Nuclear Reaction

How would you feel if you learned your baby carriage was made from radioactive metals? How about the car you drive each day or the frying pan you use to cook with every night? This is what watchdog groups fear will happen if a recent proposal by the U.S. Department of Energy is approved. The proposal would allow for recycling of radioactive scrap metals from government nuclear sites.

David Ritter, policy analyst for the group Public Citizen, said that DOE’s plan would permit radioactive metals to be released into municipal landfills or recycled into everyday household products and industrial materials.

"We are talking about the possibilities of materials contaminated with radiation being recycled and used in everyday household products," Ritter said, "like braces for teeth, frying pans, staplers -- everything made out of carbon steel, nickel, copper or aluminum."

Supporters of recycling contend that radioactive scrap metals can be reused safely and that recycling is a useful way to dispose of materials left by the decommissioning of Cold War-era facilities. A DOE memo, acquired by the Associated Press, stated: "The purpose of this action is to reduce site inventories in radiological areas of scrap metals that have not been radioactively contained by DOE activities and operations."

The memo also outlines the procedures that DOE facilities should follow if allowed to release metals from areas where radiation has been present. This involves testing the metals and documenting their release. The DOE did not return calls for comment.

Text on a Web site operated by Environmental Assessment Division, part of Argomme National Laboratory, the DOE’s largest research center, indicated that recycling involves low levels of overall risks: "Recycling radioactive scrap metals is advantageous in terms of risk, cost and environmental impact. However questions remain regarding public acceptability, sensitive industrial uses of metals and international flows of RSMs."

Some argue that the low levels of radiation found in recycled scrap metals pale in comparison to the amount of radiation people receive from cosmic rays, radon seeping out of the earth, and radioactive substances in soil and food.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is in the process of establishing standards for the amount of radiation that can be present in household products. But according to Diane D’Arrigo, a radioactive-waste project director at the Nuclear Information and Resource Service in Washington, D.C., the way in which the tests are being conducted is misleading.

"They are setting standards that are not verifiable or enforceable by a member of the public," said D’Arrigo. "They are trying to do it based on an allowable dose or allowable risk rather than an allowable amount of contamination. So even if you measure contamination, they’ll put it through their computer model and say it’s an acceptable dose."

Critics charge that all metals from nuclear sites should be treated as radioactive waste because of the difficulty in ensuring that they are uncontaminated. "Even diluting radiation through recycling cannot reduce the risks to society as a whole," said Ritter, "because the total number of people exposed to it will increase as more and more products contain radiation."

Ritter said that decades of research show that exposure to radiation is a threat to human health. "Any exposure, no matter how small," he said, "can result in a plethora of health risks including cancer, mutagenic effects [mutation effects on cells], that could be passed on to children, and birth defects."

The release of metals from radiological areas of nuclear sites was banned by the Clinton administration in 2000. But in July, the Bush administration began an environmental assessment study to evaluate the policy. The DOE is conducting an environmental review on how to handle the metals, a process that includes a planned public-comment period and hearings on various alternatives. The DOE said it would continue the ban during the review.

But D’Arrigo said that they the DOE already is letting out other types of contaminated materials including plastics and concrete. "They have these regulations," said D’Arrigo. "They are called internal orders. They are using this to justify letting out contaminated materials, so it’s going out now. We are looking at the floodgates opening, and what has been trickling out quietly under their own internal orders will soon be whole sites either letting [metal] out directly or processing and releasing it into commerce."

D’Arrigio also said that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is allowing the importation of radioactive metals from foreign nuclear reactors, which may be recycled into American products.

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