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DOE mulls recycling of radioactive metals

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Ever wonder what went into making your kitchen utensils? How about the zipper on your pants? Or the frying pan on your stove? Would it disturb you if you learned they had been manufactured using radioactive metals?

Last week, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) held a public hearing in Washington, D.C. on a plan to allow radioactive metals to be “recycled” into a host of consumer products. Currently, many kinds of radioactive materials—with the exception of some metals—are released from DOE weapons sites to commercial recyclers and made into common household items, or else dumped as non-radioactive waste. In 2000, the DOE placed a ban on recycling radioactive metals, but is now considering lifting that ban.

“We’re talking about unrestricted release [of contaminated metals], where it goes out the door and no one has to monitor it ever again,” says David Ritter, a policy analyst with Public Citizen, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group. “At that point, there would be no further regulation of any kind.”

The DOE and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) classify radioactive waste based on its degree of radioactivity. While the government isn’t proposing that “high-level” radioactive waste, such as uranium from a nuclear weapons or spent irradiated fuel rods from reactors be recycled, opponents take little comfort in such assurances.

“Neither the Department of Energy nor the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have been 100 percent successful in even containing or keeping a proper watch on highly radioactive materials, let alone the ‘low-level’ ones,” says Ritter.

Ritter adds that the distinction between “high-level” and “low-level” radioactive waste is a bogus one, since the DOE makes that determination based more on where the material comes from than on its potential risk to human or environmental health.

No one can say for sure just how much radioactive metal could potentially find its way into consumer products if the ban is lifted. Several groups opposed to the plan have filed Freedom of Information requests with the DOE and the NRC to find out, thus far with little success. However, at a meeting of the Association of Radioactive Metal Recyclers in 1996, it was announced that at least 6,000 tons of radioactive metals had been recycled that year.

Removing the ban would not only save the DOE and nuclear contractors millions in waste storage and disposal fees, it would also reduce their liability if someone develops cancer down the road.

In 1997, recliner manufacturer La-Z-Boy discovered that more than 1,000 of its recliners contained radioactive metal that had been recycled from a South American nation. (Upon learning the news, the company immediately offered its customers replacement recliners.)

Why so little coverage of this issue? Ritter says bluntly, “Your average citizen doesn’t pick up the Federal Register to find out what kind of evil plans are being hatched by the nuclear industry.”

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