It is an environmental and economic success story that (non-radioactive) metal and other materials are recycled and reused to prevent unnecessary mining and extraction of new materials from the Earth. The nuclear power and weapons industries, their government promoters and so-called “regulators” and the international radiation establishment are threatening this success by sending radioactive metal and other materials into the mix.
The nuclear industry is shifting its waste liability to the steel industry, the most successful recycling industry in the world. The Steel Manufacturers Association said in its 2009-2010 Policy Statement (*1)
“SMA opposes policies or rulemaking activities that sanction the free release of radioactively contaminated scrap metals from nuclear power plants or DOE facilities, without any additional regulatory controls. The US steel industry cannot be the dumping ground for the discards of the global nuclear age.”
There has been widespread opposition to releasing nuclear waste into commons since it was first attempted publicly in 1981. The US public has stopped every known effort to legalize dispersing radioactive waste unregulated and out of control. Euratom, as a force in the European Union representing the nuclear industry, not the general population, has succeeding in forcing member states (even those that oppose nuclear power) to adopt regulations allowing nuclear waste to get into commerce. Before the Fukushima Daiichi reactors and irradiated fuel pools started melting down and releasing untold amounts of radioactivity to the world, Japan had been moving to release nuclear waste from control. Since the disaster allowable contamination levels have been raised to unconscionable levels and radioactive rubble is being deliberately dispersed (and incinerated) across the country thus around the world. Canada adopted “clearance” rules without any public knowledge or input in 2008 according the Canadian Nuclear Safety Council.
Although it did not apply to commercial nuclear power reactors, the public and the metal industry breathed a sigh of relief in January and July of 2000 when US Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Bill Richardson banned the release of metal from any and all radioactive areas of the US weapons complex into commercial metal recycling. In September of 2011, US Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu signed off on reversing the bans. We don’t know how soon potentially contaminated metal from US nuclear bomb factories might enter the metal market in the US, but we do have a chance to stop it…again. In the near future we can expect an Environmental Assessment with a brief public comment period. Unless public outrage is expressed and acted upon by decision makers, DOE will proceed to overturn both the “moratorium” and the “suspension” from the year 2000. DOE and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) refuse to provide details of the reversal in public protection, but this is not the first time DOE site managers have tried to overturn them. Radioactive Exchange Monitor reports that buildup of metal at the Piketon/Portsmouth Ohio nuclear weapons site pushed hard for the change. DOE had secretly adopted internal orders (Chapters 2 and 4 of Order 5400.5) in 1990 allowing radioactive materials to be released or cleared from controls to go to landfills, incinerators and reuse/recycling. In 2011 DOE replaced it with a new one (Order 458.1) which, according to the Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU), requires property “release” and “clearance.”
Nuclear Monitor readers are well aware that every facility in the nuclear fuel chain, from uranium mining to irradiated fuel and waste management, releases radioactivity into the air and water and generates various amounts of radioactive solid, liquid and/or gaseous waste. The buildings themselves become radioactively contaminated. Metal pipes and components exposed to neutrons in the core of nuclear reactors become “activated,” meaning that the originally-stable metal atoms are transformed into radioactive elements such as Nickel-59 and Niobium-94 with half lives of 76,000 years and 20,300 years, respectively. Radioactive Cobalt-60 with a 5 year half life thus 50 to 100 year hazardous life also forms. Some of the radioactivity lasts for such long periods of time that for practical purposes, it requires permanent isolation from our environment and living systems. In other parts of the reactor and the fuel chain, metal can get contaminated on the surface with radionuclides.
In Canada, the Bruce nuclear power reactors were refurbished. Eight radioactively contaminated steam generators were removed with the intent to ship them to Studsvik in Sweden to be melted and most of the metal released into the commercial metal recycling market. It is not possible to remove all of the radioactive contamination, thus Canada’s nuclear power waste would make its way via Sweden into everyday household and personal use items sold around the world. Opposition from over 50 US and Canadian organizations, nearly 30 Canadian local governments, and governments of First Nations along the Great Lakes and St Lawrence Seaway have slowed the shipments. Over 20 European nongovernmental organizations have passed resolutions opposing the shipments and the release of nuclear waste into metal recycling. The immediate concern is about the dangers and precedent for transporting the enormous nuclear power components on the world’s largest fresh water body, the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway through treacherous waters of the North Atlantic, through the narrow straits of Denmark into the Baltic Sea to Nykoping, Sweden where Studsvik would melt and release the majority of the metal.
As the value of metals (and other materials) in the marketplace varies, the incentive to sell contaminated metal fluctuates. Regardless, selling it into the “recycling” supply makes money (for the waste generator putting the public at non-consensual, secret but real risk), whereas efforts to “dispose” of it cost money. Disposal as regular trash is cheaper than in a licensed nuclear waste site. There is now another option that has evolved since the late 1980s-- sending nuclear waste to a “processor” (most of which are located in Tennessee, USA), paying a fee to treat and dispose or “recycle,” and sometimes transfer title and liability to the processer. If you were the manager of a nuclear decommissioning project, would you throw it into the “recycle” bin or the radioactive waste bin?
*1- quoted in http://www.ccnr.org/SMA_Radioactive_Scrap.pdf )
Read more: Nuclear Free Local Authorities briefing paper July 2011: http://nfznsc.gn.apc.org/docs/briefings/A199_(NB85)_Canadian_waste_shipments.pdf
Source and contact: Diane D'Arrigo, NIRS Washington