RANCHI (Jharkhand), Dec 23: A container packed with radioactive material has been stolen from a fortified research facility in eastern India, prompting a major hunt and fears of contamination, officials said Saturday.

“It carries uranium and radiation and could have an adverse effect in an area of 1.5 kilometres (0.93 mile),” Jharkhand Chief Minister Madhu Khoda warned.

Mr Khoda said the uranium was stolen nearly three weeks ago after being moved to a research site at the densely-populated town of Rajrappa from a federal atomic facility near Mumbai.

Mr Khoda did not say to what degree the uranium was enriched to, although an official from Jharkhand’s Central Mine Planning and Development Institute (CMPDI) said the missing material was not highly-enriched.

“It was not highly-enriched but neither was it just yellow cake (uranium ore) and it was meant for a project but we can’t talk about that,” the official from the Ranchi-based CMPDI said on condition he not be named.

“It’s useless in the hands of unskilled people,” the official said without elaborating.

The capsule was stolen from a CMPDI-run facility. The Rajrappa police said they were alerted to the theft on December 4.

Arjun Munda, an opposition leader in Jharkhand’s legislative assembly, demanded speedy action. “The government must initiate immediate steps to find the apparatus as it is extremely hazardous,” he said in state capital Ranchi.

The theft comes a year after police in the northeastern state of Assam arrested two uranium thieves after detectives posing as buyers offering 1.5 million rupees (34,000 dollars) managed to recover stolen radioactive material.

Jharkhand is the only Indian state that produces uranium, but New Delhi says it is not economically viable to use the low-yield product to generate nuclear energy on a commercial scale.

Some Indian scientists, however, say the country's current uranium reserves estimated at about 70,000 tons can generate 10,000MW of electricity for 30 years.

Intelligence agencies say Jharkhand’s secluded Jadugoda uranium minefields are a target of potential thieves as it transports semi-processed yellow cake to far-off centres for further enrichment.—AFP

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