In some of our recent posts, we have observed that recycling has become an increasingly globalized industry, with recycled material collected in one country (mostly from US and Western Europe) and then processed in another (often China and India). As a result of this trend, radioactive materials are occasionally slipping into our stocks of recyclable scrap, through losses, accidents, and the inadvertent disposal of radioactive material. These materials include medical, electronic, and nuclear waste. This is a cause for grave concern on several socioeconomic and environmental levels:
- Materials contaminated with radioactive material pose a significant health risk to those exposed to the radiation. A building constructed from contaminated steel for instance, could be covertly poisoning its occupants.
- The economic ramifications of contaminated materials could be devastating. As the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) observes, “The cost of search, decontamination and clean up can amount to millions of US dollars and put companies out of business altogether.”
According to UNECE, “…with 50% of steel being produced from numerous recycled sources, monitors are increasingly detecting radiation in scrap metal. In the US alone over 5000 radiation monitor alarms rang in 2004 as a result of detections in metal scrap. Many of these detections are from natural sources and represent low levels of radiation. Others, however, may be from losses, accidents or inadvertent disposal of radioactive material. All alarms must be taken seriously.”
Thankfully, most scrap yards and processing facilities are outfitted with monitoring technology to ensure no contaminated material escapes into public use. However, the EPA notes, “…monitoring does not guarantee detection of sources. They may be shielded by the scrap metal or by their own casings.” The EPA goes on to mention one such example in which contaminated material leaked into public consumption, “A cesium source was melted at steel mill in Florida. The source was vaporized and drawn into the mill’s emission control system where it contaminated the baghouse dust. Radiation alarms in the primary emission control system baghouse sounded, leading plant personnel to shut down the emission system. This caused contaminated flue dust to back up into the secondary baghouse. To remove the resulting contamination and return the plant to production, decontamination workers and health physics technicians worked around the clock for more than three weeks in extreme heat. The estimated total cleanup cost for the melted source is $25 million.”
So how can we prevent such catastrophes? The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has published a poster identifying typical items that may contain radioactive materials and how best to handle these situations. You can download the poster here.
The UNECE has also suggested the following actions for reducing the risk of radioactive contamination:
- Regulatory infrastructure
- Application of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Code of Conduct for the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources.
- Monitoring of imported and exported scrap metal
- Location, scope and magnitude of monitoring requirements and procedures
- Standardization of monitoring of scrap metal and response to alarms
- Arrangement for disposal facility or return to manufacturer program
- Application of existing regulations for the shipment of detected radioactive material
- Mechanisms for effectively dealing with contaminated scrap metal
- Strengthening of contractual requirements on the acquisition of scrap metal to require radiation monitoring prior to sale
- Standardizing and strengthening reporting and investigating procedures
- Establishing a mechanism for the exchange of information on practices and lessons learned in monitoring radioactively contaminated scrap metal
Implementing these policies and procedures is critical if we are to avoid further environmental and economic disasters. Let’s work today to prevent our recycled scrap from becoming contaminated with radioactive materials.
In conclusion, the best way to prevent radioactive waste from slipping into our recyclables is to know the source of materials and providers, and do our best to avoid allowing radioactive materials to enter the waste stream.
Conceived, Developed and Written by Dr. Subodh Das and Austin McKinney on October 6, 2011
Dr. Das is a prolific writer and a well-recognized and respected expert and consultant to the global aluminum industry specializing in the areas of industry trends, technology, recycling, manufacturing, carbon management and new product & process developments.