Prevent Radioactive Metals From Contaminating Recycling

Target: Secretary Steven Chu, U.S. Department of Energy

Goal: Convince the U.S. Department of Energy to make the ban on allowing radioactive metals into recycling permanent.

The U.S. Department of Energy plans to allow radioactive metal from nuclear weapons to contaminate recycling. If their plan succeeds, contaminated metal would be mixed with clean metals, which would be turned into common household products, such as zippers, frying pans, and baby strollers.

Because radiation levels would be low, they argue there would be no need for labels identifying the materials came from nuclear reactors or weapons facilities. Most low-level radioactive materials are disposed into government-licensed landfills. However, the volume of nuclear scrap metal has greatly increased as older reactors are decommissioned and former weapons plants are cleaned up. When radioactive material enters the recycling process and contaminates scrap metal, scrap collectors often mistake their findings for harmless bits of valuable metal. One of the best known examples occurred when three men burgled a radioactive waste store to steal scrap metal in Tammiku, Estonia. One of the men placed a metal pipe in his pocket, giving him a high localized dose of radiation in his leg. In a matter of days, the man died and also contaminated his wife, son, and dog.

There are proven alternatives to nuclear waste disposal that are being utilized around the world. Low-level and short-lived intermediate wastes from decommissioning reactors are best disposed of by compacting and incinerating before burial because radiation levels decrease over time. The international consensus is that long-lived intermediate wastes from fuel reprocessing and high-level wastes from burning of uranium fuel must be safely disposed of deep underground.

Help urge the Department of Energy to make the ban on allowing radioactive metals into recycling permanent. When it comes to substances as lethal as radiation, who can really draw the line between what is dangerous and what is safe?

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