The Department of Energy’s plan to recycle radioactive metals, these radioactive metals could enter the marketplace in the United States. Is recycling in this case a greener option?
Will your home be the nation’s next nuclear test site? It well could be, say critics of a Department of Energy (DOE) plan to recycle radioactive metals into the commercial marketplace, meaning these radioactive metals could enter the marketplace in the United States.
At the center of a controversy that has enraged environmental, labor and consumer groups nationwide are three mammoth buildings – part of DOE’s Oak Ridge, Tennessee, nuclear complex where from the 1950s to 1985 uranium was enriched for weapons and power plants. Faced with dismantling these Cold War relics, DOE in 1997 awarded a $238 million contract to British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL), charging the foreign company with decontaminating and recycling materials housed inside the buildings.
BNFL is expected to retrieve from Oak Ridge an estimated 100,000 tons of metal. And since its post-decontamination use will be neither tracked nor restricted, bits of it could show up just about anywhere. “It’s possible this metal could wind up in your baby’s carriage, the jewelry that you wear, the zipper in your pants, your grandmother’s hip replacement, all of your cookware and utensils,” says Wenonah Hauter of the consumer watchdog group Public Citizen. “You may receive multiple doses . . . without your knowledge or consent”
Richard Meehan, team leader in DOE’s Facility and Materials Reuse Division, calls the above scenarios “very unlikely,” insisting that the age and condition of the metal will almost certainly relegate it to such “bulk application” as concrete rebar or structural steel. But he admits he can’t rule out more specialized uses.
Much of the metal in question is surface-contaminated steel, which will be cleaned to federal standards using a grit-blasting method. But surface contamination is only part of the story. Raising real concern is the planned recycling of as much as 6,000 tons of “volumetrically” contaminated nickel. “Volumetric contamination is like sugar in a cake,” notes Hauter. “It’s incorporated through and through.”
Currently there is no national release standard for volumetrically contaminated metals, largely because federal regulators have been unable to reach a consensus on the issue. But because Tennessee is one of 30 “agreement states” granted authority by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to manage nuclear materials within its borders, officials there were able to set a state standard – one that critics call dubious at best.
And no wonder. According to Meehan, BNFL produced a study showing that the amount of radioactivity that will remain in the nickel after decontamination (roughly four parts per billion) is “trivial,” and Tennessee set its standard accordingly. Opponents charge that BNFL was in effect allowed to set its own standard And, should other agreement states follow suit, that could clear the way to market for the estimated 1.5 million tons of scrap metal at DOE facilities nationwide — with no public scrutiny or input.
“We’d like to see legislation passed that would prohibit any human contact with this material,” says Hauter. “It should he isolated.”
Meehan disagrees, arguing that recycling is a greener option than either burying the materials or leaving them to rot. “If we didn’t recycle this metal, it would have to be replaced. Ores would have to he mined, land disturbed, habitats destroyed . . . all to satisfy the industrial and commercial needs for these metals.”
With Oak Ridge just the tip of our nuclear-waste heap, this difficult debate is just getting started. And though one side may eventually hold sway, no one it seems will come up the winner.