Radioactive Eye Glasses…Silverware…Zippers…Hip Joints… Anyone? - WhoWhatWhy

Radioactive Eye Glasses…Silverware…Zippers…Hip Joints… Anyone?

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How would you like radioactive metal from nuclear weapons facilities to be recycled for use in consumer goods like silverware, pots and pans, eye glasses, zippers, kid’s braces, and even pacemakers and artificial hip joints? If the U.S. Department of Energy gets its way (after a public comment period ends Feb. 11), that is exactly what we can expect in our future.

DOE, the steward of the sprawling—and massively contaminated—American nuclear weapons complex, wants to lift a ban on recycling imposed in 2000. That action came in response to an earlier proposal to sell radioactive metal from DOE facilities to scrap metal recyclers. Once the contaminated metal is mixed into the scrap supply, it could be turned into virtually anything made with metal.

The problem is, products contaminated with radiation give off alpha particles, beta particles, or gamma rays, depending on the radioactive element (radionuclide or radioisotope) present. Though these three kinds of radiation have different properties, all are ionizing, meaning that each is energetic enough to break chemical bonds in the cells in our bodies. That kind of damage can result in cancer and other illnesses.

DOE’s current plan is to release 13,790 metric tons of metal the department says is “uncontaminated” or just contaminated on the surface. This material would likely include things like metal desks, pipes, and perhaps construction equipment from radiation-contaminated areas, Robert Alvarez, a nuclear expert and former senior policy advisor to the Secretary of Energy during the Clinton administration, told WhoWhatWhy. (Click here for more information on the places from which DOE proposes to release the metal.)

Alvarez, a key player in stopping DOE’s earlier attempt to release its low-level nuclear waste into the public sphere, described the new effort as “a toe in the water” toward overturning the ban; in the future, it could lead to the release of a large part of the department’s vast stockpile of waste materials.

“DOE’s been pushing this scheme for 30 to 35 years,” he said. “They just don’t want to give up on it.”

The Department of Energy did not respond to an interview request.

The Dirtiest Legacy

The top-secret effort that began during World War II to develop the atomic bomb—and then build America’s nuclear arsenal to ensure the country’s continued global military dominance—has been an especially dirty enterprise. Creating and maintaining it has resulted in the release of vast but unknowable amounts of radioactive, chemical, and other toxic contamination on much of the DOE’s 2.4 million acres as well as in surrounding communities.

DOE’s Hanford site in eastern Washington state, for example, is the most contaminated place in the Western hemisphere and the site of the world’s largest cleanup operation. An article in Der Spiegel notes that “240 square miles are uninhabitable due to the radioactivity that has seeped into the soil and ground water: uranium, cesium, strontium, plutonium and other deadly radionuclides.” Maps showing DOE cleanup sites are here and here.

The first and only inventory of DOE’s assets, which was conducted in the nineties under Alvarez’s direction, revealed the department had 20,700 specialized facilities and buildings including 5,000 warehouses, 7,000 administration buildings, 1,600 laboratories, 89 nuclear reactors, 208 particle accelerators, and 665 production and manufacturing facilities.

“At the time, we found there was more than 270,000 metric tons of scrap, which is equivalent to two modern aircraft carriers in weight,” Alvarez said.

Adding in the three gaseous diffusion plants in Paducah, Kentucky; Portsmouth, Ohio; and at DOE’s Y-25 site at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, would contribute another 1.4 million metric tons to the department’s scrap-metal heap. Gaseous diffusion, an extremely polluting technology, was the first technique to turn natural uranium into nuclear fuel on an industrial scale. Significant amounts of toxic and radioactive materials have been released into the air, water, and soil at all three sites.

The Midas Touch—In Reverse

So just how hazardous is all this material to living things like you and me?

DOE seems to believe that as the contaminated metal gets mixed into the larger supply of scrap metal, which in 2012 totaled 59 million tons, the contamination would be diluted enough not to cause any problems. This is the old “dilution is the solution to pollution” concept, which is belied by an onslaught of increasingly intractable local to global environmental crises.

Radiation, however, is a special kind of pollution. Because of the long-lived nature of many radionuclides, radioactive contamination can persist for a very long time—in the case of uranium-238 (the most common isotope in naturally occurring uranium, which has a half-life of 4.5 billion years) virtually forever. (Half-life measures the amount of time it takes for half of a radionuclide’s atoms to become non-radioactive. The amount of time it takes for all the radioactivity to dissipate is five to ten times the half-life.)

Radiation has another special property. As Dr. Rosalie Bertell explained in her book No Immediate Danger: Prognosis for a Radioactive Earth, things that come in contact with radiation can themselves becomes radioactive: “The violence of the chain reaction is such that it can also yield what are called activation products, i.e., it can cause already existing chemicals in air, water or other nearby materials to absorb energy, change their structure slightly and become radioactive.”

In order to know the exact contamination levels of each piece of metal DOE wants to release, each piece would have to be tested to see if it is radioactive; and if so, the counts per minute of radiation it is giving off, and whether it is alpha, beta, or gamma radiation.

That, however, would be an enormous—and enormously expensive—undertaking, and there is no indication the department is considering anything like it. According to Alvarez, DOE’s main motivation for pushing its low-level waste out into the public sphere is to save it the trouble and cost of proper disposal.

“The nuclear weapons complex was a huge, huge industry that is now largely full of closed, shuttered, and antiquated operations that are loaded with crap that they haven’t gotten around to getting rid of,” he said. “It costs money and they’re really trying to find creative ways to deal with it. This is one of their ‘creative’ ways.”

Powerful Opponents

Because the American nuclear weapons complex has long operated under a heavy cloak of secrecy and privilege in the name of national security, it is accustomed to doing what it wants without much oversight or accountability. But this particular plan runs counter to the interests of the U.S. steel industry, a critical sector of the American economy.

“We’re not interested in receiving material potentially contaminated with radioactivity from the DOE complex as part of its teardown in its efforts to address the Cold War situation,” Eric Stuart, vice president of energy and environment at the Steel Manufacturers Association, told WhoWhatWhy. “We’re not in the business of cleaning up after the U.S. government.”

Stuart pointed out that nearly all of the steel industry’s feed material comes from recycled scrap—more than 60 million tons a year, primarily from junked cars, appliances, steel cans, and steel construction materials—and the introduction of radiation-contaminated metals is unacceptable to the industry.

For one thing, the steel industry worries that consumers will avoid metal products because of worries over radiation contamination—a direct threat to the industry’s bottom line. For another, the mere prospect of having to deal with radioactive metals raises enormous safety and liability issues.

In order to guard against stray sources of contaminated metal that could come in with a load of scrap, steel mills already have radiation detection equipment set up at their intake points. “If some orphaned radioactive scrap made it all the way to the furnace, it would be volatized and create quite a situation,” Stuart said.

Cleaning up messes like that has cost individual mills tens of millions of dollars. In some cases the contamination has been so bad that the mill had to close, he added.

Empty Promises

In its current proposal, DOE contends that no metal with contamination exceeding 1 millirem (a unit for measuring radioactivity) per year above background radiation levels would be released. But, Stuart points out, background radiation varies from location to location, which means that this assurance is virtually meaningless.

“The background level of radiation in D.C. is going to be different than the background level in Kentucky, Florida, California, and Manhattan,” he says. “DOE is saying they will clean the metal to just above background. Where?”

Furthermore, if this proposal were to go ahead, once the tainted metal is made into a product, there is no way to ensure that somebody won’t acquire more than one product made from contaminated material, which would increase that person’s risk. And what if the contaminated metal ends up in a medical device that’s implanted in someone’s body, delivering an on-going dose of radiation to the surrounding tissue?

As if that prospect weren’t scary enough, there are other problems with DOE’s “don’t worry, be happy” and “one-size-fits-all” approach to radiation doses. First, recent research confirms that chromosomal damage, which is a precursor to many types of cancer, occurs with much lower radiation exposures than previously thought.

Second, some population groups are more vulnerable to the effects of radiation than others. According to the 2006 U.S. National Academy of Sciences BEIR report (BEIR stands for Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation), radiation exposure is nearly twice as damaging to girls than boys of the same age; in fact, an infant girl is seven times and a five-year-old girl five times more likely to get radiation-induced cancer than a 30-year-old male.

If DOE succeeds, and if Alvarez is right that this proposal is just the nuclear sector’s attempt to get its foot in the door before pushing it wide open, we could find ourselves awash in unlabeled and unmonitored products made from low-level nuclear waste.

Alvarez is not completely opposed to the idea of recycling radiation-contaminated metal. When he was still at DOE, he suggested using it to make containers to dispose of the department’s vast inventory of nuclear waste. He was told that that option would be too expensive. Apparently, running an uncontrolled experiment on the effect of radiation-contaminated metal on American consumers is more appealing to the DOE’s cost-benefit analysts.

[As mentioned above, the period for public comment on the DOE’s proposed plans ends Monday, February 11. Those wishing to share their thoughts with DOE may click here.]

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15 responses to “Radioactive Eye Glasses…Silverware…Zippers…Hip Joints… Anyone?”

  1. Avatar anon_101 says:

    @Author- your example of health products is just scaremongering. Health products are very tightly controlled- putting a radioactive source (unnecessarily) into a patient’s body just wouldn’t happen. Maybe in some shady third-world country but not in the USA or Europe or anywhere like that.

  2. Avatar A Curious Mind says:

    It is bad enough they use depleted tips on bullets in war, the mess it is making in the areas should be enough to change their mind. It is not like they can control it once it is out.

  3. This is a continuous battle, the push-back against the monsters who have one goal, to annihilate –not knowing they share the same fate. Ignorant.

  4. Avatar Max_1 says:

    Profits matter…
    … People don’t.

    Corporate America…

  5. Avatar Bruce says:

    Nuking FUTS!

  6. Avatar Susan says:

    Why is the “last day for public comment” always the first day I hear about it?

  7. Avatar brux says:

    You have to remember that material with a long half-life, such as a thousand years is not really very radioactive … that’s why it can stay around for long.

    The stuff with a short half-life is dangerous, but for a short time … like the iodine released at Fukujima or Chernobyl.

    The public really has not been educated about radiation very much, first because thanks to the government and the nuclear industry, no one believes them or wants to hear anything they have to say.

    A good source of information that talks about what radiation is, how it works, how it affects humans and other animals and plants is the book “Physics For Future Presidents” by Richard Muller.

    There is a great discussion in this book about how hard it is to measure radiation effects and the effects and magnitude of background radiation.

    The problem is not what would happen if what they say they want to do occurs, the problem is that the people involved in this, lie, cut corners and do anything to make money, put profit ahead of people. The problem is that we cannot trust the nuclear regulatory agencies … or many of the other regulatory agencies.

    • Avatar Max_1 says:

      You have to remember that material with a long half-life, such as a thousand years is not really very radioactive … that’s why it can stay around for long.


    • Avatar anon_101 says:

      Max_1, YOU are incorrect.
      A radioactive element is breaking itself down. The faster it breaks down, the sooner all of that element is used up. So a massively radioactive material will only last for a very short time.
      If you think I’m wrong, please cite an example.

  8. Avatar libby3 says:

    @DOE Stop the lunacy.

  9. Avatar dutch says:

    A millirem is a unit of radiation dose, not of radioactivity. One millirem per year is such a miniscule dose rate that there is no way to even measure it. Such as low dose rate would indeed be “safe” under any normal person’s understanding of that word (e.g. crossing the street is safe; or riding a bicycle is safe). That being said, how DOE would plan to guarantee that any scrap released would not exceed this dose rate without monitoring each item before release is not clear.

    The steel industry’s concerns here are really what’s determinative. Their current policy is to reject any radioactively contaminated scrap – period. There is so much contaminated scrap out there already that rejection of entire loads of scrap is a common occurence. When it happens, the recycler is stuck with the cost of finding the contaminated items and disposing of them as radioactive waste. The bottom line is that no recycler is going to accept scrap from DOE that they know is contaminated.

    • Avatar Traffic Cop says:

      As I read this, you’re splitting hairs in trying to make it sound like the author does not know what she’s talking about. She didn’t say a millirem is a unit of radioactivity, she said it is a means of measuring exposure to radioactivity, and that’s essentially correct because the more millirems, the more radiation exposure. Let’s focus on substance of interest to readers, not try to show how smart we are.

    • Avatar dutch says:

      The quote is: “1millirem (a unit for measuring radioactivity)” . This is incorrect. A millirem is not a unit of radioactivity, it is a unit of radiation dose. Radioactivity is measured in units of either bequerels (Bq) or curies (Ci). The difference is fundamental to understanding the subject. If the author of the article doesn’t have such basic facts straight, then indeed she does not know what she is talking about.

      This site is purportedly dedicated to first class investigative journalism. But this article reflects poorly upon the editors’ commitment factual reporting. It seems the “what” of WHOWHATWHY is being given short shrift.

  10. Avatar Strelnikov says:

    I sent the DOE an email stating that the scrap should be locked up; it’s too dangerous for use, and I warned against selling it to foreign corporations.

    Karen Charman, keep on top of this story – I have a sick feeling the metal will be sold to very shady people in India or China, and it will find it’s way home somehow.

  11. Avatar ©Dave ℗ Rickmers® says:

    The Russians just sink this waste in the Arctic. Assume land used for nuke processing is lost forever.