New Delhi, Kolkata: Much secretive about its own nuclear arsenal, Pakistan appears to be keeping a close tab on developments in India.
The official handle of Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs had on 31 August tweeted that it had “noted” three instances of “theft & illicit sale of radioactive material in India” and how these “repeated incidents raise serious concerns about the safety & security of nuclear & other radioactive materials in India”.
— Spokesperson 🇵🇰 MoFA (@ForeignOfficePk) August 30, 2021
Only, it had jumped the gun.
In two of the three cases referred to in the tweet — reported from West Bengal and Lucknow — investigations revealed that the material, suspected to be Californium, was fake and “not radioactive”.
In the third case reported from Mumbai, the material suspected to be “radioactive uranium” was found to be “uranium in its natural form, which is slightly radioactive but not harmful”, sources told ThePrint.
The tweet also questioned the “lax arrangements inside India to secure imported SRS (Savannah River Site) material and a possible existence of a black market for such materials”.
In all the cases, Indian agencies found that the accused were trying to “dupe people by passing the material off as radioactive to fetch more money”. Moreover, the three cases do not have any common link, police sources said.
According to investigators, Californium is a “very strong neutron emitter”. It is one of the heaviest radioactive elements in the periodic table and is a toxic substance. The use of such substances is not defined, but it can be used in mining and making nuclear bombs or other explosives.
ThePrint examined the three cases and this is what we found.
‘A paper weight’
In the first case reported from Mumbai on 5 May, the Maharashtra Anti-Terror Squad (ATS) arrested two men — Jigar Jayesh Pandya (27) and Abu Tahir Afzal Choudhary (31) — with over 7 kg of uranium, which they claimed was “highly radioactive” and worth Rs 21 crore.
Following this, the case was transferred to the National Investigation Agency and a fresh FIR under Section 24(1)(a) of the Atomic Energy Act, 1962, was filed as it is illegal to possess uranium in India without a license.
During investigation, NIA found that neither was the material “highly radioactive” nor was it worth more than Rs 50,000.
In fact, the NIA found that Tahir, who was trying to sell the material, was actually using it as “paper weight” for over eight years and had no clue that it could be uranium.
It is only after someone told him that it could fetch a lot of money that he tried to pass it off as a “highly radioactive” substance, sources said.
When the material was checked at the Bhabha Atomic Research Center (BARC) it was found to be uranium in its natural form.
“The material is not highly but weakly radioactive, just like it is in its natural form and the quantity is also less. We received a report saying that it is not dangerous for human life,” a source in the NIA said.
“This material was part of a pathological lab machine that came to one of the scrap dealers,” the source added. “For years he did not even know that this could be uranium and could be sold, until he was told by a person that this could fetch money if it is passed off as highly radioactive uranium.”
‘Black shiny substance’
On 27 May, the UP police registered a case against an antique seller Abhishek Chakrobarty, who hails from West Bengal, for allegedly passing off two pieces of stones as Californium and selling them for Rs 12 lakh in Lucknow.
“There were two pieces of the black shiny substance that Abhishek sold as Californium. When we seized the substance and sent it to the BARC, we were told that it was not Californium or radioactive,” a UP police source said.
“We also got the material tested at IIT Kanpur and were told that it was not radioactive or harmful,” the source said. “It is a simple case of cheating and no sections of the Atomic Energy Act have been invoked.”
‘A cheating racket’
In the third case in West Bengal, the state’s Crime Investigation Department (CID) seized what it believed was ‘Californium’ from two villagers in Hooghly district last Thursday.
While the substance turned out to be ‘fake’, police believe that one of the suspects is part of a “cheating racket” that is looking to pass off random material as Californium.
The Variable Energy Cyclotron Centre in Kolkata, an R&D unit of the Department of Atomic Energy, in its report mentioned that the seized substance was “fake synthetic material with no radioactive property”.
As a result, the two middle-aged villagers, Sailen Karmakar (40) and Asit Ghosh (49), resident of Polba in Hooghly district, have been charged with sections of cheating. No charge under the Atomic Energy Act has been added to the case, a senior CID official said.
“The material was emitting light as it had some fluorescent chemical into it. We had received input from certain agencies a month ago,” the official added.
“It was about some dealing with Californium, a highly radioactive material. Acting on the tip-off, we arrested two persons and seized the substance. But it turns out to be fake. There is a gang that operates like this and cheats people by selling fake radioactive material. We are investigating it.”
Another senior police official told ThePrint that during interrogation, the arrested suspects said they were contacted by a person from Kerala who supplied them the substance and asked them to take it to a group of buyers.
“It appears to be a cheating racket, filled with members who have somehow studied the element and have known some of its properties,” the officer said. “They have made similar-looking synthetic materials. Californium is also a synthetic substance, but a radioactive one. And it is very very rare.”
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)