Originally Published 2011-12-27 00:00:00 Published on Dec 27, 2011
The recent Indian government's decision to equip 800 police stations in 80 cities with radiation monitors is a clear indication of how serious the threats posed by chemical, biological and radioactive (CBR) weapons is being taken.
Moves to enhance response to CBR attacks
The recent Indian government's decision to equip 800 police stations in 80 cities with radiation monitors is a clear indication of how serious the threats posed by chemical, biological and radioactive (CBR) weapons is being taken.

The Department of Atomic Energy has established 20 emergency response centres equipped with radiation monitors and protective gear for emergency response. These radiation detection systems could be fitted to Police Control Room vans for enhanced mobility.

The decision follows a serious incident of radioactive material, Cobalt-60 being found in a scrapyard in West Delhi in April last year. It was traced to Delhi University's chemistry department where it had been lying unused for 25 years before it was sold as scrap in February 2010. This resulted in the death of one person and radiation exposure to seven others. The incident, which occurred a few months prior to the Commonwealth Games, created wide spread panic not only in Delhi but also around the world. However this was not the first time radioactive material had found its way into unauthorized hands. In November 2000, Police seized 26Kg of Uranium and arrested two persons for illicit trafficking in Hyderabad. More recently, the lack of security was underscored when in November 2009 some rogue elements at the Kaiga Atomic Power Station in Karnataka, laced the drinking water with Tritium, contaminating around 90 employees.

Security agencies have for some time feared the possibility of terrorists using such material and other chemical, biological, radiological waste for low intensity strikes. According to a WHO study the dispersal of a 50 kilo bacterial agent on a five lakh population could result in 95,000 deaths, for Indian cities with a high population density, needless to say, the fatality would be far greater.

The incidents narrated raised alarms in the security establishment and brought to light the laxity in the enforcement of radioactive waste-disposal laws and also underlined the gravity of CBR threats.

The recent announcement comes at a time when there is global concern about such threats. Both the Defence Minister, AK Antony and Army Chief, General VK Singh have categorically expressed that their major concern was of attempts by non-state actors to acquire technical know-how to make or acquire a 'dirty bomb'. Radiological dispersal devices combining radioactive material with suitable explosives emanating from Pakistan with or without official connivance, remains a grave danger. The threat of a dirty bomb being smuggled in through Indian ports cannot be ruled out either as terrorists may try to exploit lax container security measures. Despite such threat assessments, there is no credible evidence yet of any terrorist or insurgent group getting access to such materials.

The gravity of the issue has forced the government to seek tighter measures on the scientific handling of radioactive materials and initiate a series of steps to prevent such lapses in the future. The Defence Research & Development Organization (DRDO) has already delivered more than 35 state-of-the-art products and systems to the tune of Rs500 crore for CBR defence to the Armed Forces. These unmanned ground vehicles are based on the BMP-II platform and are equipped to monitor contaminated areas.

The Mumbai Police became the country's first civilian force to train a batch of 56 commandos to handle a 'chemical emergency' under the guidance of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF).The Delhi Police was not far behind either as it procured a radiation meter and trained a dozen of its personnel with the help of the National Disaster Management Authority and Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. A batch of six officers was also trained to handle chemical and radiation exposure cases.

Counter measures to CBR threats are not just limited to the aforementioned states, the Directorate of Forensic Science Laboratories in Karnataka has developed a comprehensive plan to tackle smuggling and the illegal transportation of nuclear weapons and materials. It would also entail a nuclear-forensic investigation as a follow-up action after the seizure of the nuclear device or material, this plan however would kick off in 2018.

The Institute of Nuclear Medicine and Allied Sciences (INMAS) of Defence Research along with DRDO is strengthening its CBRN capabilities by extending training programmes to private and government institutes, health organisations and paramilitary forces. This would also include health institutes such as the Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER) where doctors and nurses are to be provided similar training in order to prepare them to deal with CBRN casualties. The CBRN defence planning is based on five pillars, namely; avoidance, detection, protection, decontamination, damage control or consequence management. Scientists from the Defence Research and Development Establishment, Gwalior along with ten other laboratories are working on a Rs 300 crore project to develop technologies for detection and protection against similar threats.

Having said that, meeting such challenges and equipping our forces is useful only if they are properly trained on the necessary equipment to carry out the specific tasks assigned.

Astik Sinha is Research Intern with ORF.

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