News Column

Nuclear Site Scrap Metal Could Be Headed to Recyclers

June 2, 2013
nuclear plant, scrap metal, plans

A U.S. Department of Energy proposal to recycle scrap metal from its nuclear facilities has set off the radiation detectors of environmental groups, some in the metals industry and one member of Congress.

But the industry group representing metals recyclers says current safeguards will prevent any radioactive scrap from getting into jewelry, knives and forks and other common goods consumers use every day.

The DOE's draft proposal, issued in December, comes 13 years after then Energy Secretary Bill Richardson suspended shipments of metal scrap from the agency's sites because of public safety concerns.

"This involves risk. Radiation causes cancer," said Daniel Hirsch, president of the Committee to Bridge the Gap. "The U.S. population should not be used as a disposal facility."

Mr. Hirsch -- whose nonprofit examines nuclear safety, waste disposal and related issues -- said rescinding the scrap recycling moratorium that has been in place since 2000 demonstrates the Energy Department's "callous disregard for the public."

A DOE spokesman said the scrap in question "is uncontaminated and poses no more risk than the scrap metals that ordinary citizens and small businesses routinely place in their recycling bins."

"Safety is the only thing that matters here and we will not move forward with any recycling unless we're absolutely confident that it is entirely safe," DOE spokesman Robert Middaugh wrote in response to emailed questions.

The scrap would go to companies that sort and process the material, then sell it to metals producers who use it to make new metal.

Despite radiation detectors at scrap yards and metals plants, there have been cases of radioactive metals making it into mills as well as onto store shelves.

Last year, Bed, Bath and Beyond pulled metal tissue boxes out of about 200 stores after it was discovered that the household items emitted low levels of radiation. Although the Nuclear Regulatory Commission determined the tissue holders did not pose a health threat, the retailer said it pulled them off the shelf "out of an abundance of caution."

The Metals Industry Recycling Coalition, which represents metals producing groups, told DOE that there have been 84 cases worldwide of companies inadvertently melting radioactive scrap since 1980. Cleaning up a mill after such an incident can cost $12 million to $14 million, the industry group told DOE in a Feb. 5 letter.

"If they melt a radioactive source, there could be significant health impacts at the mill," said John Wittenborn, a Washington, D.C., attorney who represents the coalition.

The possibility that the DOE scrap could be radioactive would cause panic and confusion among consumers who buy products made of steel, said Lawrence Kavanagh of the American Iron and Steel Institute, which represents North American steel producers.

"We're opposed," Mr. Kavanagh said.

A spokesman for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries said the DOE won't be recycling radioactive metal and that if it does, radiation detectors at scrap yards will reject it.

"We're not going to take anything that goes above background radiation levels," he said. "It's the end of the story at that point."

Mr. Wittenborn questions the DOE's estimate that about 14,000 metric tons of scrap would be recycled. He said estimates based on 2007 inventories at sites managed by DOE and the NRC indicate there may be as much as 1 million tons of the scrap.

"We know that a lot of consumers are very concerned about being exposed to radioactivity," he said.

U.S. Rep. Edward J. Markey has asked the agency to clarify the discrepancy, but has not received a response, said Eben Burnham-Snyder, Mr. Markey's spokesman. Last month, the Massachusetts Democrat introduced legislation that would prevent DOE from releasing the material.

Mr. Middaugh, who works for the agency's National Nuclear Security Administration, said most of the items to be recycled are tables, chairs, electrical panels and other materials removed while renovating or expanding the nuclear facilities. While the vast majority are not contaminated, their radiation levels will be tested before the scrap is sent to recyclers, he said.

Mr. Hirsch said the standards the agency will use to determine what is safe will expose consumers to the equivalent of dozens of chest X-rays over their lifetimes.

A spokeswoman for the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a Takoma Park, Md., group that distributes information on nuclear issues, said DOE employees in field offices will determine what material to release. Diane D'Arrigo said given a choice between selling the metal as scrap or paying to dispose of it, they will be inclined to take the money.

The DOE gave industry groups and the public until Feb. 11 to comment on the proposal. Mr. Middaugh said the agency is reviewing those comments and will publish a revised proposal. He did not say when that will happen.

Len Boselovic: lboselovic@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1941.

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