NEW YORK (Aug. 27) – Orthodontists could soon be giving their patients more than they bargained for with their brand new braces: a mouthful of radioactive waste.
Under a Department of Energy plan, braces aren’t the only product which could contain radioactive waste. Zippers, lawn chairs, hip replacements and countless other consumer products could include trace amounts of waste taken from nuclear reactors or weapons complexes and recycled into scrap metal.
The Department of Energy (DOE) sees the recycling as a way to clean up waste at decommissioned nuclear plants and weapons facilities, but environmental groups call the idea ridiculous.
“It’s hard to imagine a nuclear enterprise more tone deaf to public concerns or a more cockamamie scheme than taking radioactive waste and disposing of it in consumer products,” said Dan Hirsch, president of nuclear watchdog group Committee to Bridge the Gap.
The energy department will spend the next 12 months to 18 months studying the environmental and health risks of the plan, having held 12 public hearings in six cities this summer, said DOE spokesman Joe Davis,
Critics say recycling radioactive waste, even at low levels, is reckless.
But energy officials say that the government needs to look at all options for getting rid of the growing pile of hazardous wastes. Proponents of the plan say that by spreading small, non-lethal amounts into recycled scrap, the need for large waste dumps could be avoided.
CONCERN IS HEALTHY
A moratorium was placed on radioactive recycling last year by former Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson after environmental groups protested the possible sale of 6,000 metric tons of contaminated nickel from the energy department’s Oakridge nuclear facility in Tennessee to scrap metal dealers.
But under the Bush administration, the program is being revisited and the energy department is considering lifting the moratorium. But before that, it is required by law to conduct a thorough study on the safety risks of recycling radioactive waste.
The proposal does not specify any uses for scrap metal containing the radioactive waste, but metal industry executives say the material would go into the supply of scrap metal and could be used to make anything.
Even the study has proven problematic. The DOE recently dropped Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) – which it initially chose to conduct the study and prepared a report — because of its business partnership with British Nuclear Fuels Limited, the company that last year was going to contract with the government to help sell the waste from the Oakridge facility.
Hirsch of the Committee to Bridge the Gap said it was an enormous potential conflict of interest. SAIC’s report “is quite dangerous in terms of arguing how much radioactivity would be acceptable for use in consumer products.”
The energy department has not said who was hired to complete the study, but some are arguing that the level of radiation in any recycled materials would be too low to actually pose a health risk.
The Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade association representing some 260 companies in the nuclear power industry, has lobbied in favor of radioactive recycling and says the public may be overly concerned.
“Concern is healthy,” said Felix Killar, director of material licenses for the institute. “But people need to understand the facts. This isn’t truly radioactive waste. It’s no more radioactive than any other material recycled in to consumer products.”
Killar continues: “There isn’t a place on Earth that is totally free of radioactivity.”
A LITTLE RADIATION IS OK
John Wittenborn, attorney for the Metal Industries Recycling Coalition (MIRC), comprised of a variety of metal industry trade groups, says their polls indicate the public doesn’t buy the idea that nuclear waste can be safely recycled into everyday products.
“We’ve spent a lot of time and effort to build the perception that products made from recycled materials are safe and good and that recycling itself is something that society should be in favor of,” said Wittenborn, whose group strongly opposes recycling of radioactive waste into scrap metal.
Beyond the public image problem the industry would face in using the recycled waste, companies are concerned about the potential contamination of their mills and workers.
Wittenborn says it can cost from $5 million to $15 million to shut down, inspect by hand and then clean a steel mill that has registered radioactivity above a background level.
Recently, Wittenborn attended an energy department public hearing on the issue in Crystal City, Virginia where he presented his polling data and the metal industry’s case.
In fact, those who have attended the hearings say most of the comments have opposed lifting the moratorium on radioactive recycling.
“The observer might ask ‘Why does the DOE continue to propose to do this if no one is willing to come forward and testify on behalf of it?”‘ said Dan Guttman, executive director of President Clinton’s Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments,
“This is being cast as a question of convincing the hysterical public that a little radiation is OK.”