NEW DELHI—Six senior professors at the University of Delhi face up to 2 years in prison over their roles in India's first fatality from accidental exposure to radiation. On 2 September, Delhi police charged the university's former science dean and five colleagues in the chemistry department with "causing death by negligence" and violating the Atomic Energy Act over the improper disposal of a derelict gamma-ray research device in 2010.
The unprecedented case has shaken India's scientific community. "This should serve as a wakeup call," says metallurgist Srikumar Banerjee, chair of the Atomic Energy Commission in Mumbai. "The responsibility of maintaining the equipment was clearly with the university authorities."
The accident occurred after a University of Delhi official ordered a campus-wide spring cleaning to create space for newly recruited staff members. An auction committee cleared the sale of a Gamma cell 220 research irradiator, which a university chemist had imported from Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. in 1968 but which had lain unused since 1985. On 26 February 2010, the university auctioned the 3500-kilogram device to a scrap dealer. Seven scrapyard workers, unaware that the machine they were dismantling contained cobalt-60—a radioactive, gray-blue metal resembling nickel—fell ill; one died.
India's nuclear watchdog, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board in Mumbai, labeled the incident a "serious violation" and banned the University of Delhi from using any radioactive sources for several months. Last January, it allowed the university to resume using "low radiation sources."
Last week, Delhi police laid the blame for the worker's death on the six members of the auction committee: Rup Lal, then University of Delhi's science dean; V S Parmar, then head of the chemistry department; and professors Rita Kakkar, Ramesh Chandra Rastogi, Ashok Kumar Prasad, and Rakesh Kumar. Rastogi told ScienceInsider that it's unfair for the committee to take the rap. India's atomic energy establishment should be held responsible for having lost track of an orphan radioactive source, he insists. "They never bothered to monitor it ever since it was imported with their permission in 1968," he contends. A lower court will hear the case on 21 September.
Banerjee doesn't wholly buy Rastogi's defense. "It is a serious lapse and people should be punished," he says. However, Banerjee acknowledges that the incident "is probably a collective and systemic failure." Physicist Ajay Sood, president of the Indian Academy of Sciences, says the academy's ethics committee is likely to investigate the matter. "Important lessons need to be learnt arising out this gross negligence," Sood says.