4. Recycled Radioactive Metals May Be in Your Home

by Project Censored
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Source: THE PROGRESSIVE, Title: “Nuclear Spoons,” Date: October 1998, Author: Anne-Marie Cusac

SSU Censored Researchers: Jennie Glennon, Dayna Del Simone, and Jason Sanders
SSU Faculty Evaluator: Peter Phillips

Under special government permits, “decontaminated” radioactive metal is being sold to manufacture everything from knives, forks, and belt buckles to zippers, eyeglasses, dental fillings, and IUDs. The Department of Energy (DOE), the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC); and the radioactive metal processing industry are pushing for new regulations that would relax current standards and dispense with the need for special radioactive recycling licensing. By one estimate, the DOE disposed of 7,500 tons of these troublesome metals in 1996 alone. The new standard being sought would allow companies to recycle millions of tons of low-level radioactive metal a year while raising the acceptable levels of millirems (mrems), a unit of measure that estimates the damage radiation does to human tissue. By the NRC’s own estimate, the proposed standards could cause 100,000 cancer fatalities in the United States alone.

Metal companies want to raise the standard from an almost immeasurable amount to something more in the vicinity of 10 mrems per year. The NRC studied the health effects of that exact standard back in 1990 and found that this dosage would lead to about 92,755 additional cancer deaths in the United States alone. According to Progressive reporter Cusac, some scientists argue that exposure to continual low-dose radiation is potentially more dangerous than a onetime, high-level dose. She cites Steve Wing, epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: “The cancer curve rises more steeply at low doses than high doses.” Richard Clapp, associate professor in the department of environmental health at the Boston University School of Public Health, says that the greatest threat comes from those household products with which you have the most contact, where “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.”

While the DOE waits for new standards to be released, says Cusac, “hot metal” is being marketed to other countries. Three major U.S. oil companies: Texaco, Mobil, and Phillips shipped 5.5 million pounds of radioactive scrap metal to China in 1993. In June 1996, Chinese officials stopped a U.S. shipment of 78 tons of radioactive scrap metal that exceeded China’s safety limit, some of it by 30-fold. As of January 1998, 178 buildings in Taiwan, containing 1,573 residential apartments, had been identified as radioactive.

Radioactive recycled metal has shown up in domestic markets as well. When a Buffalo, New York television station offered to survey suspect gold jewelry in the 1980s, it turned up three radioactive pieces in the first two days, which prompted the New York State Health Department to begin a comprehensive campaign to find radioactive, contaminated jewelry. According to the journal Health Physics in 1986, out of more than 160,000 pieces surveyed, 170 pieces were radioactive. News accounts reported that at least 14 people had developed finger cancer and several more had fingers and even parts of their hands amputated because of “hot” jewelry.

“This is not a glamorous industry,” says Tom Gilman, government accounts manager for U.S. Ecology, which buys, cleans, and resells low-level radioactive scrap metal. Most of it comes from commercial sites, but some comes from DOE. U.S. Ecology “scrubs” and sells it as clean scrap. From there, the metal travels to a steel mill and enters the general consumer market. Gilman claims that U.S. Ecology is “turning waste into assets.” He is careful to add, however, that the metal his company is recycling into the metal stream isn’t completely clean. “`Acceptable’ levels is the word to use,” he explains, “There’s always going to be some level of radioactivity.”

UPDATE BY AUTHOR ANNE-MARIE CUSAC: “The recycling of radioactive metal into household products could pose a serious public-health threat in the coming century. The radioactive metal recycled from decommissioned nuclear reactors in the United States alone could number in the millions of tons. But by the NRC’s own estimate, even an exposure standard of 10 millirems a year (the standard favored by the radioactive metal industry) would lead to 92,755 cancer deaths in the United States alone.

“Since my story was published, the commerce in hot metals has been proceeding briskly. In mid-September, Nuclear Waste News reported: ‘Western authorities are growing increasingly concerned about illegal trafficking in radioactive scrap metal from Russia and other former Communist states.’ According to the article, the contaminated metal, ‘most of which comes from decommissioned nuclear power stations, radiation monitoring equipment, and waste containers is finding its way into metal products, including household items in Europe.’ The International Atomic Energy Agency says that the problem is growing, partly as a result of the recent fall in the value of the ruble, and that some of the metal is ‘going even further afield.’

“One new development suggests that radioactive metal recyclers in the United States are looking toward hot metal imports as a big moneymaker. In September, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a license to Allied Technology Group of Richland, Washington. The license gives that company permission to import approximately 1.5 million pounds of ‘radioactive scrap tubing and tube plate’ from the Taiwan Power Company’s Chinshan Nuclear Power Station for the purposes of ‘decontamination and recovery of the metal for recycling,’ says James Kennedy, senior project manager in the Division of Waste Management at the NRC. Shipments should begin in February 1998.

“Meanwhile, the NRC is working on the development of a new standard that could allow for a huge increase in the amount of radioactive metal allowed into consumer goods. The Commission plans to solicit public comment on the issue beginning next August.

“But the public has little idea that radioactive metal could be turning up in frying pans and belt buckles. The mainstream media has not covered this issue. Such a lapse of this important health issue effectively blocks public monitoring of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.”