Radioactive Metal from Nuclear Weapons Facilities May End up in Your Shopping Bag
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The Midas Touch—In Reverse
So just how hazardous is all this material to living things like you and me?
DOE seems to believe that as the contaminated metal gets mixed into the larger supply of scrap metal, which in 2012 totaled 59 million tons, the contamination would be diluted enough not to cause any problems. This is the old “dilution is the solution to pollution” concept, which is belied by an onslaught of increasingly intractable local to global environmental crises.
Radiation, however, is a special kind of pollution. Because of the long-lived nature of many radionuclides, radioactive contamination can persist for a very long time—in the case of uranium-238 (the most common isotope in naturally occurring uranium, which has a half-life of 4.5 billion years) virtually forever. (Half-life measures the amount of time it takes for half of a radionuclide’s atoms to become non-radioactive. The amount of time it takes for all the radioactivity to dissipate is five to ten times the half-life.)
Radiation has another special property. As Dr. Rosalie Bertell explained in her book No Immediate Danger: Prognosis for a Radioactive Earth, things that come in contact with radiation can themselves becomes radioactive: “The violence of the chain reaction is such that it can also yield what are called activation products, i.e., it can cause already existing chemicals in air, water or other nearby materials to absorb energy, change their structure slightly and become radioactive.”
In order to know the exact contamination levels of each piece of metal DOE wants to release, each piece would have to be tested to see if it is radioactive; and if so, the counts per minute of radiation it is giving off, and whether it is alpha, beta, or gamma radiation.
That, however, would be an enormous—and enormously expensive—undertaking, and there is no indication the department is considering anything like it. According to Alvarez, DOE’s main motivation for pushing its low-level waste out into the public sphere is to save it the trouble and cost of proper disposal.
“The nuclear weapons complex was a huge, huge industry that is now largely full of closed, shuttered, and antiquated operations that are loaded with crap that they haven’t gotten around to getting rid of,” he said. “It costs money and they’re really trying to find creative ways to deal with it. This is one of their ‘creative’ ways.”
Because the American nuclear weapons complex has long operated under a heavy cloak of secrecy and privilege in the name of national security, it is accustomed to doing what it wants without much oversight or accountability. But this particular plan runs counter to the interests of the U.S. steel industry, a critical sector of the American economy.
“We’re not interested in receiving material potentially contaminated with radioactivity from the DOE complex as part of its teardown in its efforts to address the Cold War situation,” Eric Stuart, vice president of energy and environment at the Steel Manufacturers Association, told WhoWhatWhy. “We’re not in the business of cleaning up after the U.S. government.”
Stuart pointed out that nearly all of the steel industry’s feed material comes from recycled scrap—more than 60 million tons a year, primarily from junked cars, appliances, steel cans, and steel construction materials—and the introduction of radiation-contaminated metals is unacceptable to the industry.
For one thing, the steel industry worries that consumers will avoid metal products because of worries over radiation contamination—a direct threat to the industry’s bottom line. For another, the mere prospect of having to deal with radioactive metals raises enormous safety and liability issues.