Recycling Radioactivity

Radiation pollution, and the fear of it, can come from unexpected sources and circumstances. For example, the bustling city of Taipei, Taiwan, has some 200 buildings with nearly 2,000 apartments that have been classified as excessively radioactive because of steel beams made from scrapped hospital equipment and recycled radium-contaminated oil drilling equipment. In the 1980s and early 1990s, Taiwan had few environmental regulations and standards for radioactive metals to prevent this kind of pollution.

In fact, regulations and standards about recycled radioactivity have been a source of controversy in the United States recently. In 1997, the Department of Energy (DOE) awarded a $238 million contract to British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL) to dismantle three buildings at the Oak Ridge, Tennessee, nuclear complex where uranium was enriched for weapons and nuclear power plants. BNFL agreed to decontaminate and recycle approximately 100,000 tons of metal from the buildings and equipment. One of the metals steel - had a surface contamination that could be cleaned to federal standards with a grit-blasting method. However, another of the metals- nickel - had "volumetric" contamination, which meant that the metal itself had become excessively radioactive. No federal standards for acceptable levels of radiation for humans had been established for this kind of contamination in recycled materials. When news reports pointed out that the recycled metals could be used anywhere, from support beams to zippers to baby carriages, political pressure led to a suspension of the work at Oak Ridge by BNFL.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency are now working with a team from the National Academy of Sciences to establish acceptable levels of radiation from recycled materials. The fate of 1,577,000 tons of radioactive metal stockpiled from 123 nuclear power plants and weapon centers hangs in the balance. Much more than that may hang in the balance as well, pending more risk assessment studies of the chronic effects of low levels of radiation pollution on humans.

References:

Giuliano, Jackie Alan. 1999. "The Radioactive Dinner Table," Environmental News Service, http://ens.lycos.com/ens/aug99/1999L-08-16g.html

Lamb, Marguerite. 1999. "Ground Zero Just Got Closer," Mother Earth News, http://www.findarticles.com/m1279/1999_Dec/57770230/pl/article.jhtml

Tremblay, Jean-Francois. 1999. "Environmental Mess in Taiwan," Chemical and Engineering News, May 31, pp.19-24.