Radioactive Metal from Nuclear Weapons Facilities May End up in Your Shopping Bag
How would you like radioactive metal from nuclear weapons facilities to be recycled for use in consumer goods like silverware, pots and pans, eye glasses, zippers, kid’s braces, and even pacemakers and artificial hip joints? If the U.S. Department of Energy gets its way (after a public comment period ends Feb. 11), that is exactly what we can expect in our future.
DOE, the steward of the sprawling—and massively contaminated—American nuclear weapons complex, wants to lift a ban on recycling imposed in 2000. That action came in response to an earlier proposal to sell radioactive metal from DOE facilities to scrap metal recyclers. Once the contaminated metal is mixed into the scrap supply, it could be turned into virtually anything made with metal.
The problem is, products contaminated with radiation give off alpha particles, beta particles, or gamma rays, depending on the radioactive element (radionuclide or radioisotope) present. Though these three kinds of radiation have different properties, all are ionizing, meaning that each is energetic enough to break chemical bonds in the cells in our bodies. That kind of damage can result in cancer and other illnesses.
DOE’s current plan is to release 13,790 metric tons of metal the department says is “uncontaminated” or just contaminated on the surface. This material would likely include things like metal desks, pipes, and perhaps construction equipment from radiation-contaminated areas, Robert Alvarez, a nuclear expert and former senior policy advisor to the Secretary of Energy during the Clinton administration, told WhoWhatWhy. (Click here for more information on the places from which DOE proposes to release the metal.)
Alvarez, a key player in stopping DOE’s earlier attempt to release its low-level nuclear waste into the public sphere, described the new effort as “a toe in the water” toward overturning the ban; in the future, it could lead to the release of a large part of the department’s vast stockpile of waste materials.
“DOE’s been pushing this scheme for 30 to 35 years,” he said. “They just don’t want to give up on it.”
The Department of Energy did not respond to an interview request.
The Dirtiest Legacy
The top-secret effort that began during World War II to develop the atomic bomb—and then build America’s nuclear arsenal to ensure the country’s continued global military dominance—has been an especially dirty enterprise. Creating and maintaining it has resulted in the release of vast but unknowable amounts of radioactive, chemical, and other toxic contamination on much of the DOE’s 2.4 million acres as well as in surrounding communities.
DOE’s Hanford site in eastern Washington state, for example, is the most contaminated place in the Western hemisphere and the site of the world’s largest cleanup operation. An article in Der Spiegel notes that “240 square miles are uninhabitable due to the radioactivity that has seeped into the soil and ground water: uranium, cesium, strontium, plutonium and other deadly radionuclides.” Maps showing DOE cleanup sites are here and here.
The first and only inventory of DOE’s assets, which was conducted in the nineties under Alvarez’s direction, revealed the department had 20,700 specialized facilities and buildings including 5,000 warehouses, 7,000 administration buildings, 1,600 laboratories, 89 nuclear reactors, 208 particle accelerators, and 665 production and manufacturing facilities.
“At the time, we found there was more than 270,000 metric tons of scrap, which is equivalent to two modern aircraft carriers in weight,” Alvarez said.
Adding in the three gaseous diffusion plants in Paducah, Kentucky; Portsmouth, Ohio; and at DOE’s Y-25 site at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, would contribute another 1.4 million metric tons to the department’s scrap-metal heap. Gaseous diffusion, an extremely polluting technology, was the first technique to turn natural uranium into nuclear fuel on an industrial scale. Significant amounts of toxic and radioactive materials have been released into the air, water, and soil at all three sites.