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DOE proposes recycling metal from nuclear facilities

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Metals recyclers are fighting to prevent the Department of Energy from releasing tons of metal from weapons plants and other nuclear facilities. Recycling of the metal, which would include desks and bookcases as well as structural steel, has been barred since 2000. The Energy Department said it can safely release the metal for recycling, but recyclers are worried their facilities, employees and products would be contaminated.

The department solicited input on the concept last December, generating an outpouring of opposition. The idea specifically is to give an undersecretary authority to release metals from radiological sites. The quantity of metal under consideration comes to about 14,000 tons, according to the department, and also consists of items such as spare parts and electrical cable. A department spokesperson said the proposal includes adequate safeguards.

“The department will not authorize sites to release metal from areas contaminated with radioactive material,” said Robert Middaugh, communications coordinator for the department’s National Nuclear Security Administration. Middaugh said only “empirically defined clean metal” would be approved for recycling.

“The material we propose to release is uncontaminated and poses no more risk than the scrap metals that ordinary citizens and small businesses routinely place in their recycling bins,” Middaugh said. “Safety is the only thing that matters here – we will not move forward with any recycling unless we’re absolutely confident that it is entirely safe.”

A group of metal recyclers strongly opposes the proposal, however, warning of significant potential safety and cost issues. The main worry is that scrap metal with low but above-background levels of radiation will enter the stream of recycled metals as well as products made from them and by-products of decontamination.

The quantity of metal under consideration comes to approximately 14,000 tons and consists of items such as spare parts and electrical cable.

“If such low-level radioactive scrap metal or by-product waste streams enter the scrap supply stream, they would make their way to metal recycling facilities where they would disrupt mill operations, contaminate the mill, impose significant response costs, and potentially expose workers and the public to radiation,” the Metals Industry Recycling Coalition (MIRC) said in a statement.

“In addition, even the perception that radioactive scrap metal has entered the stream of commerce would impact negatively the entire metal market and the use and acceptance of the many products containing recycled metals,” according to the group, which includes the American Iron and Steel Institute, Steel Manufacturers Association, the Nickel Institute and other industry groups.

The group wants only the release of materials that have no detectable radiation levels. Steel Manufacturers Association president Thomas Danjczek said steel mills, which use 70 percent recycled materials for feedstock, today have a zero tolerance level for metals that have radiation levels above the naturally occurring background level. All mills have radiation detectors installed at multiple points during the manufacturing process, he said. Any alarm, false or real, causes an immediate investigation.

The cost of actual radioactive contamination can be significant. The industry said that since 1980, mills have experienced meaningful contamination incidents 89 times. These often involve measuring instruments containing radioactive material that are accidentally introduced into the recycling stream. Contamination may also occur from metal used in applications such as pipelines, where exposure to naturally occurring radiation in crude oil can lead to radiation buildup over time.

When contamination occurs at a mill, it may need to be shut down for weeks for cleaning, repair and replacement of tainted equipment. The cost, according to MIRC, can range from $12 million to $24 million per incident. “It’s a catastrophe when one of these sources gets past us,” Danjczek said.

Recyclers also worry that workers may be harmed. The Department of Energy suggests releasing any metal that could be shown to result in less than 1 millirem above background to a person in a calendar year. While this is a small amount, workers might be injured from repeated exposure to multiple metal batches with that amount of radioactivity, according to opponents.

Environmental groups are joining with steel makers and recyclers to oppose the plan. One of the most vocal is the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS), a Takoma Park, Maryland, environmental advocacy group. “Since putting radioactivity into the metal supply is inherently unsafe, there is no way to do it safely,” said Diane D’Arrigo, the NIRS radioactive waste project director.

D’Arrigo said metals recyclers would have to get new detectors capable of detecting alpha and bête radiation in addition to the gamma ray detectors that are already installed. The metals recycling group also said its existing detectors would have to be de-sensitized to reduce the number of false positives occurring from incoming metal with radiation levels above background.

Metal industry sources warn that allowing any amount of radioactive material at all into the recycling stream could cause fearful consumers to stop buying products that could possibly contain metal recycled from radiological sites. This could cause recycling rates to fall, they predicted.

Danjczek said the combination of worries makes any consideration of recycling materials from radiological sites unacceptable. “We have zero tolerance,” he said. “We don’t want to release anything has been nuclear-contaminated, potential or real.”

Danjczek said that these risks far outweigh any benefit. If all 14,000 tons of metal proposed for release were in fact recycled, it would represent only a tiny fraction of the tens of millions of tons of metal recycled each year, he said. Most of it would likely be steel, which sells for only pennies per pound, and metal from these sites would have to be discount priced to cover the possible risk of contamination, he said. “It just isn’t worth the dollars.”

The Department of Energy is now evaluating the feedback on its proposal. “We will fully address all public comments we received as part of this process,” Middaugh said.

D’Arrigo believes the department will attempt to go forward with the proposal. She worries that more of the one million or more tons of scrap metals identified in the radiological sites might be considered for release. The result could wind up in overseas facilities that lack the radiation detectors of U.S. facilities, because once released the materials will not be tracked.

Meanwhile, however, the measure’s opponents are digging in their heels. “We have a good business in this country,” Danjczek said. “Recycling saves a phenomenal amount of energy. We’re not going to screw this up with radioactive material, no matter what the Department of Energy wants to do.”