On Monday, Thane Police arrested two people for trying to sell Depleted Uranium (DU) plates. Thane is just on the outskirts of Mumbai Metropolitan area. By doing this arrest, the Police have discovered a grey market for sale of radioactive materials. Inspector Ravindra Doiphone of the Thane police’s anti-chain snatching squad received a tip-off that two people, frequent flier Saifullah Khan and the owner of a scrap dealing unit Kishore Prajapati, were on the lookout for a buyer for an unusual metal, which on investigation was found to be depleted uranium.

The police decided to send a decoy to investigate and purchase the material. The duo reportedly told that the cost would be Rs. 3cr. per kilo and asked for the payment for the consignment to be made in gold biscuits. A small amount was initially paid in return for the 1st consignment. As soon as they got the initial batch, the police sent it to BARC for tests and they confirmed it to be radioactive DU with around 0.3 per cent content of the fissile isotope U-235 from outside the country. The police then asked the duo to get another batch of the material. When the package arrived, the two were detained. “We are still trying to find out how the duo got access to the uranium.

This uranium has already been used abroad and then brought in. It appears that the person may have access to some installation, using which they got delivery of the used uranium. The other way could be that one of them may have links to some military application. We are interrogating them and in the next few days it should be clear as to how they got access to the uranium,” said an officer linked to the probe. One needs to have permission from the Atomic Energy Commission to use any radioactive material. “The two persons from whom the uranium was seized will be booked under the Atomic Energy Act of 1962”, according Joint Commissioner of Police Ashutosh Dumbhare and he also mentioned that the DU appears to have been smuggled into the country.

WHAT EXACTLY IS DEPLETED URANIUM?

Depleted uranium, also referred to as DU, is uranium with a lower content of the fissile isotope U-235 than natural Uranium. In its native state, DU is a mixture of of the highly radioactive uranium-235 and the less active U-238. When uranium 235 is used in nuclear reactors, the remainder of its extract is Depleted Uranium. Depleted Uranium is also a by-product of war. While it is poisonous like lead and mercury, it is slightly radioactive unlike them. Its civilian uses include as counterweights in aircraft, in radiation shielding in medical radiation therapy and industrial radiography equipment, and as containers for transporting radioactive materials. Military uses include in armour plating and armour-piercing projectiles.

Several Western countries that used the material in weaponry have stopped using it following several studies that pointed to the negative impact of DU on health. Once a depleted-uranium round strikes its target, the projectile begins to burn on impact, creating tiny particles of radioactive U-238. Winds can transport this radioactive dust many miles, potentially contaminating the air that innocent humans breathe. This inhalation may cause lung cancer, kidney damage, cancers of bones and skin, as well as birth defects and chemical poisoning.

WHAT IS THE OTHER WORRY THAT WE HAVE?

India has had many reported and unreported thefts of radioactive materials, especially uranium, over the years. CISF, the security force which provides security to our nuclear installations are grossly understaffed. That apart, most of the installations are in areas which are either close to leftist ruled areas or naxal hotspots. In many cases the stolen radioactive materials have been sold to North Korea, Pakistan and even within India. Just recently there was an expose of Yasin Bhatkal, a terrorist, revealing that he wanted to make a nuclear bomb with Pakistan’s help and bomb Surat.

 Jharkhand is the only Indian state that produces uranium.


Rati Hegde