Nuclear scrap metal recycling prompts debate

| June 12, 2013

There’s a bit of a scrap brewing over the way nuclear sites dispose of scrap metal.

The U.S. Department of Energy released a proposal that would advocate recycling of scrap metal from nuclear sites. This plan reverses a 2000 suspension on nuclear site scrap metal recycling.


pile of metal scrap

Scrap metal like this can be worth a mint – but what to do when it just happens to set off the Geiger counter? From rowens27.

According to the Department of Energy’s report, the new proposal is in line with an overarching department policy of “recycling and reusing materials whenever possible.”

The proposal includes a Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) to be completed “prior to deciding whether to implement a change” to the 2000 policy. The 2000 policy was invoked due to public safety concerns over nuclear site scrap metal recycling.

In spite of the environmental impact research involved, some groups have raised concerns over the new proposal. Among those with reservations: the Committee to Bridge the Gap, a nonprofit focused on nuclear policy — specifically “nuclear safety, waste disposal, proliferation, and disarmament.”

The Committee to Bridge the Gap describes the new policy as a “stunning development” that would “allow members of the public to be exposed to the equivalent of dozens of chest X-rays over their lifetimes from exposure to [U.S. Department of Energy] nuclear waste, with no medical benefit and no informed consent.”

The Wall Street Journal reports that while the “the approximately 14,000 tons of metal” would come from “radiological areas such as research laboratories and nuclear-weapons-related facilities,” the DOE asserts that “any contamination would be so low that a member of the public would be exposed to a ‘negligible individual dose’ of additional radiation.”

Scrap metal recycling sign

Scrap metal sign from the scrap metal department at

That’s not reassuring to Thomas Danjczek of the Steel Manufacturers Association who, according to the Wall Street Journal piece, is “concerned about what could happen in the marketplace if you have to worry about radioactive material possibly being in your eyeglasses frames.”

In another report, Lawrence Kavanagh of the American Iron and Steel Institute concurs with his industry colleagues, opposing the proposal and noting that “the possibility that the [Department of Energy] scrap metal could be radioactive would cause panic and confusion among consumers who buy products made of steel.”

That same report counters with a statement from the Department of Energy declaring that the proposed materials are “uncontaminated and [pose] no more risk than the scrap metals that ordinary citizens and small businesses routinely place in their recycling bins.”

Furthermore, Department of Energy spokesperson Middaugh insists that “safety is the only thing that matters here and we will not move forward with any recycling unless we’re absolutely confident that it is entirely safe.”

As a second line of defense, the report quotes a representative for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries who says that there are safeguards in place at scrap yards in the form of radiation detectors. Those detectors will reject “anything that goes above background radiation levels.”

Indian Point nuclear power station, seen from across the water

When nuclear power stations are decomissioned – or when they’re rebuilt or repaired – the Department of Energy has to figure out what to do with scrap metal. From Tonythemisfit.

It’s an ongoing debate, with the Department of Energy asserting that nuclear site scrap metal recycling will create useful goods out of what would otherwise be waste while some environmental, industry and political groups raise eyebrows about safety.

One thing is certain: nuclear site scrap metal has to go somewhere. Perhaps there’s an even better solution out there.

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Category: Blog Landing Page, Metal, Recycling programs

About the Author ()

Ellen Hunter Gans has been writing for RecycleReminders since the blog’s inception. She is passionate about words, new media and, of course, recycling.

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