation can cause cancer or mutations that can lead to babies being born with physical and mental abnormalities.

The camera, the property of a Calcutta-based industrial testing house, was stolen from the Aditya Birla Group’s Indo-Gulf Fertiliser factory at Jagdishpur in Uttar Pradesh on April 25.

“I have since written to everybody, from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Lok Sabha Speaker to the chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) and the local police chief, asking for some kind of action because of the dangers involved,” said S. Chakraborty, head of Perfect Metal Testing Agency.

The 40-year-old Dum Dum cantonment-based company had shipped the camera to Jagdishpur to check Indo-Gulf’s pipes.

Chakraborty said he had been trying to sensitise the Uttar Pradesh police to the seriousness of the issue and hoped the camera would be found. “Not because it represents an investment for me but because of the threat to people.”

An AERB official said the camera’s iridium core “would remain radioactive in lower doses for another year and a half or so”. The regulatory board had sent a team to Jagdishpur to study the threat.

“If someone cuts it open, there is a danger. We know that and are searching for it,” said P.P. Srivastava, deputy inspector-general of police.

The police don’t yet suspect a terror link to the theft. Radiation terrorism, however, has been a threat ever since al Qaida suspect Jose Padilla was held in America five years ago for his alleged attempts to create a “radiological dispersion device”.

Such a device would combine a radioactive material with conventional explosives. Once the explosives are detonated, radiation would invade the environment, striking people unseen and unheard.

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