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'India's nuclear assets are very well protected'

By Pallava Bagla
August 17, 2016 08:42 IST
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Also: India's breakthrough in countering a 'dirty bomb'.

In this new world order where the entire globe is threatened by terrorism, the fear of the use of 'dirty bomb' or an explosive laced with radioactive material is genuine.

A new technology developed by scientists at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Mumbai almost eliminates a big source of this threat.

In an interview with Pallava Bagla, BARC Director K N Vyas enlists what India has done to contain and minimise this threat of 'dirty bombs.'

Lately, there is a lot of concern among people about these things called 'dirty bombs.' What is this 'dirty bomb' and should people in India fear that? How is it different from nuclear weapons?

Let me just clarify one thing, a 'dirty bomb' is not an atomic device, but it has a tendency to harm human beings in the same way as all radioactive products do.

We use radioactive products like cobalt-60 for cancer therapy etc. Now, if one wants to create a nuisance, one may take this radioactive material used for medical purposes and put it into say TNT (trinitrotoluene), or some sort of an explosive device, and then whenever that explosion occurs, the radiation would spread.

So there is a bomb in which you place some radioactive material to make it a little more 'dirty'?


Bombs are dirty, but this becomes dirtier.

Yes, so it is like this: Typically when you make some bomb and then you want to cause damage, you try to put some nails inside. So that they fly off and harm more number of people.

These radioactive materials are similar to that. They are put in the bomb and when it explodes, the whole area may get contaminated (with radiation).

The contamination can spread further. If there is very high wind (at the time of explosion or sometime later), then maybe the contamination will flow along with the wind, and as a result of that, the contamination will spread further.

But people must realise that while this 'dirty bomb' carries radioactive material, it is not an atom bomb.

So the explosion capability or the damage caused is considerably lower than what you find in a typical atomic bomb explosion like that of, say, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

For terrorists, the issue is not so much about creating a mushroom cloud, but to create a scare. How concerned should Indians be? Are Indian nuclear assets well protected?

See, basically nuclear assets in India are, in my opinion, very well protected. (The) ministry of home affairs is also taking very active interest in the protection of these things.

And then we have our BARC safety council, which is responsible for tracking the radioactive material being imported by various agencies in India, or distributed by BARC, for example.

So, as such, the possibility of radioactive materials getting into the hands of undesirable people, I personally feel, is relatively remote.

In addition to that, based on the directive of the MHA, we have made all over India locations where any radioactive material, if it is passing through the area, can be detected.

If any such incident takes place in the vicinity, we will be able to detect it, and correspondingly alert the authorities for taking corrective action.

So, what you are saying is that there is a group of people who are trained to look after instances of the use of a 'dirty bomb'? You can come to a conclusion fairly soon, if a 'dirty bomb' is used. Is that correct?

Yes, definitely.

So we have a radiation monitoring setup and also people who are trained, who can go to locations and figure out if there is a 'dirty bomb'?

Yes. Yes.

Can Indians be rest assured that if a 'dirty bomb' is used, you will track it and contain it? It that correct?

Once again, let me just make it clear. All over India,we have many locations, if there is a spread taking place, we will come to know.

But, let us say, if that particular place is 500 km away from that place where we have kept this particular monitoring station, definitely it will be difficult.

But at the same time, all the entry points, like airports, seaports etc we have put the detectors, so that an entry from anywhere, we'll be in a position to immediately verify and then confiscate the material if it is an unauthorised material.

People are not so worried about the nuclear material, which lies in the custody of nuclear scientists. They are more worried about nuclear material which lies in hospitals, in industrial units, like cesium and cobalt-60.
Is there something, which you have done to make cesium less susceptible to be used as a 'dirty bomb'?

See typically, cesium is being used in a form of a salt. Now, as you know, salt, supposing it is encased in a stainless steel capsule, it can easily be dispersed outside.

But just a couple of years ago, a programme was started and last year we made vitrified cesium into pencils.

Vitrified, meaning it is put in a form of a glass?

Yes, so supposing when you do glass pouring. Molten glass is poured into a particular shape, so molten glass is mixed with the cesium material and then it is put into a matrix of glass.

So, like other countries, where it (cesium) is used in powder form and you can mix it in water and use in a sprayer and spread over a city that is not possible to do in glass matrix since glass does not dissolve in water?

If you have this technology, this particular technology has been mastered very recently in India. So, in future whatever pencils will be generated for cesium, we propose that we will encase it in a glass matrix.

So we have found a technological solution for what could be a problem of creating a dirty bomb. Is that correct?


So, here we have done something, which would protect our citizens against a 'dirty bomb'.

Yes, we have. I would say it's quite a novel idea which has been used by us and the world has taken note of that. That, yes, this is a genuinely good idea. And we hope that, in the rest of the world the same philosophy is continued and adopted.

But lay people will not get to know that a radiation incident has happened?

No, it won't be like this. The Government of India has taken steps to identify which are those locations. And the number of locations will still increase with time.

And there is you can say 24 hours vigil, so the moment there is any such incident using a 'dirty bomb,' we will be in a position to know.


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Pallava Bagla
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