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US recycling proposal raises radiation fears

United States – The US Department of Energy is lobbying for the commercial recycling of tonnes of scrap metal from government nuclear sites such as the Los Alamos National Laboratory, according to the Wall Street Journal. Critics within the steel industry fear this move to reduce waste could result in radiation-tainted consumer products.

With a policy of ‘reusing materials whenever possible’, the US Department of Energy says the roughly 14 000 tonnes of metal under review for possible initial release represents ‘only a fraction of the tens of millions of tons of metal recycled annually’. In its recent proposal, it suggests that selling the metals could bring in US$ 10-40 million a year.

The proposal asserts that scrap metal exposed on its surface to radiation can be recycled if the metal is uncontaminated or if radiation levels are low enough to render it ‘negligible’. This comprises metals from filing cabinets, tools, equipment and structural steel from demolished buildings. The annual radiation exposure from a shipment of scrap metal would only be allowed to equal half or even less than that of a person flying cross-country, the document maintains.

However, the proposal has been greeted with fierce opposition and scepticism, mostly from the domestic steel sector. Citing the difficulty and expense of preventing the co-mingling of recycled metals, the President of the Steel Manufacturers Association, Thomas Danjczek, says contamination problems and subsequent clean-up efforts have been known to cost a recycling plant US$ 15 million.

‘We are concerned about what could happen in the marketplace if you have to worry about radioactive material possibly being in your eyeglass frames,’ says Mr Danjczek. ‘Why is the government trying to hurt the image of American products?’

But according to Robert Middaugh, a spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, the material selected for release ‘is uncontaminated and poses no more risk than the scrap metals that ordinary citizens and small businesses routinely place in their recycling bins.’ And he adds: ‘Safety is the only thing that matters here and we will not move forward with any recycling unless we’re absolutely confident that it is entirely safe.’

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