U.S. Agency Seeks Approval to Recycle Radioactive Metals

By Brian Hansen

WASHINGTON, DC, January 3, 2001 (ENS) - The manufacture of consumer products out of radioactively contaminated materials discarded from commercial nuclear power plants and government bomb factories could become a fact of American life. In an extraordinary move, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission today asked the National Academy of Sciences to sanction the controversial practice.

Dr. Richard Meserve, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), made the request during the public portion of a special National Academy of Sciences committee meeting in Washington.


Dr. Richard Meserve(Photo courtesy NRC)
Meserve asked the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel to examine the practice of releasing radioactively contaminated solid waste materials into everyday commerce. He said this type of recycling is necessary to insure the continued viability of the commercial nuclear power plant industry and the Cold War decommissioning activities of the U.S. Department of Energy.

"There has basically been no guidance as to how those problems should be addressed," Meserve said to the panel of NAS scientists. "It is our hope that we will get your findings and recommendations as to how we should proceed in a timely manner."

Meserve's request of the NAS panel is the latest development in a long standing government and industry led effort to establish a consistent system governing the release of solid materials from NRC licensed facilities.

The nuclear power industry and the Department of Energy (DOE) are currently saddled with tens of thousands of tons of solid materials contaminated with low levels of radioactivity, which they once disposed of in specially designed nuclear waste disposal facilities.

That practice changed beginning in the 1970s, when the NRC, its licensees, and the DOE began searching for a more cost effective method of disposing of the enormous volume of steel girders, pallets, machinery and other solid materials tainted with tiny amounts of radioactivity.

The NRC and the DOE now allow their licensees and contractors to recycle some solid materials, but there is currently no national health based standard or generally applicable criteria governing the release of solid materials from commercial nuclear power plants or government nuclear weapons facilities.


Radioactive scrap ready for sale (Photo courtesy Environmental Assessment Division Argonne National Laboratory U.S. Department of Energy)
Meserve said that the current "ad-hoc" recycling system is not sufficient for the NRC and its licensees, which he noted must spend large amounts of money to dispose of their low level solid wastes.

Meserve said that the DOE has encountered the same costly solid waste disposal problem "in spades" as it proceeds with decommissioning a number of Cold War nuclear weapons facilities.

"That's why we're here - to seek your advice on these matters," Meserve told the NAS panel.

At the NRC's request, the National Academy of Sciences' panel has agreed to examine the question of whether or not there are sufficient technical bases to establish a consistent system for controlling the release of what it is terming "slightly contaminated" solid materials.

The panel is expected to evaluate a number of factors in making its recommendations regarding the release of these materials, including studies of critical groups, exposure pathways and scenarios, and individual and collective doses.

Meserve asked the panel to consider a number of other factors in reaching its conclusion, including rulemaking actions taken by federal agencies, states, and the European Union.

Meserve outlined four conclusions that he said the NAS panel could reasonably reach.

Meserve added that his list of alternatives was not intended to "constrain [the NAS panel] from being more inventive" in its recommendations.

Meserve acknowledged the controversial nature of the solid waste recycling initiative, which environmental and public health groups have vehemently criticized.


Processing radioactive materials (Photo courtesy Manufacturing Sciences Corporation)
"This is a difficult issue where the emotional currents run strong," he said.

Still, Meserve implored the NAS panel to resist putting a "spin" on its findings to address - or to avoid - the controversial nature of the NRC's solid waste recycling initiative.

"Call it the way you see it - we'll worry about the political fallout," Meserve said. "We want your best advice - give it to us straight."

Some members of the NAS panel did just that, as they wasted little time in peppering the NCR chairman with a host of probing questions.

Dr. Robert Budnitz, president of the California based Future Resources Associates, wanted to know why the NRC had requested the panel's recommendations at all.

"Where did this come from? What's going on?" Budnitz asked Meserve.

Budnitz, a former NRC official, said he suspects the request came about because the agency could no longer deal with the myriad individual recycling cases that it is currently juggling.

Meserve acknowledged the point, saying that "it's a licensee need," and that it is "extraordinarily expensive" for nuclear power plant operators to dispose of their radioactively contaminated solid materials through other means.


Radioactive metal pallets (Photo courtesy DOE Oakridge Operations)
Meserve added that, "There's a lot of decommissioning underway [at DOE nuclear weapons facilities] that we need to deal with somehow."

Bunditz pressed the point, asking Meserve if the Energy Department has "formally or informally" approached the NRC about pushing for a national standard for the recycling of contaminated solid materials.

"Is that part of this or not?" Bunditz asked.

Meserve acknowledged that he did "personally meet" with Energy Secretary Bill Richardson about this problem, and that Richardson had encouraged the National Academy of Sciences' involvement in the matter.

Andrew Wallo, director of the DOE radiation division's office of environment, safety and health, was on hand Wednesday to report the agency's perspective on the contaminated solid materials disposal problem.

Wallo noted that there are hundreds of tons of metals and other slightly contaminated materials at DOE nuclear weapons facilities that must be removed if the sites are to be cleaned up and closed down.

"It's a valuable commodity excepting the radioactivity in it," Wallo said of the materials.

Wallo told the panel that most of the scrap metal that has been released from DOE facilities is either not contaminated at all, or has surface contamination well below the agency's current standard. However, the pubic and the steel industry has not been accepting of those very low exposure risks, Wallo acknowledged.

Wallo recalled the furor that erupted when the DOE allowed contractor British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL) to release 110,000 tons of radioactive metals - including 6,000 tons of volumetrically contaminated nickel - from the DOE's K-25 nuclear weapons plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Public health and environmental groups vehemently objected to the contract, saying that there was no law prevent the metals from being used to make silverware, orthodontic braces, hip joint replacements, and even intrauterine devices.

The steel industry also opposed the release of the contaminated scrap metal, saying that it would erode public confidence in the industry and cost steel companies tens of million of dollars should radioactive materials somehow find their way into production furnaces.


Energy Secretary Bill Richardson (Photo courtesy DOE)
The public outcry forced Energy Secretary Richardson to block the sale of the radioactive nickel. Richardson later issued a moratorium restricting the release of such materials until a national policy could be devised.

Gary Visscher, vice president of the American Iron and Steel Institute, watched with interest on Wednesday as the NRC and the DOE asked the National Academy of Sciences to sanction the practice of recycling radioactively contaminated metals.

"Anything that diminishes the public's confidence in the safeness of steel is going to hurt our companies," Visscher told ENS.

Lisa Gue, a policy analyst with the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, was also on hand on Wednesday to keep tabs on the two federal agencies and their industry contractors.

"We have an ongoing concern with federal agencies that appease industry by setting rules that facilitate the release of radionuclides into the environment," Gue said. "If the nuclear industry cannot afford to protect the public and the environment from its waste products, then it's not a viable industry."

Gue and other observers said they are concerned with the large block of time that was devoted to closed sessions during the three day meeting. According to the official agenda, a total of 12 and a half hours of meeting sessions are to be closed to the public, though officials pledged to post a summary of the private sessions on the Internet.

For more information on this week's meeting, log on to: http://www4.nas.edu/cp.nsf/Projects+_by+_PIN/BEES-J-00-02-A?OpenDocument