- NEW YORK - Orthodontists
could soon be giving their patients more than they bargained for with their
brand new braces: a mouthful of radioactive waste.
- Under a Department of Energy plan, braces aren't the
only product which could contain radioactive waste. Zippers, lawn chairs,
hip replacements and countless other consumer products could include trace
amounts of waste taken from nuclear reactors or weapons complexes and recycled
into scrap metal.
- The Department of Energy (DOE) sees the recycling as
a way to clean up waste at decommissioned nuclear plants and weapons facilities,
but environmental groups call the idea ridiculous.
- "It's hard to imagine a nuclear enterprise more
tone deaf to public concerns or a more cockamamie scheme than taking radioactive
waste and disposing of it in consumer products," said Dan Hirsch,
president of nuclear watchdog group Committee to Bridge the Gap.
- The energy department will spend the next 12 months to
18 months studying the environmental and health risks of the plan, having
held 12 public hearings in six cities this summer, said DOE spokesman Joe
- Critics say recycling radioactive waste, even at low
levels, is reckless. But energy officials say that the government needs
to look at all options for getting rid of the growing pile of hazardous
wastes. Proponents of the plan say that by spreading small, non-lethal
amounts into recycled scrap, the need for large waste dumps could be avoided.
- CONCERN IS HEALTHY
- A moratorium was placed on radioactive recycling last
year by former Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson after environmental
groups protested the possible sale of 6,000 metric tons of contaminated
nickel from the energy department's Oakridge nuclear facility in Tennessee
to scrap metal dealers.
- But under the Bush administration, the program is being
revisited and the energy department is considering lifting the moratorium.
But before that, it is required by law to conduct a thorough study on the
safety risks of recycling radioactive waste.
- The proposal does not specify any uses for scrap metal
containing the radioactive waste, but metal industry executives say the
material would go into the supply of scrap metal and could be used to make
- Even the study has proven problematic. The DOE recently
dropped Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) - which it initially
chose to conduct the study and prepared a report -- because of its business
partnership with British Nuclear Fuels Limited, the company that last year
was going to contract with the government to help sell the waste from the
- Hirsch of the Committee to Bridge the Gap said it was
an enormous potential conflict of interest. SAIC's report "is quite
dangerous in terms of arguing how much radioactivity would be acceptable
for use in consumer products."
- The energy department has not said who was hired to complete
the study, but some are arguing that the level of radiation in any recycled
materials would be too low to actually pose a health risk.
- The Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade association representing
some 260 companies in the nuclear power industry, has lobbied in favor
of radioactive recycling and says the public may be overly concerned.
- "Concern is healthy," said Felix Killar, director
of material licenses for the institute. "But people need to understand
the facts. This isn't truly radioactive waste. It's no more radioactive
than any other material recycled in to consumer products."
- Killar continues: "There isn't a place on Earth
that is totally free of radioactivity."
- A LITTLE RADIATION IS OK
- John Wittenborn, attorney for the Metal Industries Recycling
Coalition (MIRC), comprised of a variety of metal industry trade groups,
says their polls indicate the public doesn't buy the idea that nuclear
waste can be safely recycled into everyday products.
- "We've spent a lot of time and effort to build the
perception that products made from recycled materials are safe and good
and that recycling itself is something that society should be in favor
of," said Wittenborn, whose group strongly opposes recycling of radioactive
waste into scrap metal.
- Beyond the public image problem the industry would face
in using the recycled waste, companies are concerned about the potential
contamination of their mills and workers.
- Wittenborn says it can cost from $5 million to $15 million
to shut down, inspect by hand and then clean a steel mill that has registered
radioactivity above a background level.
- Recently, Wittenborn attended an energy department public
hearing on the issue in Crystal City, Virginia where he presented his polling
data and the metal industry's case.
- In fact, those who have attended the hearings say most
of the comments have opposed lifting the moratorium on radioactive recycling.
- "The observer might ask 'Why does the DOE continue
to propose to do this if no one is willing to come forward and testify
on behalf of it?"' said Dan Guttman, executive director of President
Clinton's Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments,
- "This is being cast as a question of convincing
the hysterical public that a little radiation is OK."
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