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Radioactive Scrap Metals

Radiation Information

Radiation Monitoring Network



Radioactive Scrap Metal

Going shopping? Don’t forget your wallet and credit card. Or Geiger counter. The discovery of radioactive tissue boxes at Bed, Bath & Beyond Inc. (BBBY) stores in January 2012, raised alarms among nuclear security officials and company executives over the growing global threat of contaminated scrap metal. As U.S. and European leaders tackle the proliferation of weapons-grade uranium or plutonium in countries like Iran and North Korea, industries are confronting the impact of loose nuclear material in an international scrap-metal market worth at least $140 billion, according to the Brussels-based Bureau of International Recycling. Radioactive items used to power medical, military and industrial hardware are melted down and used in goods, driving up company costs as they withdraw tainted products and threatening the public’s health.


‘Major Risk’

“The major risk we face in our industry is radiation,” said Paul de Bruin, radiation-safety chief for Jewometaal Stainless Processing BV, one of the world’s biggest stainless- steel scrap yards. “You can talk about security all you want, but I’ve found weapons-grade uranium in scrap. Where was the security?” More than 120 shipments of contaminated goods including cutlery, buckles and work tools like hammers and screwdrivers were denied U.S. entry between 2003 and 2008 after customs and the Department of Homeland Security boosted radiation monitoring at borders. The department declined to provide updated figures or comment on how the metal tissue boxes at Bed, Bath & Beyond, tainted with melted cobalt-60 used in medical instruments to diagnose and treat cancer, evaded detection.


Between 350 million tons and 550 million tons of iron scrap traded hands in 2010 for about $400 a ton, according to the latest figures from the Bureau of International Recycling, a global recycling industry association. “The general public basically isn’t aware that they’re living in a radioactive world,” according to Ross Bartley, technical director for the recycling bureau, who said the contamination has led to lost sales. “Those tissue boxes are problematic because they’re radioactive and they had to be put in radioactive disposal.” Abandoned medical scanners, food-processing devices and mining equipment containing radioactive metals such as cesium-137 and cobalt-60 are picked up by scrap collectors, sold to recyclers and melted down by foundries, the IAEA says. Dangerous scrap comes from derelict hospitals and military bases, as well as defunct government agencies that have lost tools with radioactive elements.


Radiation Exposure

Chronic exposure to low doses of radiation can lead to cataracts, cancer and birth defects, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A 2005 study of more than 6,000 Taiwanese who lived in apartments built with radioactive reinforcing steel from 1983 to 2005 showed a statistically significant increase in leukemia and breast cancer. Industry and regulators are working to define an allowable limit for radiation in products that isn’t hazardous to customers’ health, according to the draft copy of the new IAEA rules for scrap handlers. The Seoul nuclear-security summit will deal for the first time with the threats posed by uncontrolled radioactive sources, said Elena Sokova, executive director of the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non- Proliferation. Forty-five heads of state including Obama, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Chinese President Hu Jintao will attend the nuclear summit, South Korea’s foreign ministry said in a statement on its website.


Radioactive Buttons

An October 2008 delivery of radioactive elevator buttons assembled by Mafelec, a Chimilin, France-based company that makes control and signaling gear, contained radioactive metal shipped from India. Employees who handled the buttons were exposed to three times the safe dose of radiation for non- nuclear workers, according to regulators at the Autorite de Surete Nucleaire, France’s nuclear energy watchdog. Mafelec said at the time it had cut ties with the Indian supplier. India and China were the top sources of radioactive goods shipped to the U.S. through 2008, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Bartley, a metallurgist who has tracked radioactive contamination since the early 1990s, said there’s no evidence the situation has improved.


India’s radiation-detection system can’t cope with the amount of incoming scrap, said Chandra Bhushan, deputy director of the Centre for Science and Environment, a New Delhi-based research and lobbying group. Two years after an Indian scrap- metal worker died from radiation exposure, the world’s second- most populous country hasn’t installed alarms.


Radioactive Scrap Metals

Radioactive metals - gold, silver, carbon steel, stainless steel, aluminum, nickel, and copper - are being made available for recycling. There are more than 1,577,000 metric tons of irradiated scrap metal available. The metal comes from decommissioned nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons and the oil and gas industries, for the most part, and tons of steel from buildings that contained radioactive substances is also part of the "hot metal" scrap.

In 1997, the NRC and the DOE established the National Center of Excellence for Metal Recycling. The Association of Radioactive Metal Recyclers (ARMR) was formed in 1995 and is based in Knoxville , Tennessee . If they can get the safety standards lowered to 10 millirems per year of exposure to radioactive materials, this would allow them to recycle those thousands of tons of radioactive material into consumer goods. Studies show that long-term exposure to low levels of radiation can be more hazardous than short term exposure to high levels, resulting in a six to eight times greater cancer risk.

"We're looking at an exponential increase," said Diane D'Arrigo, a staff member at the Nuclear Information and Resource Service. "Think about the metal you come into contact with every day. Your IUD, and your bracelets, your silverware, the zipper on your crotch, the coins in your pocket, frying pans, belt buckles, that chair you're sitting on, the batteries that are in your car and motorbike, the batteries in your computer." 5.5 million pounds of radioactive steel scrap was shipped to China and Taiwan from Louisiana and Texas between 1993 and 1996. There's no telling how much of it has come back to us as knives, eating and cooking utensils, toys, or other goods.

Some of the radioactive metal shipped to China emitted up to 2,000 microrems per hour of radiation, which is about 400 times the normal background radiation level. Federal District Court Judge Gladys Kessler found that, "The potential for environmental harm is great, given the unprecedented amount of hazardous materials which the DOE and British Nuclear Fuels seek to recycle. The parties have not provided the court with any evidence of the safety of recycling in comparison with any other method of disposal."

"There is no safe dose or dose rate below which dangers disappear. No threshold-dose," said John Gofman, former associate director of the Livermore National Laboratory. "Serious, lethal effects from minimal radiation doses are not 'hypothetical,' 'just theoretical,' or 'imaginary.' They are real."

"If you're sitting on it, or if it's part of your desk, or in the frame of your bed--where you have constant exposure and for several hours you will be in most danger," says Richard Clapp, associate professor in the department of environmental health at the Boston University Schools of Public Health.

Val Loiselle, chairman of the Association of Radioactive Metal Recyclers, said, "We were not always called Beneficial Reuse. In our first year, we were called the Radioactive Scrap Metal Conference. We can tackle the public on the notion that radioactivity is an effluent, not a waste. This industry has a right to effluence just like any other industry. And it cannot be zero. No industry has zero effluence." "DOE has 3,000 to 4,000 facilities that are in D and D [Decommission and Decontamination] state," said Loiselle. "There are 123 commercial nuclear power plants. Thirteen of these are entering the decommissioning pipeline. As these plants come down, we will be seeing lots of metals and equipment."

Michael Wright, director of health, safety, and environment for the United Steelworkers of America, says that there is a serious danger to workers from low-level radioactivity in steel. "You can't inhale a piece of steel," says Wright. "But if you melt it, there's a substantial risk of breathing it in. That's orders of magnitude more dangerous. There isn't anything that protects people."

"These exposures also can cause neurological problems," says Jackie Kittrell, a lawyer with the American Environmental Health Studies Project, an Oak Ridge organization that represents workers who have suffered heavy metal exposure and radiation poisoning.

Christina Bechak, vice president of the Steel Manufacturers Association, is concerned that radiation will accumulate on the machines used for shredding and smelting the metal. "Scrap metal is valuable, but we don't want radioactive scrap. The detectors in the factories are set very sensitive," says Bechak.

"In years past, a lot of material went out of these facilities that wouldn't meet commercial-world standards," says Michael Mobley, the director of the division of radiological health in the Tennessee Department of Energy and Conservation. "There's been some issue about this: 'Well, if we miss one or two spots it's no big deal because the standard is so strict.' If every once in a while stuff is going out that's hotter than standard, how much is going out that's hotter than standard? Their survey processes are just going to evolve into nothing."

According to Adams , the DOE's database shows 1,577,000 stockpiled metric tons for both the DOE and the NRC combined. "And that is dwarfed by what we've got coming," says Jane Powell, program manager of the DOE's metal recycling center. She points to all the metal at the gaseous diffusion plant in Oak Ridge that was used for the Manhattan Project. That plant now sits idle, awaiting demolition crews. "They have one steel tunnel that is a half-mile long," says Powell. "We are going to have metal coming out of our ears. We've got metal and a need for it. We need to make it economically viable so that going out and getting virgin metal isn't the answer. We are going out in the real world to create a business."

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