Indonesian authorities call for calm after radiation found at housing complex near Jakarta

The Nuclear Energy Regulatory Agency said it had discovered an elevated level of radioactive isotope Caesium-137 during a routine test for radioactivity in the area in Serpong at the end of last month. PHOTO: REUTERS

JAKARTA (REUTERS) - Indonesia's nuclear authorities said on Monday (Feb 17) they would investigate the radioactive contamination of a patch of land in a housing complex outside Jakarta, and called for calm.

The Nuclear Energy Regulatory Agency (Bapeten) issued a statement on Friday telling residents to stay away from a piece of land in Serpong, 43 km south of Jakarta, because it was contaminated. Local media said the land is next to a volleyball court.

Bapeten said it had discovered an elevated level of radioactive isotope Caesium-137 during a routine test for radioactivity in the area at the end of last month, causing alarm among some locals and raising questions about its source.

Radiation levels were at 680 microSv per hour when first discovered last month, compared with a normal threshold of 0.03 microSv per hour, Bapeten spokesman Abdul Qohhar told Reuters on Monday.

"We'll investigate the source of the contamination," Qohhar said, adding that residents need not panic about current levels.

External exposure to large amounts of Caesium-137 can cause burns, radiation sickness and even death in some cases. It also increases the risk of cancer.

"Right now... we're focused on the cleanup so that when residents do their activities they're not exposed to extraordinary radiation," Qohhar said, adding that nine residents would be examined for any radioactive exposure.

Qohhar said that radiation levels had fallen over the weekend because of Bapeten's decontamination process which included removing soil and cutting down plants.

Bapeten said it has been regularly checking radioactivity levels in the area since 2013.

Djarot Sulistio Wisnubroto, a researcher at the National Nuclear Energy Agency (Batan), said the impact should not be harmful to residents and levels had now fallen to 20-30 microSv per hour.

Indonesia does not have an active nuclear power industry, but a reactor used for research is about 3 km away from the site of the contamination.

Agus Budhie Wijatna, a researcher in nuclear science at the University of Gadjah Mada, said he thought it was unlikely contamination originated from the nearby reactor, since it was regularly inspected.

"Police should immediately investigate the party involved with the waste," he said, adding it was possible it originated from industrial use.

Greenpeace Indonesia's climate and energy campaigner, Hindun Mulaika, urged nuclear agencies to conduct thorough investigations.

"This incident is a bad precedent for the government and Indonesia Nuclear Energy Agency (Batan), which failed to maintain public safety from the dangers of radioactive waste,"she said.

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