Nuclear technology has touched lives all around the world in many ways. From its role in providing energy to around 15 per cent of the world’s population to its application in numerous medical procedures, nuclear technology finds a widespread use. In Nepal, the use of nuclear technology is almost exclusively confined to hospitals, to procedures like PET scans and radiation therapy. While it is positive to see Nepali hospitals using such modern techniques to diagnose and treat patients, it is also important that we be aware that nuclear medicine produces waste, which, if not handled and disposed of properly, can pose serious threat to those who come in contact with it.
There are many types of radiation, including alpha, beta, gamma, X-ray and positron. Radioactive substances produce these radiations naturally (X-rays are produced by atomic reactions), through naturally occurring events called “radioactive decay.” How actively a material is ‘decaying’ is measured by a property called its ‘activity.’ The greater the ‘activity’ of a sample, the more radiation it is emitting. Some of these radiations have the capacity to penetrate the skin, reaching the organs protected within. When this happens, these radiations increase the chances of body cells mutating, which may lead to cancer.
Nuclear medicine makes use of radioactive material, which in many cases remains active even after it becomes no longer fit to be used on patients. Generally considered “low-level waste,” this spent radioactive material can, however, pose risks for severe accidents. The Goiania accident is an example. In Goiania (Brazil) in 1985, after a radiotherapy unit was decommissioned, a device was left in the premises unattended. Radioactive scrap parts of this device were distributed around the locality, their ‘glow in the dark’ feature making them attractive. A few weeks later, locals started showing gastrointestinal symptoms due to irradiation. Lives were lost and many were contaminated. With the growing usage of nuclear medicine in hospitals, and without proper management of radioactive devices and units, it is not unlikely that a similar situation will not arise in Nepal.
But as may be expected, the situation of management of nuclear waste in Nepal seems dismal. Since nuclear medicine is still in its raw stages in Nepal, and given that Kathmandu is struggling to deal with even normal household garbage, it doesn’t come as a surprise that matters of Nuclear Safety are unsystematic and mismanaged. Although it is mildly encouraging to see that Nepal is a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency and that it has signed the international “Joint Convention on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management,” we still don’t have a regulation board or commission to monitor and control Nuclear Safety. No official records are kept of the use of radioactive materials, while international regulation demands that a facilitated and detailed “log-book” be kept. Also, our government has no track of the number, scale or types of radiological facilities in the country. The lack of a national Act (concerning radiation) means that the international guidelines aren’t strictly followed and this inevitably leads to the matter of nuclear safety being taken very loosely.
As such, it is important to raise awareness amongst the mass regarding radiation. As hospitals upgrade their equipment, introducing more complex machines for diagnosis and treatment, it is essential that the safety aspects of the technology are reviewed and monitored. If not, with a likely unchecked and uncontrolled proliferation of nuclear technology, the risk of a tragic nuclear accident will only increase. And clearly, our nation isn’t in a position to afford many more problems.