By: Wenonah Hauter
American tax dollars are being used to subsidize schemes to recycle materials contaminated with radiation. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other organizations are all involved in efforts that will make it easier for materials contaminated with radiation to find their way into innumerable products, such as braces for teeth, baby strollers, frying pans-virtually everything made out of carbon steel, stainless steel, nickel, copper, or aluminum.
Astonishingly, radioactive metals are already being recycled; about 10,000 tons of radioactive metal were recycled in 1996. DOE is in the process of recycling over 100,000 tons of radioactive metal, and the nuclear industry has an additional 1.5 million tons of contaminated metal that it wants to recycle.
Rather than isolating radioactive metal and other materials from the public, the nuclear industry hopes to save or make money by selling materials contaminated with radiation.
Government agencies charged with protecting people from exposure to radioactive waste are instead colluding with the nuclear industry to "release" into commerce radioactive material from commercial nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons facilities. Federal agencies and the nuclear industry are moving ahead in a number of areas to ensure that radioactive recycling becomes firmly established.
Department of Energy
Presently, DOE is quietly releasing radioactive material from some of its nuclear weapon complexes. DOE has entered into a precedent-setting contract with Oak Ridge National Laboratory (Knoxville, Tennessee) that would allow the recycling of over 100,000 tons of radioactive nickel, steel scrap, and copper. The radioactive metal is going first to metal processing facilities and then to product manufacturers with no warning labels, notification or consent from recyclers, manufacturers or consumers.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission
The NRC is trying to set a standard for the amount of radiation that can be present in household products. The standard-setting process is designed to legalize radioactive recycling. NRC is also allowing the importation of radioactive metal from foreign nuclear reactors, which may also be recycled into U.S. products.
Environmental Protection Agency
Even though the EPA has the authority to create a radiation standard for recycled material, the agency has suspended attempts to do so. EPA could create a standard with a "zero tolerance" for any radiation above background amounts, which would effectively halt radioactive recycling. Instead, EPA has been co-chairing with NRC an "interagency steering committee on radiation standards," which is focused on "facilitating a consensus on acceptable levels of radiation risk to the public and workers."
International Atomic Energy Agency
The International Atomic Energy Agency is engaged in an effort to set a "world" standard for recycling radioactive material. Even the United Nations has put together a technical committee to look at issues related to setting standards for radiation. A world-wide standard for radiation could be used by the World Trade Organization as the guide for trading radioactively contaminated products. The DOE, NRC and EPA are engaged in these overseas efforts to develop radiation standards.
Radiation is Safe?
Unsurprisingly, decades of research shows that exposure to radiation is a threat to human health. Any exposure to radiation, no matter how small, results in some health risk. Even diluting radiation through recycling cannot reduce the risk to society as a whole, because the total number of people exposed to radiation will increase as more and more products contain radiation.
To hurdle this barrier, the nuclear industry and its government allies are attempting to establish that small doses of radiation are not only safe, they could be beneficial.
The National Academy of Science (NAS) has convened a panel of experts to write a
high-profile report on the biological effects of radiation. The conclusions from the report will be used by government agencies to set radiation limits for radioactive recycling, worker exposure, medical X-rays, nuclear power plants and other nuclear facilities. Despite protests from anti-nuclear activists, the NAS panel has been packed with supporters of the nuclear power industry.
With the help of Senator Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), a major supporter of all things nuclear, the Energy Department's budget includes $66 million for a 10-year study on exposure to low doses of radiation. According to DOE, the program's goal "is to support research that will help determine health risks from exposures to low levels of radiation." The results of the study could encourage more radioactive recycling, even though more people would be exposed to increased amounts of radiation.
Back to 1984?
In George Orwell's 1984, Big Brother said war is peace, freedom is slavery and ignorance is strength. Today, the nuclear industry and its supporters in government are saying that recycling of materials contaminated with radiation is cost-effective, a little radiation is good for you and radioactive waste is no problem.
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