Indonesian officials confirmed Tuesday that radioactive material had contaminated a piece of land in a residential complex near Jakarta, sparking public health concerns as nuclear authorities vowed to investigate its source.
An elevated level of the isotope Caesium-137 was detected during a routine radioactivity test near a multi-family housing in Serpong, about 30 km (18 miles) west of Indonesia’s capital, according to Bapeten, the nation’s Nuclear Energy Regulatory Agency.
“This is unusual because it’s not a place for dumping nuclear waste,” Research and Higher Education Minister Bambang Brodjonegoro told a news conference on Tuesday.
Around 5,000 people, including 1,000 children, live in the Batan Indah residential complex, local officials said.
Nine people who live near the contaminated site have been put under observation and contamination test results are expected to be completed in the next three days, according to Bapeten, which has been regularly checking activity levels in the area since 2013.
Caesium-137 is used in medical radiation therapy devices for treating cancer and in industrial equipment to measure the thickness of materials such as paper or sheets of metal, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The contaminated land within the complex is about 4.5 km (2.8 miles) from a research nuclear reactor operated by the Center for Scientific and Technological Research.
“The contamination is not from the nuclear reactor,” Bambang said.
“There’s no contamination of radioactive [material] at the nuclear facility. Management [at the reactor] has been very good, so there’s no way any contamination can find a way to another area, because it’s quite far,” he said, adding that police and nuclear authorities were investigating.
Bapeten, in a statement on Friday, said it had detected radiation levels of 140 microSv per hour in the location, alarming residents who raised questions about its source. The safe level is 0.11 microSv per hour, authorities said.
Workers have excavated the soil that was exposed to radioactive waste, Bapeten chief Jazi Istiyanto said. He said he suspected that the contamination came from waste from industrial use.
“This cannot be classified as a nuclear accident, but pollution of radioactive waste. It’s a far cry from the Fukushima and Chernobyl accidents,” he said, referring to the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, Japan that was triggered by the 2011 earthquake, and the nuclear reactor accident at Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986.
Jazi said Bapeten would collect the data on users of radioactive isotope Caesium-137 throughout the country to help with the police investigation.
Questions raised on Jakarta’s plans to build nuclear plants
The discovery of radioactive waste in a residential area raised questions about the government’s plans to build a nuclear power plant, said Greenpeace, the environmental conservation group.
“This incident is a bad precedent for the government and Batan because they have failed to maintain public safety from the danger of radioactive waste,” Greenpeace’s climate and energy campaigner Hindun Mulaika said in a statement.
“Not only must nuclear reactors be safe from technical errors, human and natural disasters, the disposal of nuclear waste also needs special attention,” she said. “This incident is a strong warning to governments that are aggressively promoting nuclear use in the energy sector.”
Indonesia has no nuclear power industry, although it has conducted feasibility studies in West Kalimantan province. Results on those studies, as well as infrastructure reviews, are expected to be completed in the next two to three years, officials said.