Indonesian Police: Radioactive Waste Traced to Ex-Nuclear Agency Employee

Ronna Nirmala
200225_ID_radioactive_1000.JPG Indonesian workers decontaminate the soil in a residential complex near Jakarta, Feb. 17, 2020.

Radioactive waste found in a patch of land in a residential complex near Jakarta was dumped there by a former employee of the state-run nuclear energy agency, police said Tuesday.

Investigators had also found depleted uranium and an empty cylinder in two houses in the same neighborhood in Serpong, about 30 km (18 miles) west of Jakarta, authorities said.

An elevated level of the Caesium-137 isotope was detected near a multi-family housing complex during a routine test last week for radioactivity, the nation’s Nuclear Energy Regulatory Agency (Bapeten) revealed on Feb. 16.

“The owner [of the radioactive material] is known to be a retired Batan employee,” national police spokesman Argo Yuwono told BenarNews.

He was using the Indonesian name for the National Nuclear Energy Agency, a separate institution involved in research and development of atomic technology.

Argo said police had not charged the person, a resident of the complex that houses Batan employees. Around 5,000 people, including 1,000 children, live in the gated community, local officials said.

It was not immediately clear if the former employee was working at the nuclear energy agency when the contamination occurred. Authorities declined to provide more information about him.

So far, police have questioned 17 witnesses including Batan employees and local residents, Argo said.

Bapeten, which regulates and monitors activities on the use of nuclear energy in Indonesia, said it had detected radiation levels of 140 microSv per hour in an empty piece of land in the complex, alarming residents who raised questions about its source. The safe level is 0.11 microSv per hour, authorities said.

Officials have said that the substance did not originate from a nuclear reactor, which is used for research, about 4.5 km (2.8 miles) from the contaminated land.

On Tuesday, Batan chief Anhar Riza Antariksawan urged the police to look into possible illegal possession of radioactive substances.

“Illegal possession of nuclear or radioactive materials is highly prohibited because it could endanger the public,” Anhar said in a statement.

Meanwhile, police found a depleted uranium cylinder – weighing about 4.5 kilograms (10 pounds) – and an empty depleted uranium cylinder in the same residential complex in the houses of two current Batan employees, identified by their initials S.M. and E.F., Argo said.

Argo said he did not know if they were linked to the retired Batan employee.

“These things are being investigated. We will make an announcement later,” he said.

Civilian uses of depleted uranium include shielding in medical radiation therapy and industrial radiography equipment, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Abdul Qohar Teguh, spokesman for the nuclear regulatory agency Bapeten, said the radioactive contamination was still within safe limits, so it was not necessary to evacuate the complex.

“Once the source was secured, the soil returned to normal background values. So there is no need to evacuate the residents,” he said.

Cleaning work on contaminated soil resumed on Monday after it was halted at the weekend for evaluation, Batan spokesman Heru Umbara said.

So far, workers have collected 337 drums of contaminated soil, which will be sent to the Batan radioactive-waste technology center for inspection, Heru said, adding that the work was expected to be completed this week.

Bapeten chief Jazi Eko Istiyanto said last week that the radioactive contamination was a far cry from the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, Japan that was triggered by a 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and the nuclear reactor accident at Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986.

Bapeten said that two out of nine residents had tested positive for exposure to Caesium -137 last week, but the contamination was still within values acceptable to the human body.

“So there’s no need for special treatment, just a routine medical check-up if needed,” he said.

According to Bapeten data, 13,000 licenses have been issued for the use of radioactive substances, mostly to in-health and manufacturing sectors.

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.


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