Radioactive Recycling.
September 16, 2002 7:15 PM   Subscribe

Radioactive Recycling. "If the Department of Energy has its way, the nation's nuclear garbage could end up in everyday items like bicycles, frying pans, and baby strollers." The East Tennessee Technology Park, was once known as "the K-25 site. Its mission: to produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons." Now, efforts are being made to recycle some of the irradiated scrap metal into unlabeled household objects. On the plus side, any radioactive metal that finds its way into your kitchenware won't be headed for Yucca Mountain.
posted by Joey Michaels (12 comments total)
I have some strong feelings (yes, self link) about this issue, though I've calmed down since I first read this. Even if the radiation is low level, I don't relish the idea of sticking Junior into a stroller that might be irradiated. Yeah, maybe the radiation level isn't as high as an X-Ray, but I don't spend all day walking around in an X-Ray machine.

Please, if you think this is a good idea, explain it to me in small words so I can understand.
posted by Joey Michaels at 7:23 PM on September 16, 2002

I suspect that they would export all said objects to the third world countries...

but I'm not taking any chances. I'm buyng a geiger counter.
posted by titboy at 7:25 PM on September 16, 2002

Tons of radioactive table legs and building materials were shipped to the U.S. in 1984. "Ultimately, more than 800 buildings built with radioactive rebar in Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico had to be torn down...In some places, inspectors found radioactive table legs in steakhouses and fast-food restaurants -- while customers were sitting at the tables."
posted by xowie at 7:51 PM on September 16, 2002

I would actually like some hard facts about this (not about what's happened, but what could/will happen). Yes, it says that people (DOE) are wanting this to happen, but people are always coming up with stupid ideas- so far, Congress has luckily blocked this. In fact, as cited in the story, many (all?) of DOE's attempts at recycling radioactive stuff has been blocked. Who knows, maybe its late and i'm being too optimistic.
posted by jmd82 at 8:38 PM on September 16, 2002

when i was in college at U of TN at knoxille, we used to make jokes about picking five-leaf clovers in oak ridge (twenty minutes away). now you too can play. lucky, lucky you.
posted by patricking at 1:53 AM on September 17, 2002

If it's true that "global trade in radioactive materials is thriving," this might explain why Senator Schumer is finding it difficult to get funding support for radiation monitors at all ports and border crossings.
posted by sheauga at 3:39 AM on September 17, 2002

Let's be clear about some of the statements in this article or the accompanying post:

#1) The article , intentionally or otherwise, lumps nuclear reactor decommissioning debris with that of the gaseous diffusion plant at ETTP (formerly the K-25 site). These wastes are not similar in the type and activity of potential contaminants. Reactors will have metals that have been irradiated and which have what are called fission activation products - radioactive nickel, steel, etc. The scrap metal from decommissioniong of the buildings at ETTP is NOT IRRADIATED, which would imply that it had been exposed to a reactor/accelerator environment - this is not the case. It is metal that has residual uranium contamination from the enrichment operations the previously took place at the site. There is a BIG difference in terms of type of contamination, residual activity levels, AND POTENTIAL HEALTH EFFECTS;

#2) In order to support their case, the authors provide "information" that appears intentionally misleading: The sources of contamination in the 'historical" examples quoted in the Mother Jones article were not "unknown" in at least some (if not all) of the cases cited. For example, the cobalt 60 came from an x-ray machine that ended up at a Ciudad Juarez dump & made it to recycler & into rebar - they were detected when part of the rebar was sent to Los Alamos & the detectors at the Los Alamos Meson Physics facility went off when the truck went past the gate. Investigators tracked the source back to the disposed x-ray machine and confiscated the rebar, which did represent a health hazard. It is important to know that the proposed recycling activity would not allow release of anything like the material in the examples given.

The article is correct to say that economic considerations play a role in this proposal - incorrect to imply that there is someting sinister about that - in what aspect of public policy do economic considerations not have to play a role?

More inflammatory rhetoric that in fact is insupportable by the body of health physics studies over the last 50 years: "... Any dose of radiation, no matter how small, increases the risk to public health." (See

"When it comes to ionizing radiation, you can't draw some line and say anything above that line is dangerous and anything below is safe," I am unaware of any proposal to free release metal with ionizing radiation potential from ETTP. The article seeks to ignore the difference between ionizing radiation, which does represent a potential health risk, and residual radioactive material contamination, which may not at low levels.

All this being said, I don't necessarily propose the recycling of radioactively contaminated materials. Federal law mandates pollution prevention and recycling efforts, which is in part an impetus behind these kinds of proposals. However, it is doubtful that there is a valid economic incentive to do so for these materials - that is, the cost to package, transport, reprocess, etc. most radioactively contaminated (as opposed to radioactive) metals is above that which would make doing so viable cost wise. That has been the actual experience to date.

However, metals/wastes with very low levels of residual contamination, whcih do not represent a health risk, could be disposed of in landfills that would not require the more stringent controls necessary for significantly hazardous waste, thereby significantly reducing disposal costs. The problem DOE & NRC face is reaching an operational standard that would apply in such a case. This would be economically attractive and might make sense to consider - it is, after all, your tax dollars at work. How do you want them spent?
posted by Pressed Rat at 5:37 AM on September 17, 2002

Scary.....Perhaps the government is trying to help us EVOLVE?
posted by hoopyfrood at 7:10 AM on September 17, 2002

I have to agree with Pressed Rat, the material that they plan on using hardly radioactive. If so, probably around the levels the Radon exposer you would get from living on planet Earth. It looks like DOE is just being public relation blind on this because they don't see any amountable risk. However, recent public opinion is very anti-nuclear, thus the outcry.

I receive more radiation from the Sun than I do from my job at a nuclear reactor.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 8:09 AM on September 17, 2002

Pressed Rat: Thank you for explaining why they would even consider this. I still don't like the idea, but now I can understand their reasoning.
posted by Joey Michaels at 11:08 AM on September 17, 2002

I suppose this project plus the use of Depleted Uranium ammunition in conflicts across the world is killing two birds with one stone in their eyes.. gets rid of nuclear waste real cheap, and screws our enemies (everyone else but the US)
posted by Babylonian at 8:58 AM on September 18, 2002

Sorry, Babylonian, the amount of actual depleted uranium available as uranium hexaflouride & stored in 10- & 14-ton cylinders (around 77,000 of them in Ohio, Kentucky & Tennessee) dwarfs that that might be present as incidental contamination on debris from building take-down at ETTP. A contract was just awarded to convert the UF6 to a more stable form (U3O8) for eventual disposal at an engineered, permitted mixed waste disposal facility in Utah.
posted by Pressed Rat at 9:50 AM on September 18, 2002

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