The Coastal Post - February 2000

Nuclear Spoons: Hot Metal May Find Its Way To Your Dinner Table

By Anne-Marie Cusac

The Department of Energy has a problem: what to do with millions of tons of radioactive metal. So the DOE has come up with an ingenious plan to dispose of its troublesome tons of nickel, copper, steel, and aluminum. It wants to let scrap companies collect the metal, try to take the radioactivity out, and sell the metal to foundries, which would in turn sell it to manufacturers who could use it for everyday household products: pots, pans, forks, spoons, even your eyeglasses.

You may not know this, but the government already permits some companies, under special licenses, to buy, reprocess, and sell radioactive metal: 7,500 tons in 1996, by one industry estimate. But the amount of this reprocessing could increase drastically if the DOE, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and the burgeoning radioactive metal processing industry get their way. They are pressing for a new, lax standard that would do away with the special permits and allow companies to buy and resell millions of tons of low- level radioactive metal.

If the rules change, the metal companies could increase their output a hundredfold. And the standard the companies seek could cause nearly 100,000 cancer fatalities in the United States, by the NRC's own estimate.

"We're looking at an exponential increase,'' says Diane D'Arrigo, a staff member at the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, which is fighting the push to recycle radioactive metal. ''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.''

A June 30 memorandum from John Hoyle, NRC Secretary, announces the Commission's decision to establish a new, legal dose of radiation for metals released from nuclear facilities.

"This level should be based on realistic scenarios of health effects from low doses that still allows quantities of materials to be released," says the letter. "The rule should be comprehensive and apply to all metals, equipment, and materials, including soil."

Metal companies want that standard to be in the vicinity of 10 millirems per year. A millirem is a unit of measure, based on the standard man, that estimates the damage radiation does to human tissue. The NRC studied the health effects of such a standard back in 1990. It found: ''A radiation dose of 10 mrem per year... received continuously over a lifetime corresponds to a risk of about 4 chances in 10,000'' of fatal cancer. That translates to 92,755 additional cancer deaths in the United States alone.

Many scientists argue that any release of hot metals into the product stream is a serious health hazard.

John Gofman is a former associate director of Livermore National Laboratory, one of the scientists who worked on the atomic bomb, and co-discoverer of uranium-233. ''There is no safe dose or dose rate below which dangers disappear. No threshold-dose,'' said Gofman. ''Serious, lethal effects from minimal radiation doses are not 'hypothetical,' 'just theoretical,' or 'imaginary.' They are real.''

Karl Morgan, known as the father of health physics, shudders at the idea of more and more radioactive metal entering people's homes. He is particularly worried about dental fillings. ''You certainly don't want people going around with radioactive teeth,'' he says.

Some of the most dangerous radioactivity around the home, says Morgan, will be the metals people unintentionally ingest. "Some of these find their way directly into the human body, especially copper and iron, stainless steel [from] knives and forks," he says. "It doesn't help any cell in the human body if you send an alpha particle through it."

Richard Clapp, associate professor in the department of environmental health at the Boston University Schools of Public Health, says you may soon need to fear household products you have most contact with: ''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.

Clapp, who published a study on the increases in leukemia and thyroid cancers associated with low-level radiation exposure among people living near a Massachusetts nuclear power plant, says radioactive metal recycling will raise overall radiation levels. "Who in their right mind would want to do that?" he asks. ''This is the legacy of an industry gone mad."

It's early August, and I'm attending the "Beneficial Reuse" conference of the Association of Radioactive Metal Recyclers, in Knoxville, Tennessee. "We were not always called Beneficial Reuse," says Val Loiselle, chairman of the association, during his opening speech. "In our first year, we were called the Radioactive Scrap Metal Conference."

This is the sixth annual gathering of radioactive metal recyclers. There is a special session for those interested in recycling depleted uranium and a presentation on recycling radioactive concrete.

"I got my start in the commercial nuclear power business," says Leo Hill, the general manager and president of GTS Duratek. ''Nowadays, when I go by a scrap yard or an automobile wrecking place, I think, 'This stuff is beautiful.' I'm in the garbage business, and I love it."

"I was born a Hindu, and a central feature of the Hindu religion is reincarnation,'' says Shankar Menon of Menon Consulting in Sweden. "And being trained as an engineer, it's just a short step to the recycling of metals. I'm actually thinking of the soul in them."

But this conference is not so much about the soul of the metal as its sale. "In the scrap business, there's probably about $3 billion in the region, if you count Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana," says Frederick Gardner, who is in charge of business development for Decontamination and Recovery Services of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. "The cheaper we can handle this stuff, the bigger business this will be."

Still, there are a few kinks to be worked out in the plan to reprocess radioactive scrap: for instance, public opinion. ''What's it going to take to get the public swung around to say, 'OK, I don't like it, but I guess you've proven it's safe'?" asks Gardner, who is making a presentation. He answers his own question with an overhead that reads, The Main Point: It All Starts With the Salesman.

"We can tackle the public on the notion that radioactivity is an effluent, not a waste," says Loiselle, comparing radioactivity to car exhaust. "This industry has a right to effluence just like any other industry. And it cannot be zero. No industry has zero effluence."

Peter Yerace, waste coordinator for the Department of Energy's Fernald project in Ohio, displays an overhead slide: Public Perception Problems: Fears of Radiation, Suspicion of DOE.

Fernald has "lots of copper," 120 tons of ingots, says Yerace. He proposed releasing copper that was slightly contaminated with uranium. "When I went in front of the public, I got the crap beat out of me," he says. People asked, "Are my kid's braces going to be made out of that copper?" Yerace told them the metal could enter consumer products. "I went as far as a copper IUD. That's what it's made of," he says. But he tried to reassure them the metal would be of such low levels of radioactivity that it wouldn't be dangerous.

I step into the hallway during a break and hear a voice from one of the display booths. "Come on over and get your CO-2 pellets," calls Chris Wetherall, president of Cryo Dynamics Inc., a company specializing in "cryogenic decontamination and waste minimization." He opens a cooler and cold steam spills onto the table. He dribbles a cup full of dry-ice pellets into my palm. They sting, so I drop them to the carpet, and they bounce away. As I rub my hand on my pants leg, Wetherall explains that the dry ice will decontaminate metals, wood, concrete, and fabrics, while causing no waste. "It sterilizes everything it touches," he says.

But while CO-2 sterilizes some surfaces, not all the "hot spots" on radioactive metal can be scrubbed off. This is particularly true for metals that are radioactive inside and out, which is one reason why companies cannot legally reprocess them. The DOE and the private firms want to be able to recycle these "volu- metrically contaminated" metals, too.

Loiselle explains that the government is getting away from measuring exactly how much radiation it will allow in any given product. Instead, it is making more general target assessments based on risk and is considering setting an allowable dose standard. Many industry members advocate a standard that would allow for the release of all metal estimated to give off doses of radiation at 10 to 15 millirems per year. "The dose shouldn't be ridiculously low," Loiselle says. "We've gone too far toward making it zero. That's really not fair to the industry. Nothing is zero. Pick a number, and you'll have a lot of friends here. We'd rather be regulated at 10 millirems or thereabouts."

As Loiselle explains it, the public has no idea what doses it encounters in household products and car parts because the current release standards for those who get special permits are set so close to zero that the radiation is not measurable. "The public health is better served by something measurable," he says. "In a sense, that means a looser or a less stringent standard. Wouldn't it be better if it were something we could measure?"

Not all industry people agree with that. Steven Stansberry, business development manager for Manufacturing Sciences Corporation, doesn't buy the argument that the public needs a measurable standard. "Personally, I'm not an advocate against it because I work in the industry, and it doesn't scare me," he tells me at his plant in Oak Ridge. "But raising it just so you know it's out there in the public seems a little backwards. If you can't measure it, at the worst case it's minimal. At the best case, it's not there," he says. "If it's dose-based, you know it's there all the time."

Some scientists argue that exposure to continual low-dose radiation is potentially more dangerous than a one-time high- level dose. "The cancer curve rises more steeply at low doses than high doses," says Steve Wing, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

In the gravel lot outside U.S. Ecology in Oak Ridge, I am looking at drums labeled radioactive and sludge and metal boxes (called B-25s or Sea-Lands) identified by millirem dose rates-4 mr/hr, 0.8 mr/hr, 2 mr/hr, 5 mr/hr. "This is not a glamorous industry," says Tom Gilman, the company's government accounts manager. In addition to handling low-level radioactive wastes, says Gilman, U.S. Ecology recycles metals contaminated with low-level radio- activity. Most come from commercial sites, but he says some are from the DOE.

Companies pay U.S. Ecology to remove the radioactive metal from their property. If the metal is not highly radioactive and is contaminated only on the surface, the plant scrubs it, then sells it as clean scrap. From there, the metal travels to a steel mill and enters the consumer market. U.S. Ecology is "turning waste into assets," says Gilman.

But Gilman is careful to say the assets his company is recycling into the metal stream aren't completely clean. "'Acceptable' levels is the word to use," he explains. "There's always going to be some level of radioactivity."

We enter what Gilman calls the survey building. Here, he says, workers search bags with a Geiger counter to find hot pieces of trash.

"So the bags could have radioactive stuff in them?'' I ask.

"Anything in this room could have radioactive stuff in it," says Gilman. "Except us." He laughs.

We leave the building. Nearby, sits a chirping Geiger counter. From the pine woods, comes the long drone of locusts. "This is the year for them," says Gilman.

In the next building, we pause near a large pile of bent and perforated radioactive metal beams. "This is structural steel," says Gilman. "They're going to blast this, cutting out the hot spots to make new products to keep America great." Gilman points toward my notebook, gesturing with each word. "Write that," he says. "To keep America great."

Early in the 1980s, gold jewelry in Buffalo, New York, was a hot item. When a local television station offered to survey gold jewelry, it turned up three radioactive pieces in the first two days. "As a result of this finding, the New York State Health Department began a comprehensive campaign in 1981 to find radioactive, contaminated jewelry," reported the journal Health Physics in 1986. "More than 160,000 pieces were surveyed, and, of these, about 170 pieces turned out to be radioactive- mostly from western New York and nearby Pennsylvania." News accounts from the early eighties reported that at least fourteen people had developed finger cancer and several people had suffered amputations of their fingers and even parts of their hands as a result of the hot jewelry.

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