DOE Recycles Plan to Recycle Radioactive Metals for Private Use

* The Department of Energy (or DOE) has resuscitated their plans to release metals contaminated with radiation into the recycled metals market. The recycled metals market is the primary source for producers of consumer products. The plan, which was originally scrapped in the early 1990s, would release radioactively contaminated metals for civilian use in kitchenware, braces and intrauterine devices, among other common products. DOE is currently holding hearings across the United States to discuss the plan.

The program is intended to ease DOE's costly burden of disposing of the radioactive waste. DOE estimates that over one million tons of radioactive metal would be distributed over the next 35 years through the program. The plan would allow the release of these metals without labeling, monitoring, or tracking, which would make them virtually irretrievable in years to come.

DOE had been releasing radioactive metals without external oversight to companies with a special license to purchase the materials for more then 50 years. Former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson placed a moratorium on consumer use of radioactive metals in January 2000 after it was disclosed that contaminated metals were distributed to schools, ranches and municipal waste dumps. DOE hopes to lift the moratorium this year, and begin the program by distributing nearly one million tons of radioactive metal.

DOE and metal recyclers defend the program by ensuring to the public that it is low-level radioactive waste, containing only small amounts of plutonium, cesium-137 and strontium-90. However, in 1989, a panel at the prestigious National Academy of Scientists found that the risk of developing cancer after exposure to low-level radiation is nearly four times higher than previously believed. Also, as Richard Clapp of Boston University Schools of Public Health said, recycling the metals would raise radiation levels worldwide. As Clapp, who studied leukemia trends in areas near nuclear facilities, said, "Who in their right mind would want to do that?"

A similar plan which classified the waste as "below regulatory concern" and suitable for public use was considered in the early 1990s under President George Bush Sr. Although the initial recycling plan failed in America, similar plans have been considered in Europe and implemented in Taiwan. In the decade since the original plan, activists have been requesting that recycled metals be stamped with a notice that the metal is recycled and may be contaminated.

DOE is also considering other contaminated materials for public use, including concrete, paper, wood, chemicals, equipment, and entire contaminated buildings. All told, the metals recycling program would comprise only one-quarter of DOEšs total contaminated materials recycling. DOE has not commented on these plans.

Activists have long supported an alternative to the recycling program that would require DOE to recycle the contaminated materials within the DOE complex to make 55-gallon waste drums and boxes. Those containers would in turn be used to dispose of other radioactive wastes. In that case, DOE workers trained to handle radioactive materials would be protected in their use of the final products. DOE's plan will not protect the general public from involuntary exposure.

To comment on these plans, contact Andrew Wallo at (202) 586-4996.

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