Wednesday, August 15, 2001

Just how safe is our nuclear scrap?

Recycling metal from dismantled weapons plants debated

By Tim Bonfield
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        During the next 35 years, the federal government expects to generate more than 1 million tons of slightly radioactive scrap metal as crews dismantle unneeded parts of America's nuclear weapons complexes.

        Most of that scrap will come from uranium enrichment plants near Portsmouth, Ohio; Paducah, Ky.; and Oak Ridge, Tenn. Some will come from the former Fernald plant near Ross; the Mound plant near Dayton, Ohio; and other sites nationwide.

   The Department of Energy will accept written comments about recycling radioactive scrap metal until Sept. 10.
   Another comment period will open after January, when a draft policy is expected to be issued.
   Send comments to Kenneth G. Picha, Office of Technical Program Integration, EM-22, Attn: Metals Disposition PEIS, Office of Environmental Management, U.S. Department of Energy, 1000 Independence Ave. SW, Washington, D.C. 20585-0113.
   Or, send a fax to Metals Disposition PEIS at (301) 903-9770.
   Or, send e-mail to: Metals.Disposition.
        The big question: Is it OK for the government to sell that scrap metal to recyclers, who in turn could melt it down and resell it for use in making any number of consumer products — from construction materials to braces for a teen-ager's teeth?

        Deciding the fate of radioactive scrap metal was the focus Tuesday of a public hearing at the Omni Netherland Plaza Hotel downtown. The hearing was one of several to be held before the Department of Energy sets a new recycling policy, expected by July 2002.

        Proponents of recycling, primarily from within DOE, say large amounts of metal from former weapon-making sites barely register above normal background radiation emanating from the soil. They say there is no need to ship such metal to special waste sites intended for much more radioactive materials.

        Opponents, however, say the government cannot be trusted to follow its own rules. They predict that scrap recycling will result in exposing an unwitting public to potentially dangerous metals.

        “We have serious concerns about this,” said Lisa Crawford, president of FRESH, a citizens group that has been raising concerns about Fernald. Mrs. Crawford planned to testify at an evening session of Tuesday's public hearing.

        The metals involved are not the enriched uranium, plutonium or other highly radioactive materials produced for bomb-making. Instead, the new DOE policy would address the steel, nickel and aluminum from plant buildings, tanks and equipment; copper from electrical wiring and pipes; and small amounts of gold and platinum used in discarded equipment.

        Several thousand tons of scrap metal have accumulated at the Fernald plant, where dozens of buildings have been torn down since 1989.

        The debate will have little, if any, impact on the Fernald site because the cleanup is so far along, said Fernald DOE spokesman Gary Stegner. Nearly all of Fernald's scrap is destined for on-site burial or for disposal at the Nevada Test Site, he said.

        But as other DOE sites are dismantled, the issue will grow.

        Between now and 2035, the Department of Energy predicts it will generate 942,071 tons of scrap carbon steel, another 37,070 tons of stainless steel, 2,928 tons of iron and unspecified amounts of nickel, copper, aluminum, lead and other metals.

        Nearly 84 percent of the steel will come from facilities in Oak Ridge, Paducah and Portsmouth, according to Ken Picha, DOE program manager for the scrap-metal disposition plan.

        The DOE is seeking public comment about whether to dispose of the waste or allow some or all of it to be recycled, Mr. Picha said.

        So far, the response has been against recycling.

        “We do not believe that metals from DOE sites should be permitted to be released into unrestricted commerce, based on our firsthand experience at a major DOE site,” said Mike Gibson, vice president of PACE Local 5-4200, a union that represents cleanup workers at the Mound plant in Miamisburg.

        Despite detailed policies already in place, Mr. Gibson said, materials from the Mound and Oak Ridge facilities that were assumed to be safe were shipped to foundries or landfills, only to be found to be contaminated.

        Even more problems can be expected if scrap recycling is expanded in years to come, Mr. Gibson said.


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